Doing their Time
In prison, the hours are long and boring. The inmate has to follow a strict, unchanging schedule day after day. Any transgression is severely punished. He faces other detainees and the prison staff alone; he is separated from his loved ones, who have limited visiting rights. He is dependent on the decisions of the authorities for his living conditions and his release.
When a convict enters prison, his personal effects are taken away; he will retrieve them upon his release. He has to take a shower – in the 19th century, he was even sprayed with disinfectant. Until recently he had to wear prison garb: pants, shirt and jacket. His hair was shaved off. With this ritual, the newcomer becomes a vulnerable and anonymous prisoner.
Inside a Cell
A cramped space, barely sufficient for a bed, with sometimes a table and a chair. Thick walls kept inmates from communicating with each other and helped prevent escapes. According to the correctional philosophy implemented in the 19th century, prisoners had to be isolated, confined, silent, submissive.
However, Canadian prisons and penitentiaries were often forced throughout their history to accommodate more detainees than their capacity would allow. Two, three or more prisoners would be held in individual cells. Overcrowding, living in close quarters with strangers, would sometimes make feathers fly.
From Day to Day
Boring and tedious, time goes by and stays the same in prison. For instance, in Trois-Rivières in 1874, detainees had to get up at 6 a.m. and would go to bed 12 hours later. Between meals at fixed times and periods of mandatory work, a prisoner’s only free time would be spent walking up and down the hallway in his cell block or out in the prison yard, always under watch. Visits from loved ones or a priest were special occasions. A century later, this routine is still basically the same.
On the Menu
Oatmeal, soup, bread and, on occasions, a few pieces of meat… In the 19th century, inmates had a healthy, but unvarying diet. They were given what was absolutely necessary based on their age, sex, length of sentence, and whether they worked or not. At the Trois-Rivières prison, tea and butter were considered goodies and were kept for the sick. Today, a canteen is opened on some days to give detainees access to a few snacks to break the monotony of everyday fare.
In the cramped, constantly watched spaces of a prison or penitentiary, inmates can’t escape the tense relationships between members of a closed micro-society. In addition to prison rules, an unspoken living code is applied. Prisoners develop some kind of loyalty toward each other to deal with those representing the authority. They’re linked by a coded language: the guard is known as the screw (turnkey), the prison is called the brig. In conflict situations, inmates must keep their composure, show some courage, without avoiding confrontation.