Out of the darkness
Surviving prison is a challenge – but adjusting
to the outside world is a pleasure
◊ The people in this article have requested anonymity. Their names
have been changed to protect their identity ◊
By Sarah Spisak
THE DARK CLOUD has passed,” Adam says smiling, staring over at his girlfriend and grabbing her hand. He is tall, dark and classically handsome with a charming smile. “Being able to go out for breakfast with my girlfriend and look into her eyes, and know that nothing bad is going to happen is a great feeling.”
He takes a seat on the couch beside her and his smile relaxes. Then, his eyes fade into a thousand-yard stare. He takes a deep breath and begins to tell the story of his past year.
“Prison changed me. I came from a good family. I had it all. I was a really good hockey player. I had potential.
“I was a naïve, 150-pound kid when I went in and now I’m 220, all muscle.”
Four years ago, Adam was arrested while he was shopping at Costco. He had no idea that the police had been following him for months after seeing him with a known drug dealer; someone he had met while working in the club scene for 13 years.
When Adam got to the downtown police station, he was allowed one phone call, he called his best friend Scott. They have been friends since 1996, having grown up across the street from each other. They both began working in Edmonton clubs at 18.
After Adam spent the night in jail, Scott helped pay the bail and got him released. His case went to trial three years later.
‘There was no more fighting the tears
that I promised I wouldn’t shed’
In 2017, Adam was sentenced to two years plus a day for possession of cocaine and intent to traffic. His girlfriend was sitting behind him in the gallery.
“Today (Oct. 13) marks exactly one year ago that this was really happening,” Laura says. “The moment the thud of the judge’s gavel resonated through the court room, my heart broke.
“There was no more fighting the tears that I promised I wouldn’t shed.”
They were allowed a quick hug goodbye before Adam was led into the basement of the court house. There, he was strip-searched, put into an orange jumpsuit and handcuffed. He spent five days in the Edmonton Remand Centre, before going to federal prison.
Adam says he can remember every detail of the three-hour ride to Drumheller Federal Institution. Shackled at his hands and feet, he sat on the left side of the small, white sheriff’s bus and looked out the window trying to ignore the smell.
“Everything on the left side of the road was burning a picture into my mind because I knew I wasn’t going to see anything like this for a while.
“I remember sitting on the bus and it smelled like shit, rusted metal and dirty socks.”
Don’t whistle, don’t rubberneck, don’t call anyone any cute nicknames and don’t be negative. Those were a few of the rules the seasoned prisoners on the bus told Adam as they got closer to prison. He didn’t realize how many more he would learn on the inside.
Drumheller Federal Institution has four major units: 8, 9, 10 and 11. Adam was put in Unit 9, one of the hardest and most dangerous ones, known as “gangland.”
‘I will never forget the sound of my cell door
closing on my first night in prison’
After being checked in, he was given his prison uniform: a pair of blue jeans, a white shirt with his government name on it, three pairs of tighty-whities and three pairs of socks.
“I will never forget the sound of my cell door closing on my first night in prison,” he says.
His bunkmate was known around the prison as a rat, and for being disrespectful. (Always show respect was a major rule.)
On his second day on the unit, some inmates informed Adam that he would have to “check out” his cellmate.
“To check someone out is to threaten them or beat them up enough that they tell the guards they are too scared to stay in the unit and need to be put into an easier one, like Unit 8,” Adam says. “If guys don’t like your roommate, then they fuck with you. I checked him out.”
Adam began keeping track of the days on a calendar he made out of a piece of notebook. Laura, Scott, Mom, Dad: he wrote each name on the calendar and drew a golf course. Twenty-eight days would pass before any of those people would hear from him.
“A hard part of having him gone was being scared that I would miss his phone calls,” Laura says.
Scott adds: “He didn’t have a phone card at the time. He could only call collect, and his parents’ house was the only place with a phone that could take collect calls. So, Laura and I would go over once a week and wait. We never knew what time the call would come.
“The first time we talked, he told me to get everyone’s visitation stuff in order and that he hated the food. He talked about the food a lot.”
On the wall of his cell was a sheet that showed the monthly food schedule. All the food is prepared at the Bowden Institution 160 km away and shipped to Drumheller; except breakfast, which consists of dry toast, two bland, boiled eggs, dry cereal and powdered milk.
“The powdered milk did not sit well with me, so I would take water and the one pack of sweetener we were allowed and mix them together to use on my cereal.”
‘The second sound I will never forget
is the sound of a grown man being stabbed’
Good food is non-existent unless you have money for the commissary and an imagination. You can trade commissary items for anything you need to make something. Chips and protein packs are the most popular items.
“I paid two pro’ packs from my canteen to a guy who worked in the kitchen so that he could get me a bag of cinnamon and a bag of sugar,” Adam says. “I would use old, soft apples and the crunchy granola bars to make apple crisp. I really wanted apple crisp – but I also wanted to trade this guy so that he would teach me jujitsu.”
You could also trade commissary items for other things, like shoes. Prisoners could get shoes sent to them in their “pen packs,” a care package that inmates can receive once every two or three years from people on the outside.
The pen packs can create problems for the recipient, such as one inmate who was sent a pair of Air Jordans that another inmate wanted.
“The second sound I will never forget,” Adam says, “is the sound of a grown man being stabbed.”
The guy who wanted the Air Jordans was a known gang member. He didn’t want to pay for them, and he got them.
“I was standing in the TV room and could hear the guy counting out as he stabbed. ‘One, two, three, four.’ He stabbed him 17 times.”
The inmate survived.
Part of the stress of what Adam was living through, he says, was not being able to confide in anyone.
“The first letters I wrote were to Laura and my dad,” he says. “I wrote details about what was happening in the prison and about the other inmates, but I never sent those letters.”
While walking to lunch one day, he overheard guys talking about how close some inmates are with the guards and that the guards read every letter that goes out of the prison. Adam knew he had to destroy his letters.
“I went back to my cell after eating, ripped up the letters and flushed them down the toilet. I never wrote letters like that again.”
‘I felt myself finally let go
and I was able to be myself again’
TV was one of the few escapes. With 181 channels, Adam could watch whatever he wanted. Anthony Bourdain was one of his favourites.
“I felt like I still had a part of the outer world. His show allowed me to travel with him to Japan and all these other places. But, really, I’m sitting in prison eating a bag of chips.”
After three months of good behaviour in Drumheller, Adam was transferred to Grierson, a minimum-security prison in downtown Edmonton, where he had his own room, with his own TV, and was allowed more frequent visitors.
“For the first few months, I explained to people that Adam was away for business,” Laura says. “Come Christmas time, though, that excuse wasn’t acceptable. The questions began.
“Thankfully, he was transferred right after Christmas. The best Christmas present I could have asked for.”
Adam walked out of prison on full parole six months later. His shoes were tattered, reflecting the wear that nine months of prison had inflicted on him.
“You can talk to someone on the phone or through letters, but it is not the same as when you see them on the outside for the first time,” Adam says through tears. “Being able to hold my girlfriend and feel her and smell her was the best feeling. I felt myself finally let go and I was able to be myself again.”