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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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Kim Jong Un’s Brother Reportedly Assassinated By Poison Wielding Hit-Girl

The older half-brother of tyrant Kim Jong Un, and once heir to the North Korean autocracy, Kim Jong Nam, was supposedly attacked yesterday morning by a young female assassin wearing hot pink leggings and an LOL branded t-shirt. Some reports state that poisoned needles and/or a poison soaked rag was used in the attack. The whole thing went down inside Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, in a merchant concourse on the terminal side of the security line.

Double tragedy for family of artist Moses Beaver

The raw grief of one death had barely begun to settle in for the people of Nibinamik First Nation in northern Ontario when another tragedy struck. Artist Moses (Amik) Beaver, 57, died on Monday after being found unresponsive in his Thunder Bay, Ont., jail cell, raising questions about why a man with obvious mental illness was being held behind bars. Just two days later, Beaver’s sister, Mary Wabasse, 58, was killed in a car crash while travelling 500 kilometres from the remote community of Nibinamik to Thunder Bay to make funeral arrangements for her brother.

“Our community had barely begun to mourn his loss when the news came that his sister Mary was killed in an accident on her way to comfort and care for family members in Thunder Bay,” said Nibinamik First Nation Chief Johnny Yellowhead in a news release Thursday.

Yellowhead said Wabasse worked for Tikinagan Child and Family Services in Nibinamik for about a decade and was “a good role model.”

Beaver was scheduled to make a court appearance on Tuesday, on charges of assault and failure to comply with bail conditions. He’d been arrested after a minor altercation with a security guard the community had hired to stay with him in Nibinamik when no mental health treatments were available for him, Yellowhead told CBC Radio As It Happens host Helen Mann on Thursday.

‘More questions than answers’

The province’s Ministry of Correctional Services will not confirm that Beaver is the man who died after being transferred to hospital from the Thunder Bay District Jail. A spokesperson told CBC News that an ongoing investigation into the death prevents the release of any further information.”It is disturbing that there has been no formal statement acknowledging his death, and we are left to grieve two deaths with more questions than answers,” Yellowhead said.

“We implore the appropriate officials to provide these answers as quickly as possible, and conduct a full investigation into the death of Moses Beaver and what could have been done to prevent it.”

In Ontario, an inquest is mandatory when a person dies in custody of anything other than natural causes. The results of Beaver’s postmortem examination have not been publicly released. Yellowhead said Beaver clearly needed professional help and a psychiatric assessment, not jail time.

‘Callous and offensive’

The collision that killed Wabasse also injured five other family members. Provincial police said it happened around 12:55 p.m. Wednesday on Highway 102 in Thunder Bay when an eastbound SUV crossed the centre line and collided with an oncoming westbound truck.

Double Tragedy For Family Of Artist Moses Beaver

Wabasse worked for Tikinagan Child and Family Services. (Facebook)

The tragedy was compounded by the behaviour of police, who issued a traffic ticket at the hospital within minutes of Wabasse’s death, to a family member involved in the crash, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. The driver of the SUV was charged with driving left of the centre line, under the Highway Traffic Act, according to police.

“Issuing a citation to a grieving family member in front of a room full of family immediately after the death of a loved one is unacceptably callous and offensive,” Fiddler said in a statement Thursday.

“Members of the police, correctional services and ministry officials have spoken at length about fostering better, more culturally appropriate relations with First Nations, but their actions and lack of accountability in the days following the death of Moses Beaver leaves us to question their commitment,” he said.

Nibinamik a community of only 200 or so is familiar with multiple tragedies. In 2003, seven members of the community died in a plane crash near the First Nation.

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