Trading a military uniform for an orange jumpsuit

KATHLEEN HARRIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:34 PM ET

Stripped of rank, rifle and pride, she has traded her crisp military uniform for an orange jail jumpsuit.

Armed now with a meticulously polished cleaning bucket, the disgraced soldier keeps shoulders straight and eyes trained firmly ahead as she marches by rote around the sterile compound. Strict rules bar her from uttering any words except those requesting permission to pass by staff and superiors.

Here in Edmonton, at Canada’s only military prison, every day begins early and each waking moment is crammed with marches, repetitive drills and scrubbing chores.

Ultra-strict discipline is the code - and even modest privileges must be earned. New arrivals aren’t allowed to talk or smoke or display pictures of loved ones inside their stark cells. And if they step out of line, they could spend excruciatingly long days sitting or standing - but never lying down - in a barren solitary confinement cell stripped down to socks and underwear.

“This is the end of the spectrum, the last step in the disciplinary chain,” says Maj. Ron Gribble, the commandant in charge of the prison.

Those sentenced to fewer than 14 days in custody usually do time at a detention unit on their home base. Offenders come to the Canadian Forces Service Prison and Detention Barracks from bases across the country and from deployments abroad, serving longer stints for serious violations of military rules or criminal convictions.

On this day, there are only four offenders, including the first female in three years. Outnumbered by on-duty staff, the inmates are divided in institutional wings by gender and status of sentence; officers and privates are peers and subject to the same tough discipline and basic cell quarters.

“There is no rank,” says Gribble. “Everyone here is an inmate. They are either a service detainee, a service prisoner or a service convict.”

Detainees returning to the military are all paid the same private’s basic rate, whatever their rank, while those turfed from service receive a meagre prisoner’s allowance of $1 to $5 a day.

Wayward soldiers who have made a mistake are here for rehabilitation, a reality check and a second chance. Those convicted of serious crimes are kicked out of the military and transferred to a civilian Corrections Canada penitentiary after serving as much as two years at the CF jail.

In 2007, there were only 39 inmates admitted to the CF prison, and only 24 the year before.

“It speaks well for the discipline of our men and women in uniform overall. But it’s also indicative of the size of our force too. We don’t have a huge force,” he said. “When you think of the British army or the American forces, they have huge militaries, so of course they are going to have a lot more discipline issues and they have a lot larger facility with a lot more offenders.”

Each day here begins with a wake-up at 6 a.m. and ends with a mandatory lights out at 9 p.m. The hours in between are packed with duties and drills required to earn marks that allow the inmate to advance to the next level or stage of their sentence. Most offenders lose weight during their stay due to rigorous physical activity.

No privileges are granted at the first stage. When they eventually reach the next level - an average of 18-19 days - family visits are permitted but without physical contact like hugs or kisses.

Inmates can be penalized - most often for idleness, laziness or “illicit communication” in the shower or during a scheduled smoke break. But only top officials can administer punishment; custodians can only “correct” behaviour.

The regime includes a series of careful inspections in the morning and throughout the day. The offender must strip his or her cell bare of bedding and clothes, folding them all neatly into a tight rectangular box stowed outside the door until the day’s end.

The busy grind continues with a schedule of meticulous personal hygiene mixed with washing floors, shining brass pipes and belt buckles and performing manual grounds work. All the while, their every move is closely monitored by CF guards called “custodians” and cameras that watch every open spot and hidden corner except for washrooms and private cells.

Security is tight, too, with steel bars, iron-locked doors and shatter-proof windows. Inside each drab cell is a small window, a steel toilet and slender bed topped with a thin cot-style mattress.

That’s luxury compared to the confinement cell, a completely barren white-walled room where inmates are sent for severe reprimand for as many as two days at a time, left alone with their thoughts. A bread-and-water diet remains on the books for those in segregation, though Gribble said the severe punishment has been in “abeyance” for some years.

Under the National Defence Act, rules and laws apply to all Canadians deployed with the CF, which means a civilian working on mission could wind up at the prison. There have been three CF members transferred from deployment in Afghanistan, but Gribble stressed it’s uncommon and would not divulge what offences were committed to warrant the detention.

“It’s not for showing up late for work, let’s put it that way. You can’t take people out of a theatre of operation without creating a hiatus. They have to backfill that individual because it’s mission-critical,” he said. “This is the extreme. The last thing we want to do is send a man or a woman here to go in to detention, because it is harsh. You are taking away their liberties and retraining them, so we don’t want to do that lightly, especially in a theatre of operation.”

Master Warrant Officer Robert Gagnon, the prison’s chief disciplinarian, said a high percentage of inmates arrive with drug or alcohol problems that are often linked to their offences. They are forced through immediate detox, with counselling and a multi-faith centre on site to help them break bad habits.

Blind to race, gender and the type of crime committed, Gagnon’s job is to get the bad soldiers all back in line. He does it by working on “individual minds,” while treating them all the same.

“You have to put your personal feelings and biases on the side and do your job,Ó he says. “I don’t care who it is, male or female or what colour they are. My instinct is to make sure this person is released a better soldier, a better person.”

Getting there isn’t an easy road. Upon admission, every inmate must forfeit all personal belongings, including wallet, jewelry and cigarettes. The only item permitted is a plain wedding band.

Brass have recommended changes to “modernize” the rules, including the ability to admit or release on a Sunday and to extend the day so lights out are at 10 p.m. There are also plans to practice more military skills for those returning to the Forces, and focus on vocational, job-finding and life skills for those not going back to the military after release.

“We’re concerned about sending solid people back to the military but we also have a duty to Canada to send people back out that are going to be productive citizens,” Gribble says. “Depending what they’ve done in the military, we don’t want to send problems back out into Canadian society.”

kathleen.harris@sunmedia.ca


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