Friday, October 8, 2010

Life in Oakalla Prison

When Judith Forst, performing the role of Irene in our new opera Lillian Alling, sings “God, the tales they used to tell. Oakalla near Vancouver, but much closer to Hell!” we are transported back to the 1920s by the passion in her powerful, compelling voice and the images of Oakalla prison displayed by video designer Tim Matheson.

What would it have been like to be a woman imprisoned in Oakalla Prison Farm?

From the time of Oakalla’s opening in 1912 to its closure seventy-nine years later, the Lower Mainland Regional Correctional Centre (as it was renamed in 1970), served three main functions. First, it was a provincial gaol for men and women serving sentences of less than two years; second, it was a remand centre for those awaiting trial on serious charges or appeal federal convictions; and third, up until the final hanging of Leo Mantha in 1959, Oakalla carried out all death sentences in the province.

Oakalla Prison Farm was built to replace the New Westminster Provincial Gaol which had to serve the entire Lower Mainland with only 77 cells. Burnaby’s District Lot 84, Group 1 – a wooded 185 acre site – was chosen since the prison was to be run as a farm so that all inmate labour could be conducted within the perimeter of the prison property eliminating the need for chain gangs which had proven high escape risks.

The smaller south wing was built for women and had accommodation for just 54 prisoners. All cells, save those for punishment, contained a cold water basin, a toilet, a metal-framed bed hinged to the side wall and an inspection slot in the rear wall.

Oakalla reflected the American ‘Auburn’ model of penology: inmates would be subjected to harsh discipline and strenuous work during the day and segregated in individual cells at night.

To give you a sense of the day-to-day world: silence was strictly enforced, inmates were sentenced to hard labour, and gaolers had complete control over their charges. Those sentenced to hard labour left for work by 7:30am (8:00am during the winter months) and would not return from the fields or workshops until 5:30pm. Dressed in grey denim trousers, tunic and cap, inmates would walk in unison to and from the fields. Clearly marked across the back of their jackets and along one side of their pants were the letters P G (Provincial Gaol). Their uniforms were easily distinguishable to the ever-present armed guards. The prisoners were locked in their cells at 7:00pm and lights-out was at 9:00pm.

It was believed that these controls, strictly enforced, would bring about the reform of every offender. Oakalla was to bring penal practices in BC into a new era. “In 1912, the provincial government saw Oakalla as a godsend to corrections. In the years that followed, it was more often considered the devil’s work.”

I don’t know about you, but being incarcerated in a country where I don’t have a passport nor speak the language would be frightening enough, but once I realized that death sentences were being carried out around me, it would truly become a place of nightmares.

~ Jennifer Lord, Special Projects Manager

Reference material from “Hard Place to do Time: The Story of Oakalla Prison, 1912 – 1991” by Earl Andersen