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Dispatches From Burnside, Episode Eight: The foibles of Lawrance Dickerson

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
"The frustration he feels is evident in the way he talks about it. Every sentence is punctuated with gasps and groans of aggravation, just recalling the memory." [Photo: E Carrasco via flickr]
"The frustration he feels is evident in the way he talks about it. Every sentence is punctuated with gasps and groans of aggravation, just recalling the memory." [Photo: E Carrasco via flickr]

Trigger Warning: This blog speaks openly and honestly about life in a provincial jail in Nova Scotia.

By Phoenix

BURNSIDE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, NOVA SCOTIA -- Twenty three year old Lawrance Nickerson has been an inmate at Burnside jail for almost three years now. His experiences have been colourful to say the least. His perspectives are indicative of how our justice system mangles the people caught in it.

Like most people in here, his eventual problems with the law were cultivated in childhood, by domestic turmoil. A broken home and an unstable family dynamic found him living with his mom and her latest boyfriend in his pre-teen years. Stereotypically, he didn't get along with the imposter father figure. This escalated into an ultimatum: him or me.

The choice was made and Lawrance was kicked out at the impressionable age of thirteen to live with his grandparents. The stresses involved were too much for a vulnerable youth to handle. With no support network, he turned to drinking just to drown his insurmountable problems for a moment. Smoking went along with drinking, as did other ill-conceived behaviours designed to restore the feeling of being in control of his own world.

At age fifteen he picked up his first assault charge, when he beat up a guy for accusing some girls he knew of breaking into a house. His tendency to stick up for the underdog is evident in many of the incidents he's been involved with.

His drinking led to stealing cars, usually while drunk. This resulted in more charges, jail time, and a slew of probation orders. What started out as a fun way to escape problems turned into breaches of court orders, escalations of problems with the law, and about eleven trips through the revolving door of justice. He hasn't managed to stay out of jail for more than six months at a time since he was a teenager.

Less than two years of his adult life has been lived outside of jail.

When asked about the prospects of getting out of jail, he takes a deep breath and sighs depressingly. He believes that it is inevitable that he will be back, because he doesn't know how to live “out there”. He is dubious about keeping a good job, because of his past. He wouldn't even know how to shop for food.

“Jail is the only thing I know right now,” says Lawrance.

Lawrance feels that he needs help transitioning in a halfway house, but the authorities don't want to release him due to current charges he's facing.

“They keep charging me every year.”

But today he is happy because some of those charges, related to an incident on the 'inside', were dismissed.

Like many people with a criminal record, Lawrance feels that he is disproportionately targeted by police because he's already in their system.

“All it takes is one person who doesn't like you to put you back in jail,” notes Lawrance.

He's already resigned himself that he has a slim to none chance of staying out. He's not very hopeful of the future. Lawrance tells me he's not the same person he used to be, and that with every release it gets worse and worse. His release conditions are unreasonably prohibitive. He can't go around people with a criminal record, but that's all he really knows.

He looks and me matter-of-factly and says: “Jail is the best place for me right now.”

Still, the life he lives on the inside is no Sunday picnic. Lawrance, at heart, is quite clever, tidy and good-natured. But he strongly feels that the guards think he's some kind of “dumb hick”.

He admits that he acts out just to show them that he is a strong and capable individual. A lot of his institutional charges involve disrespect to staff and other 'detrimental behaviour'. For instance, he was involved in the recent protest that occurred primarily in segregation, which hit the mainstream news after a serious fire was ignited. Lawrance affirms that the incident was designed to show that: “if we are treated like animals, then we can act like animals.”

There was no hate personally towards the guards. Inmates had been moved into disgusting cells that are truly not fit for human existence. Lawrance, who is one of the cleanest inmates here, was particularly disturbed by this. It upsets him when he asks for something and he can't get it. The guards say they will look into things, but then never do. This applies to the simplest basic necessities, like cleaning supplies or phone calls for court. Inmates might need to call their families about bail, but are sometimes ignored. Several times, Lawrance has lost his personal belongings when he was sent to segregation.

The guards are supposed to tag them up, but “if you don't ask about your personals, you won't get them.”

This includes important things like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and even legal disclosure. For someone like Lawrance, who doesn't have money, having to start over again is a really big deal. He is forced to sell his food to other inmates to get personal hygiene products. Worse yet, the fairness of the legal proceedings is questionable, when the jail loses your disclosure documents.

Lawrance confirms that other jails are not like this. When asked how other jails differ, he rattles off a litany of seemingly minor points that actually make a world of difference when your universe consists of four walls that are only ten paces apart.

Other jails give you real hygiene items. For example, the jail toothpaste is only used to glue pictures to the wall.

Libraries have legal cases. Staff don't argue or give you a hard time. The atmosphere is more respectful. More food. Hot water jugs. Real coffee.

Other jails treat you like you're a somebody.

Food makes a real difference. Always being hungry means that there will always be fighting and violence, as everyone tries to get enough to eat. When your belly is full, you're not angry.

Lawrance becomes exasperated when he describes the health care at Burnside. You have to fight for it here. His personal experience involves months of complaining and endless waiting. He is compelled to admit that aggressiveness does help to a point. After a year and a half of being ignored by the health care staff, tensions boiled to explosive limits. A violent incident ensued and suddenly he was referred right away and jumped to the top of the waiting list. This is what it takes to get the meds you need at Burnside.

Lately, Lawrance has taken on the nickname of “Mass Destruction” because of some of his recent foibles. One of his new sayings is “if it was put together by man, it can be taken apart by man”. Some guards egg him on to break stuff, daring him to do it, calling his bluff. He feels for some of the guards who show him respect, but some of the guards “are just here to egg us on”.

This ranges from simple put-downs to blatantly refusing food. Lawrance has a fully functional moral compass and is just trying to be a judicial equalizer by causing troubles for the disrespectful guards. In his description of an ongoing battle, he is very clear that he would never fight them physically. He says that some of the guards want nothing more than an unfair fight, with fifteen of them against one inmate.

They've also got weapons, armour and pepper spray.

Lawrance explains some of the dirty tricks guards use to get away with assaulting inmates, both on and off camera. When they invade an inmate's cell, they make him lie face down with his head at the door, where there's a blind spot, so that they can kick his face and not be seen. Yanking an inmate's arms behind his back with unreasonable force is common.

Lawrance has had his eyeglasses broken due to a use of force. Guards came into his cell during an inspection and began grabbing his clothes and other personals and throwing them out the door, saying that he had too many.

He thought they were just doing this to bother him, and so he protested what he thought was an unfair treatment. This just escalated the situation, and one guard asked: “Should we spray him?”, meaning with pepper spray. The superintendent who was doing inspection that day said no.

Nevertheless, Lawrance was picked up by his legs, smashing his head on the concrete cell bunk on the way down. His pants came right down, which was terribly embarrassing for him. His glasses broke when his head hit the cement, and he threw them out of his cell angrily as the guards retreated to lock him back in.

This episode, which likely seemed minor to the staff involved, was yet another example of an abuse of power in Lawrance's eyes. The frustration he feels is evident in the way he talks about it. Every sentence is punctuated with gasps and groans of aggravation, just recalling the memory.

Furthermore, it's hard to forget something like that, when you can't see properly now. There's no way for him to be able to get a replacement for the prescription glasses he needs to be able to function normally.

Every single inmate here has a hidden story that goes unheard. Their opinions and feelings are really not that different that what anyone might experience when going through something similar. Perhaps it's time to bring openness and transparency to the correctional facilities of Canada.

The Phoenix is flying through the social firewall of the CNSCF.

End dispatch.

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