Fri, 03 Mar 2006

The Regional Psychiatric Centre is laid out in a circle around a courtyard about a hundred feet across. In the middle of the courtyard stands what appears at first glance to be a piece of modern sculpture. Then you look again and realise it’s just a thick pole topped with about a hundred high-wattage lamps pointed every which way. I’m not sure if these lamps burn all night. It would be pretty damn bright. Probably they only turn them on during escape attempts.

Ernie and Chris and I were there to drop off a couple of printers and to get a tour of the institution. I guess I was hoping for something out of Silence of the Lambs – buzzing fluorescent lights, clanging doors, creepy lunatics muttering in their cells. But it felt more like a hospital. Except that every time we went through a door our host, Shawn, had to look up into a closed-circuit camera so that the guards could visually identify him and release the lock. Shawn told us that he was trying to minimise the number of doors we passed through on our tour. “The guards get mad when they have to open a lot of doors for no good reason.”

We didn’t really spend much time in the areas where prisoners are kept. But the prisoners seemed to wander pretty freely, so we passed lots of them in the corridors. When we stopped to chat with one of the guards, Shawn told him, “These guys didn’t even notice when we passed our local celebrity.”

“You mean Crawford?” said the guard.

“Who’s Crawford?” I said.

John Crawford. Remember? He killed four or five prostitutes back in the nineties.”

“Ah, they wouldn’t have even recognised him,” said the guard. “He gets fatter every year.” They snickered, like we were gossiping about some washed up ’80s rock star.

I asked Shawn if he’d ever had any trouble with prisoners, but he said there was nothing to worry about. He didn’t even notice when a guy nonchalantly followed us through a door that we’d just opened. A guard’s voice shouted through the intercom: “Staff only in this area!” “I think it’s staff only right now,” Shawn called after him as the prisoner walked briskly away down the empty corridor. But the guy just kept walking. Shawn shrugged. We didn’t hear any sirens, so I guess we didn’t allow any mass murderers to escape.

We stopped to talk to a very cute intern from the University of Alberta who was conducting a study on gang membership and recidivism. She told us about a study of sex offenders she’d recently participated in. “We put them into this little room, and they sit in this easy chair in front of a TV screen, and they strap on the apparatus,” she explained, somewhat vaguely. (To give you an idea of what she’s talking about, the “apparatus” is known as a “phallometric device”.) “Then we watch them through a two-way mirror so that we can make sure their eyes aren’t closed when they’re supposed to be watching the screen. Then we flash different images on the screen and the apparatus measures their level of arousal.” I wanted to ask more questions about this, but I thought it would make me seem pervy. What does a “phallometric device” look like? What kind of images do they flash on the screen? Porn? Violent porn? Child porn? If it’s illegal stuff, where do they find it? Is there some psych intern out there getting paid to cruise the internet for donkey sex videos?

The other guys wandered off to discuss boring computer stuff, but I stayed to chat with the cute intern. She told me about how the Psych Centre works. For the most part, offenders are only there for the duration of a “program”, usually lasting six to eight months, and then they’re either sent back to their originating prison, or, if the treatment is deemed to have been successful, they might get moved to a lower-security institution. Most offenders aren’t eager to leave the relaxed environment at RPC to return to the stress of prison life. That’s why they’re pretty well-behaved.

I asked what kind of programs there were. “Oh, you know, sex offender, substance abuse, gangs, aggressive behaviour modification…”

“So a prisoner at Sask Pen can be extra aggressive, and as a reward he gets to come to RPC for the aggressive behaviour program?” I asked. My question seemed to offend her. I wasn’t trying to criticise the system, I was just pointing out a little irony.

“I wouldn’t call it a reward,” she said. “We’re giving them an opportunity to change their behaviour patterns.”

“Sure, of course,” I said, trying to be agreeable. But apparently I’d violated some kind of psychiatric-care taboo, because my conversation with the cute intern kind of fizzled out. I rejoined the others and we resumed the tour. Shawn showed us the kitchen and the laundry and the office where there was recently an attempted sexual assault. “So they put a lock on the door,” Shawn pointed out.

When Ernie and Chris and I returned to our office it was already four o’clock. We’d managed to fritter away the entire afternoon. The trip was well worth it – and I didn’t even get shanked.

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