CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault and suicide. Anyone who may feel triggered by this can reach out to Quebec’s free mental health hotline. If you’ve been the victim of a crime, there is help available at the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime.
Prison changed Lucas, but did it make him a better person?
He has seven more weeks to consider his rehabilitation because, after that, he walks out of Bordeaux a free man. Whether or not two years inside prepared Lucas for civilian life, he’ll re-emerge from prison bearing new scars.
“I’m lucky I’m even walking out alive,” said Lucas, his voice shaking. “I did a terrible thing and I deserve to be punished for it. There’s no day that goes by where I don’t think about my victim. I know I’m not the man I was when they locked me up. But I know they didn’t help me get better. They just broke me down, bro. Like I was a dog.”
If Bordeaux was meant to steer Lucas away from violence, it failed. Brutality is currency within the brick walls of Montreal’s most notorious prison. The proof of that is etched into Lucas’s bones.
There was the time another inmate bludgeoned him with a sock full of batteries, breaking his jaw and bruising his brain. There was the guard who dragged him into a room without security cameras, pinned him to the ground and beat his legs. Another guard planted a knee on Lucas’s neck to keep him from screaming.
He says they were punishing him for having a bad attitude.
Some of his injuries were self-inflicted. There are rope burns around his neck from the bedsheet he used to try to hang himself. He remembers seeing another inmate with the same marks a few months ago and it brought back the darkness around his own suicide attempt.
Lucas’s experience won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Quebec’s prison system.
Understaffed and overcrowded, detention centres like Bordeaux are notoriously ineffective at rehabilitating inmates. About 55 per cent of inmates who leave Quebec jails will be reincarcerated within two years. In Montreal, the recidivism rate for provincial prisons is nearly two-thirds, according to a study by the public security ministry. Ontario’s recidivism rate is about 37 per cent.
Of course, those statistics only apply to prisoners who make it out alive.
A lack of resources, staff and hope
Quebec detention centres have a higher suicide rate than jails in every other province. Between 2010 and 2019, 69 prisoners died by suicide in Quebec. During that same period, 64 inmates took their own life in Ontario even though the province’s prison population is twice the size of Quebec’s.
“At Bordeaux, there was one part-time psychologist for a prison of 1,300 inmates,” said Bianka Savard-Lafrenière, a criminal defence attorney. “Even if only one-fifth of the prison population needs mental health counselling, that’s a caseload of 250 patients for one part-time worker. And I’m not even sure he’s working there anymore.”
The arrival of COVID-19 seems only to have made things worse, according to defence lawyers and inmates who spoke to Ricochet. The union representing Quebec prison guards has also sounded the alarm over unsafe working conditions during the pandemic.
Outbreaks at Bordeaux have sidelined dozens of staff and created a situation where inmates are kept in their cells 23 hours a day for weeks on end. Beyond “privileges” like family visits and yard time being suspended, inmates are routinely denied legal counsel ahead of their court hearings — a violation of their Charter right to a fair trial.
“It’s common for my clients and I to simply not be allowed to speak privately before we’re due in court,” Savard-Lafrenière said. “The best the prison can do for us, sometimes, is to have me address my client on a speakerphone in his cell while he’s standing next to his cellmates and a guard. That’s not how attorney client privilege works. That’s not how justice is supposed to be done.
“For my clients who have a bail hearing, I advise them to delay and delay and delay their court date because I’m not able to prepare an effective defence with them. So they stay behind bars and the system gets even more backed up.”
A representative from the public security ministry confirms that staffing shortages and COVID have resulted in an increase in the use of “deadlock” — when prisoners are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. The staffing shortage is real. The ministry stopped training guards at the beginning of the pandemic and sources say many have quit out of exhaustion and because they don’t feel safe in their workplace.
As for 23-hour-a-day confinement, the ministry would not say how many days a month deadlocks are in effect. As a general rule, inmates are supposed to be allowed out to complete rehabilitation programs, to work in the prison and get time in the yard.
“I’ve spent 20 of the last 40 days in deadlock, it’s playing tricks on my mind, I’m starting to lose it,” said Steve, an inmate who didn’t want his real name published for fear of reprisals. “Time moves incredibly slow when you’re locked up that long.”
Steve says the prison cancelled a meeting with his probation officer where he was meant to discuss an early release and plans for his rehabilitation should he be allowed out.
“When I asked if the meeting would be rescheduled, a guard told me if I asked again they would transfer me out of protective custody and tell the other inmates what I did,” said Steve. “Or they’d send me to St-Jérome, where I’d be placed in solitary confinement for 14 days while I quarantine. It’s psychological torture.”
Lucas says that at the height of the pandemic, prisoners would go weeks without feeling the sun shine on their skin.
Prison is violence
While COVID is used as a justification for keeping prisoners locked up and denying them access to rehabilitation programs, inmates live in filthy, overcrowded conditions. Double bunking — where a single, six-by-ten cell is used to house two inmates — is still a practice used at Bordeaux.
Steve spent 10 days sleeping on the floor of a single cell while his cellmate slept on a cot. He would stuff himself under a desk but bang his knees against it and wake up every time he rolled to his side. What’s more, he says the guards have “routinely” been leaving the lights on in his cell until 4 a.m.
The representative from the public security ministry said they’re aware of only one incident from two weeks ago and that “measures have been taken to ensure it no longer happens.” Three sources inside the prison say lights remaining on overnight happened several times over the past two months.
The president of the guard’s union declined an interview.
One expert says that the experiences described by inmates — outbursts of violence from other prisoners, insomnia, the threat of violence from guards and being locked up 23 hours a day — change them immeasurably.
“Simply on a medical level, these inmates will leave prison with post-traumatic stress disorder, there’s no way around that,” said Jean-Claude Bernheim, who works with the John Howard Society of Canada, an inmates’ rights group.
“If you’ve never been to prison, you’ll almost certainly have PTSD by the time you’ve been released. You can watch all the movies you want, talk to former inmates all you want but when that metal door shuts behind you, nothing prepares you for that. Being locked up is violence.
“It’s violence that’s legitimized by the state but it’s still violence. You’re held in place by the threat of violence. And I’m not talking about beatings from guards, which is a problem. I mean the threat of being thrown in the hole, in solitary confinement, which is a terrifying place to be. That’s violence. You live with a sword of Damocles dangling over your head 24 hours a day.”
The trauma Bernheim describes actually changes the chemistry in someone’s brain. For starters, it enlarges the part of the brain that triggers our fight or flight reflex. That wouldn’t be so bad if trauma didn’t also shrink the prefrontal cortex, which helps keep emotional outbursts in check. Both Steve and Lucas say they’ve found moments of solace during their incarceration. Steve says he works with other inmates on coping mechanisms like journalling, meditation and just allowing themselves to talk about their anxieties.
“It’s basic cognitive behavioural therapy, I’m not a professional but I know it helps manage the worst of our symptoms,” Steve said. “We don’t really have other options.”
Lucas started corresponding with an inmate in Pennsylvania a few months back. They write each other letters about their experiences inside and their plans for civilian life.
“I’ve come a long way,” Lucas says. “This is my time to shine, this is the time to be the me I was always supposed to be.”
When he arrived at Bordeaux, he was battling cocaine addiction and an anger problem he’d had since his father left the family on Christmas Day when Lucas was just a boy. Once he was inside, he had nowhere to turn that pain except inward. One night, he started thinking about the woman he assaulted and couldn’t get the thoughts out of his head.
“She was my friend and I tried to force myself on her,” he said. “I was out of my mind on cocaine and I hurt someone I loved. It’s not an excuse. I made the decision to use knowing how unstable I could get, knowing I was a violent person. But at first, I thought the only justice for my victim was for me to be dead.”
His thoughts spiralling, he replayed the attack in his mind until he took the sheet from his bunk, rolled it into a rope and wrapped the fabric around his neck.
It’s important not to gloss over this fact: Lucas sexually assaulted a woman who trusted him.
That he was an addict dealing with childhood trauma doesn’t make that go away. He passed that trauma on to someone who will carry it for the rest of her life. Whatever your thoughts on prison, what Lucas did to his victim was brutal and unacceptable.
Lucas says the only reason he didn’t serve his time in a federal penitentiary is because a judge found the pre-trial conditions at Bordeaux so inhumane that he knocked five months off Lucas’s sentence, against the wishes of Crown prosecutors.
Facing two years inside and claiming he couldn’t stop thinking about his victim, Lucas tried to hang himself at the beginning of his sentence.
When Lucas started dangling, the noise of him gasping for air woke up his cellmate, who pounded the emergency button in their cell. Guards cut him loose and he spent a few days in the infirmary to recover.
He wasn’t provided with regular therapy after his suicide attempt but a doctor prescribed him Seroquel, a drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He says the pills knocked him out most nights.
Counting the days
Though he’s been off his meds for a while now, Lucas has a plan to get back on the straight and narrow. He hasn’t touched cocaine since he’s been inside and that’s despite a thriving black market for hard drugs smuggled into Bordeaux. He’s also found a free anger management program at the YMCA near his mom’s house.
“I plan to go back to therapy, I’m going to meet with a sexologist, I have a job detailing cars at a dealership where my cousin works and my mom will let me move in with her,” Lucas said. “This has brought the family closer and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to be a better person. I have goals, I want to finish high school, maybe take a trade. I don’t want to wash cars my whole life.”
Despite the horrors so many inmates face inside, Savard-Lafrenière — whose clients are almost all locked up at Bordeaux — says working with convicts can be rewarding.
“In some cases, you’re a lawyer and a social worker, you’re a lawyer and a friend, you’re called on to help someone who has nothing left,” she said. “Yes, they did horrible things but most of them had horrible things done to them. And we owe not only to them but to society at large to try to help them become better people. I don’t think our system is doing a good job at that but that doesn’t stop people who work in this big machine from trying their best.”
When we spoke on the phone last week, Lucas had just finished counting the days left in his sentence. He has seven weeks until he walks through the cavernous cell blocks of Bordeaux and out the front gate.
Lucas committed a horrible, violent crime and ever since he has lived in a world ruled by violence. Whether he can or even should be forgiven seems beside the point. All we know for sure is there’s a 62 per cent chance Lucas winds up back behind bars, and that should give us all pause.
Until then, we can only hope Lucas will break the cycle of violence.