Kindness behind bars

Tenderness behind bars

Even in prison, you need privacy. For Valentine's Day or the other 364 days of the year, there are fortunately solutions for inmates looking for a little affection from their non-incarcerated loved ones: visits with or without contact, conversations by videoconferencing or private family visits (PFV) during which visitors can spend several days with their loved one. Métro spoke with a regular at these VFPs. 

Lawrence Côté-Collins, filmmaker (his film Bungalow will be released in theaters on 7 next April), quite frequently visits a “Friend with a capital A”, she insists, incarcerated at the Federal Training Center in Laval, a minimum security prison. He has been locked up there for 10 years and is serving a life sentence.  

Every eight weeks, Lawrence is allowed to spend 72 hours, or three nights, with his “Friend” in prison under what are called VFPs. 

To qualify for these visits, the visitor must obviously be in contact with the person and submit to an investigation. “I could be his family, his wife, his common-law partner or be recommended by the parole officer.”  

Following a long process during which she filled out many forms, particularly on the nature of their relationship, Lawrence obtained authorization to make stays. The behavior of his imprisoned partner must also be exemplary, otherwise his privilege of intimacy may be withdrawn at any time.  

A house for the visit 

“At the time, people had to get married to have a “trailer”. Now it is no longer necessary,” says Lawrence. 

Contrary to what one might imagine, these trailers are not just a place to go to make love. It can also be a place to spend time with family, children, friends. Prisoners can even rent a VFP house all to themselves to provide respite from prison.

“The private family visiting units were created to encourage inmates to create and maintain family and community ties in preparation for their eventual return to the community,” said Jean-François Mathieu, regional communications manager. of the Correctional Service of Canada. 

These places where the VFPs take place are in fact small houses within the confines of the prison. At the Federal Training Center, there are five small houses on two floors stuck on top of each other. Each maisonette is fenced and has a small outdoor courtyard. They can have one or two bedrooms and an area for the kitchen and living room.

Tenderness behind bars

Lawrence Côté-Collins, filmmaker (his film Bungalow will be released on April 7), quite frequently visits a “Friend with a capital A” in prison. Photo credit: Ele Rieberg-Meiel

A carefully planned stay 

Lawrence's visits should be well planned. When it's time to pack, she receives a list “like in a day camp”. She is not allowed to bring more than what is on the list. “Everything is counted and verified. We are not allowed any electronic device, not even an iPod to listen to music.”  

When she arrives, she is searched, sniffed by dogs. She leaves her cell phone in a locker. She won't be able to touch it during her entire stay. Personal items are placed in another special bag provided by the prison.  

Before the visit, the prisoner and his visitor also receive a grocery list. They tick what they want to buy with the money from the inmate's account. “Grocery is expensive everywhere, even in prison,” says Lawrence. There's not a lot of choice, but still a lot more than inside the walls, she adds. 

They also have the option of purchasing a disposable camera for $55. “We can take pictures during our stay. Prison employees take care of developing, inspecting, sorting and scanning them. They remove those deemed inappropriate if there are any and give the rest to the inmate.” 

The inmate can also rent DVD movies from the prison's cultural club and watch them during their stay. . This is what Lawrence and his friend do, in addition to cooking, reading books, playing tarot, cards, backgammon.  

There is also a bath in the VFP house, a luxury not found in prison. So Lawrence brings some bath foam for his friend to enjoy.  

No turning back 

Lawrence prepare mentally for her visit since once she enters the house, she is treated like a prisoner, and is therefore completely cut off from the world.  

“Losing all communications for three days is not easy. If I could work and check my emails, I'd stay two weeks, but there…” 

Several times a day, she and her friend are counted by guards who make their rounds and “make sure that everything is beautiful”. Lawrence, who needs medication for his anxiety, has to take it during the count. The guard unlocks the locker where she is stored and she has to swallow the pill in front of him, sticking her tongue out. This ensures that she does not pass it on to her friend. 

“The movements in prison, it takes staff, it is complicated. It comes with an escort, searches, locked doors. Just to get home, I walk through 10 padlocked doors with security. The employees have other things to do than take care of the girl who is crying because she is exasperated. I have to manage myself, ”explains the one who has already had to be evacuated urgently because her friend, who is schizophrenic, was in a hallucinatory crisis and she had a panic attack, an operation which mobilized four employees.  ; 

24-hour visits exist, but given the multiple demanding steps required, they are much less common than 72-hour visits,   

Despite the challenges, Lawrence  ̶ who spent last Christmas with her friend ̶ will continue to visit him out of affection, a desire to accompany him in his sentence and because she believes that “people in prison are not just the crime they committed ”.  

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