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Thinking inside the box: The life of a ‘prison wife’

Like many women preparing for a big date, Sherri Maier washes her hair. But then she also soaks her spare change in hot soapy water overnight. The Regina woman picks out as many as six outfits for a weekend visit, launders them, and seals each one in a Ziploc bag before packing them in her suitcase.

Her chosen outfit won t come out of that bag until she s almost ready to leave. She ll take one extra clothing packet with her in the car just in case before heading out the door. That s how you get ready for a date when your boyfriend is serving time in a federal prison. It s not the romance of flowers, chocolates and long walks; rather it s built through stolen moments 20-minute Telmate phone calls, fixed visiting hours, and long letters that can be opened and read first by guards. Excited by the prospect of seeing her boyfriend after months apart, Maier never slept much the night before a visit, despite the seven-hour drive to Drumheller home to Drumheller Institution in the heart of the Alberta badlands. But she d still get up bright and early for the start of visiting hours.

I always had to be the first person in line.

Entry requires proof of identity, and a check against the approved visitors list. Next stop was the ION scanners, checking for visitors sneaking in drugs.

This is where a lot of women get upset, says Maier. The ION scanners are dreaded because of their apparent sensitivity, prompting Maier to take so many precautions with her clothes and coins to guard against even casual contact with anything. She recalls hearing from one woman whose new boots, freshly sprayed with a deodorizer, were caught by the ION scanner. A visitor then risks being turned away. There are also airport-style metal detectors. I ve been stopped because I had a bobby pin in my hair. She was once accused of having a shank a homemade knife in her boots because they set off the detectors. Weapons and drugs aside, even personal items like phones, purses, or cameras are not allowed. And Maier tells of women suddenly forced to buy a new outfit after being turned back for tank tops or skirts deemed too short, which is why she always kept spare clothes in her car. Once Maier passed the security checks, she let the guards know who she was meeting, then waited anxiously for her boyfriend s admittance to the visiting room.

They were allowed a kiss and an embrace at the start and at the end of the visit. Other than that, it was hands off. Maier was just glad they could sit together at a table. In some prisons, visits are through a glass window or video screen. Often, the room was filled with other visitors. And even if it wasn t, a speaker on the table allowed guards to monitor the conversation. She d return for the afternoon visiting hours, then do it all over again the next day. It was a process played out every three to five months or so when Maier could get out to Drumheller dubbed Scum-heller by some prisoners during her boyfriend s term. Goodbyes usually ended with Maier in tears, the next visit seeming far away.

Between visits, the long distance relationship reverted to several phone calls a day and bundles of letters.

I m a prison wife, says Maier. I don t hide it I wasn t embarrassed by it because it could happen to anybody.


Thinking Inside The Box: The Life Of A 'prison Wife'

Some of the 12 days of Christmas letters Sherri Maier sent her boyfriend in prison. (Photo supplied by Maier) Supplied by Maier

Maier is one of the creators and administrators of the Facebook group Canadian Prison Wives, offering information and support to those whose loved ones are behind bars. Begun in 2015 by her and a Winnipeg woman, whose partner was serving time with Maier s fianc , the group now has just over 100 members. Maier is 36 years old, a mom, university-educated, employed, intelligent, articulate, and funny. She s never served time and says her only offences are traffic and parking tickets. Many people are surprised to learn she s in a relationship with a convict.

They have this image that I m going to be a meth head or something, that I ve got to be a junkie, I m not supposed to be working, she says, adding the group includes teachers and nurses. It can happen to anybody, she reiterates.

Early in her studies for a human justice degree at the University of Regina, Maier had pondered a career as a jail guard.

I initially had started my degree wanting to lock them all up. She instead fell for a man on the other side of the law. When he first went to prison, Maier searched Facebook for others in her situation. I was heartbroken he was gone. I couldn t figure out what I was going to do, she says.

She found a number of sites relating to the American prison system, and used them to reach out to other Canadians. (She s since found other groups in Canada, including the Ontario-based Canadian Families and Corrections Network.) Maier s closed Facebook group is accessible only to approved members in an effort to ensure it s used by those who really have a loved one doing time and to allow a free discussion. Some use the site to get practical tips on things like visits or what you can and cannot send into a federal prison (like no stamps or crayoned drawings, since they might harbour drugs). Sometimes, they just need to commiserate with someone who understands. At other times, they talk about their kids or share relationship advice or pose questions like, My man s being an asshole today, what do I do?

When you have a relationship like that you can t talk to other people, says Maier, adding it doesn t compare to the usual relationship dilemmas. As an example, she quickly launches into an explanation of what she calls PMS or prison mood swings, a phrase she found online and adopted.

When they re on a lockdown for three or four days, oh yeah, I remember someday my phone, I would turn it on and he d be super nice and then just put it down and let him bitch for half an hour. She chalks it up to boredom and the stress of being locked up for hours at a time.

You ve got to imagine what it s like in there for them.

Technically, Maier s not exactly a prison wife anymore really more prison-wife light at this point. That s because her fianc is currently in a halfway house while on statutory release, mandated by law usually at two-thirds into a sentence. Worried about doing or saying anything that could put his release in jeopardy, he requested through Maier anonymity and declined to comment for this article. If all goes well, his sentence will finish later this year.

We re close to the end, Maier says with a smile.


Thinking Inside The Box: The Life Of A 'prison Wife'

Sherri Maier holds a bag of letters she wrote to her fianc while he was in prison. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post

The beginning was a few years earlier, when the pair crossed paths through mutual friends. They got re-acquainted in a phone call in 2014 while he was serving time for breaching court-ordered conditions. More phone calls followed. I could talk to him, she says. I saw the good in him. Unfortunately, freedom was fleeting. A mere eight days after his release, he landed back in trouble and behind bars. His prison sentence was 2 years for driving and breach charges.

You don t have to stay, he told her. You re probably not going to be able to handle this.

And that s where the Facebook group helped. Most members are from Alberta and Saskatchewan. A couple have partners serving life terms.

If I didn t vent to some of these women, I would have lost my mind, Maier says. Equally important as the support she received from the group was the support Maier gave to her partner. Correctional Service Canada encourages inmates to develop and maintain community ties. Positive contact with family and friends is very important in the successful reintegration of offenders, notes its website on prison visits.

In his report Warehousing Prisoners in Saskatchewan, University of Regina professor Jason Demers cites studies indicating inmates who are able to maintain family contact are less likely to reoffend on release.

It s a lifeline, really, he adds in an interview. You re not by yourself. You have something to work toward. You re a human being. You have people that love you. It s intangible how much value that adds to somebody s life. Unfortunately, distance and financial resources can prove challenging for families, and increasingly security measures and overcrowding are making contact difficult, says Demers. As someone who did university practicums in the justice system, Maier can understand the stringent requirements for visits. But that doesn t make them easy.

Contact has its price. She estimates that by the time she paid for gas, meals, and hotel rooms, she spent around $800 on a weekend visit. Add to that the costs of phone service, and the bill climbs steeply.

Thinking Inside The Box: The Life Of A 'prison Wife'

A tracing of Sherri Maier s hand, part of many letters she wrote to her fianc while he was in prison. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post

She also spent time, writing an estimated 500 letters. The goal was at least one a day. Some were theme-based, like the 12 days of Christmas or a series of 60 Open when letters, as in open when you need a kiss, open on Valentine s Day, open when you want to hold my hand (and including a little paper cut out of her hand), open when you want to talk but we can t, etc.

You have to find creative things like that, she says. I think that s what got him through it. When they got engaged, she sent him photos of rings, he picked his favourites, then she bought it. They tried, without success, to get private family visits, which allow an inmate and visitor private time together in special units on the correctional grounds. Asked if she ever craved a more normal relationship, Maier admits there were times. But then she d think, I d rather be with him than not with him.

One topic that often comes up for discussion on the Prison Wives Facebook page is whether or not the person on the outside looking in is being used by the one looking to get out some day.

I m not going to lie. A lot of women get used in this situation, Maier says frankly.

They call that term when a guy uses a woman in jail a chicken-head, she adds. It s a very sad thing.

I always tell a woman if you re not being asked for money constantly, you probably know there s something there, she says.

I think the ones that actually stick it out are the ones that know they have some sort of security with them. The ones that don t stay are the ones that know they re kind of being used. Why did Maier stick it out? She knows her boyfriend s history and his record that includes robberies and assaults. But she also puts his offending in context, using her justice studies to understand things like Gladue factors, such as poverty, a disadvantaged background, and racism, which have fed high incarceration rates among indigenous persons. His parents are residential school survivors who died when he was young; he grew up in a troubled foster care system; and he found the support he lacked in criminal street gangs.

I know he s done some shitty things but that s his past. He tries to live past that now, says Maier.

I see good in him, she later adds.

Thinking Inside The Box: The Life Of A 'prison Wife'

Just a few of the Open when letters Sherri Maier wrote to her fianc while he was in prison. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post


When her fianc was released from prison, he came out with a 50-pound bag of letters from Maier and a resolve not to return.

That s the first time I d seen him in months. And I never cried so hard I jumped on him. He s still adjusting to life and having a prison wife on the outside.

When I picked him up, I ve never seen somebody go so crazy over something like bacon, she laughs. He bought like six packs.

He lived 10, 12 years of his life being told when to eat, when to shower, when to lock up, she says of his stints behind bars. You sit in there, and you re told what to do all the time. He still lives under a curfew and at a halfway house, which can put a damper on date night. But they take it in stride.

He s found work, takes the courses required by his release program, and keeps busy.

Maier is optimistic he ll succeed this time where he s failed in the past.

He has good support, but he has to want to do it, she says. I think he wants to do it now.

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Canada doesn’t deserve its reputation as a defence laggard

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia

Canada s defence budget reached 1 per cent of GDP last Friday, thanks to a $404-million contract for upgrades[1] to LAV III armoured vehicles. This spending was announced four days after U.S. President Donald Trump complained, again, that U.S. allies were not spending enough on defence. In 2014, all NATO countries agreed a spending guideline of 2 per cent of GDP. In Canada s case, this would require doubling the defence budget of $20.7-billion. Before Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan Sajjan draws up a shopping list, he should consider this: It is possible, within the NATO definition of defence expenditure, to take a more expansive view of what constitutes defence spending.

Read more: NATO eagerly waiting to hear from Trump and his team, general says[2]

Related: Sajjan meets with Mattis as Trump warns NATO members must step up defence spending[3]

NATO considers pension payments made directly by the government to retired military and civilian employees of military departments as defence spending. Pensions provided by the Department of National Defence are counted, but death and disability payments provided by Veterans Affairs are not to the tune of $3.6-billion annually. The NATO definition includes national police forces, when they are equipped as a military force. The RCMP is organized along paramilitary lines, and has many officers deployed along borders and remote frontiers where contact with hostile actors is anticipated. Take, for example, the officers who patrol the St. Lawrence Seaway, whose job it is to interdict smugglers, some of whom are armed. Conservatively, Canada could count $200-million of the $2.8-billion RCMP budget as defence spending. The NATO definition includes border guards when, again, they are equipped as a military force and can, realistically, be deployed outside national territory. Canada Border Services Agency personnel patrol with the RCMP and U.S. agencies. Conservatively, $100-million of the $1.6-billion CBSA budget could be counted as defence spending. Counting the Veteran Affairs budget and these small parts of the RCMP and CBSA budgets takes defence spending to $24.5-billion or 1.2 per cent of GDP. The Canadian Coast Guard and its $2.5-billion budget provides another easy way to raise the numbers. Expanding its role to include some security functions, and adding a light gun to each vessel, would make it count under NATO and raise spending to $27-billion or 1.32 per cent of GDP. If that is not enough, Mr. Sajjan should consider that further spending increases are locked in due to procurements already under way. This is because spending on new equipment is not counted in the federal budget until the year in which the equipment is delivered.

The $3-billion for Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships and $26-billion for Canadian Surface Combatants are not counted as current spending. Nor are the $2.3-billion for search-and-rescue planes, $800-million for combat trucks, $781-million for naval jetties, or the $3-billion for maritime helicopters (since only a handful of interim aircraft have been delivered). Nor, indeed, are the $3-billion for Joint Support Ships and roughly $3-billion for Super Hornet fighter jets. If the Coast Guard were given a security role, another $5-billion in new ships could be included in this list. Together, these commitments total $47-billion. By 2027, payments for equipment delivered under current procurements could raise annual spending by $3-billion, to $30-billion or 1.46 per cent of GDP.

If Mr. Sajjan wished to raise spending further, a responsible next step would be to increase annual spending on maintenance, training, housing and health services, all of which have been neglected in recent decades. An additional $1-billion for maintenance and training would improve combat capability, while $1-billion for housing would boost recruitment and retention. Another $500-million for medical personnel and facilities would result in healthier soldiers, sailors and pilots. Together, these mundane investments could push spending up to $32.5-billion per year or 1.59 per cent of GDP. Finally, Mr. Sajjan could initiate the replacement of Canada s fleet of second-hand submarines. Conservatively, this would require $5-billion, which (spread over 10 years) could push annual defence spending to $33-billion or 1.61 per cent of GDP by 2027. Canada would then rank a respectable 7th among the 28 NATO countries, up from its present ranking of 23rd. Most importantly, all these reasonable measures could be justified without any reference to Mr. Trump.

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Also on The Globe and Mail

NATO is a ‘fundamental bedrock’ for U.S., Mattis says (Reuters)

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Bill letting U.S. border guards detain Canadians could face legal …

A bill proposing[1] to bolster the powers American border guards yield[2] in Canada including the ability to strip search and detain Canadians could lead to legal challenges against the federal government, immigration experts are warning.Part of a bilateral agreement with the U.S., the bill, when passed, will grant American customs agents the right to carry weapons within Canada, perform body searches and detain but not arrest them.READ MORE: Canada border bill passed through U.S. Senate[4]It will also allow U.S. agents to force a Canadian in a preclearance area, who has decided not to travel to the U.S., to stay in the area for questioning. Right now, that same traveller has the right to simply turn around and leave the area without action or consequence.WATCH: Public safety minister says it s the passport that determines status, not the NEXUS card Bill Letting U.S. Border Guards Detain Canadians Could Face Legal ...


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