Veteran prison guard gives students a look at life on the inside


Brian Cassidy, a veteran correctional officer for more than 30 years, gives a presentation on just what goes on in prison.

Brian Cassidy, a veteran correctional officer for more than 30 years, gives a presentation on just what goes on in prison.

Brian Cassidy sits in his office on the prison block when he hears a call from a co-worker.  An inmate has put a blanket over the window of his solid cell door and is refusing to answer or take it off.

Normally officers look through the windows to check on people in their cells, and with the opening covered the officers can’t be sure that the man isn’t trying to kill himself or is otherwise up to no good.  Cassidy, a veteran of corrections, joins the officer asking for help with the situation and stands slightly away from the door.  He orders the man inside to uncover the window: no reply.  He knocks on the door for any kind of response, if even just a “go away.”  Nothing.  Cassidy orders the door unlocked.  It slowly swings open.  In an instant, the man inside bursts through the opening door armed with a prison shank and lunges towards the closest officer: Cassidy.  The officer knows the improvised stabbing weapons are used against the kidneys or eyes and throws up his arm to ward off the attack.  The shank pierces lengthwise into Cassidy’s forearm before the other officers can even react.  After brief scuffle the man is disarmed and forced back into his cell and Cassidy lives to work another day.

Looking back, Cassidy says he should have checked the man’s profile, a document with all the information correction officers like him need to know about a particular inmate.  He holds up the knife that stabbed him: a sharpened bit of metal resembling a screwdriver with a faded evidence tag hanging on the handle.  He says that his attacker’s goal was to be the first person ever to be shot and killed at that prison near Edmonton, something he would have known if he had read the inmate’s profile.  He looks to the faces of the Criminology students in the classroom he’s giving a presentation to and then moves on from the original question posed by Sheridan professor Terry Kostiw: “Tell us about the time you got stabbed.”

Every year Cassidy joins Kostiw’s class to talk about his lifetime working in provincial and federal prisons as a corrections officer. A veteran of more than 30 years, he regales students with tales of his experiences and shows off a collection of equipment he uses on the job and things he’s confiscated from inmates, which includes weapons made from afro picks, art carved from a soap bar, a woven basket made out of an old copy of National Geographic and even a model sailing ship fashioned from newspaper.

Criminology is a general elective at Sheridan that teaches students the ins and outs of crime in Canada as well as the causes of criminal behaviour and how society approaches dealing with crime.


prison-moodie1THE BED SHEET

Cassidy tells the class of about 20 students how all inmates get a few personal belongings on their first day in prison: two towels, a bed sheet, some supplies to brush their teeth and clean themselves but not much else.  These items must be returned at the end of their sentence otherwise the inmate is billed for the cost of a replacement. One day, a man in prison asked the staff for something to write with.  The guards offered a short pencil similar to the ones provided at a mini-put course.  In prison, there isn’t much to do except work out, plot one’s escape, or sit around and be bored.  The only times inmates are doing something different is when they get time outside in the yard or when they have duties like laundry. Cassidy remembers laundry day with the man who got the pencil.  The inmate showed up with his laundry, but didn’t have his bedding with him.  The guards asked him where his bed sheet was, and the man simply said, “I drew on it.”  The guards confiscated one pencil-drawn bed sheet illustration of wildlife, created with a tiny golf pencil. It now resides in Cassidy’s collection of odds and ends.

prison-moodie2THE NINJA STAR

In prison there are people that you just don’t like, Cassidy explained. Some inmates don’t do anything about it while others will make weapons and plot attacks. Cassidy recalls one inmate who fashioned a throwing star from folded newspaper, dipped the paper in water and set it on his windowsill to freeze overnight.  The paper did indeed freeze, and the man used the ad hoc ninja weapon to attack another inmate.  He also recalls another felon who made a metre-long javelin out of frozen paper. “Fortunately he wasn’t a very good shot,” Cassidy says, explaining the guards had to pull the javelin out of a wall.


prison-moodie4THE SKINHEAD’S DOLL

Race is still an issue in today’s world and prisons are no exception.  Cassidy recalls one inmate who had a problem with black people. He describes the man as a skinhead with a large swastika tattooed on his chest. He wasn’t too afraid to share his opinion with others and crafted a small “troll” doll painted jet black with a noose around its neck and hung up on his door for all to see.  After the guards confiscated the doll, they let the man out into the yard.  The catch?  He was out there alone with all the people he said he didn’t like so much. “He was pretty quiet after that,” said Cassidy.