At 47 years of age, Edith Marie Price is a woman who shows more than a few signs of wear. While her mannerisms generally convey a buoyant and carefree geniality, her face’s gauntness betrays the ravages of decades of intravenous drug use, poverty, and the inevitable progression of HIV. Even when she laughs, her dark eyes seem to sparkle with the disarming intensity of all that they have seen.
For Edith—or Eedie, as she is known to most of the other residents of the maximum security cell block that she currently calls home—2012 is a very special year. It marks the 30th anniversary of her ride through the revolving doors of Canada’s prison system. Since her first conflict with the law at age 17, Eedie has been arrested over 100 times and convicted of 52 offences, all of them drug-related. A long-term opiate user, Eedie once worked in the sex trade to support her addiction. “I had to quit working the streets because I’m gay” she explains. “That, and I realized I could sell drugs instead.”
“It’s not like I’m out to hurt people,” she says of her line of work. “A lot of people come to me—if they’re hungry I feed them, if they’re sick I take care of them.” Much of the reason police target drug dealers, Eedie believes, is that they view those who sell drugs as being responsible not only for the unsightly presence of addiction on the streets, but also for the thefts, robberies and break-and-enters which people who lack other means may commit order to pay for drugs.
Drug dealers, however, are hardly the root cause of crime and addiction in poor communities. In fact, cracking down on trafficking generally escalates levels of street crime, as dealers become more aggressive and reckless in order to make the increased risks worth it for themselves financially—often engaging in violent turf wars and cutting their product with toxic substances to increase weight, resulting in epidemic deaths within the user population.
Drug abuse, Eedie believes, often stems from the emotional and psychological pain of trauma—one of the few commodities that the poor and disenfranchised are allowed to possess in sheer surplus. Like a grotesquely high proportion of women who end up on the streets and in conflict with the law, Eedie’s life has been shaped by abuse and neglect. From the age of six, Eedie was prayed upon sexually by her step-father. The abuse was an open secret in their home, known to all but never acknowledged until Eedie became pregnant at 16 and her mother demanded that she get an abortion.
While the high percentage of abuse survivors in the female prison population is clear (a 1999 study carried out at the New York Bedford Hills Correctional Facility put the figure at more than 90%) the institution that houses Eedie and a few hundred other women does nothing to address this in the allegedly rehabilitative structure of its policies and regimen. “The guards here” Eedie tells me, “have no training for dealing with mental health issues. And having been raped is a mental health issue. But how do you go up to a guard and say ‘Look, I was abused, I was raped’?”
It was abuse that pushed Eedie to drop out of school in grade eight, confused and alienated by the grim reality of her home life. Unable to bear her father’s violence and her mother’s denial any longer, she ran away at 17 to live on the streets of Toronto. Her older brother, already a heroin user, was the only person she knew to seek companionship from. “My brother was the first one to put a needle in my arm,” she tells me, her eyes welling with tears. “And every time I tell him that, he cries.”
While Eedie’s drug use itself has not significantly interfered with her ability to work and lead a relatively stable life, the criminalization of her addiction has. When she moved to Edmonton after earning a forklift operator’s license a few years ago, it was not long before local authorities learned of her extensive drug history and began routinely searching her whenever she was spotted downtown. These searches were often coupled with violence—as a deep scar running down her left shin attests—and it was not uncommon for male officers to illegally strip-search her. Now back in Ontario, the searches of Eedie’s home and person are no less routine and systematic. A raid of the St. Catherines house where she lives with her wife of 15 years, resulting in the discovery of two prescription opiate pills, is the reason for her current incarceration.
If drug use were not treated as a criminal offence, Eedie feels that she could have had a very different lot in life. With access to safe injection sites and a greater availability of harm reduction services in general, she would not have resorted to using the contaminated needle that infected her with HIV. Without the disruption of frequent periods of incarceration she could have pursued her career interests and become a factory foreman, rather than working in the sex trade against her wishes.
Like many people who grapple with addiction in a society that regards drug dependance as a crime and a moral defect rather than a complex and layered social issue, Eedie’s life has been characterized by bitter “if only’s”; if only she hadn’t developed an addiction, she would not have spent the last 30 years in and out of jail. And if only she’d had love and stability in her childhood instead of violence and isolation, she would not have spent her life carrying the pain that pushed her down the road of drug abuse to begin with.
“When you really get down to the bottom of it,” Eedie tells me, “it’s because I was raped that I am in this position today. It is because I was raped that the system fucks with me.”
It is here that the majority of public criticism relating to the carceral system shows it’s limitations as gender-biased analysis. Prisons in general may be a way of warehousing the surplus population whose presence on the streets challenges the fundamental myths of capitalism—but the institutions that imprison women in particular are in many ways a different entity. Within a patriarchal society, imprisoning impoverished and marginalized women functions as a sort of return policy, through which broken or defective objects may discretely be disposed of once they have been used to the point where they can no longer serve their allotted purpose. Sex trade workers who rob pimps or attack abusive clients, rape survivors who turn to drugs to escape the pain of post traumatic stress, and underpaid workers who skim off of lecherous bosses may easily be discarded—the inequalities inherent to patriarchal society will continue to produce a seemingly endless selection of newer, more vulnerable, more easily dominated models for the benefit of the consumer class. And when they too become drab, worn out, or scarred to the point of complete disfigurement from over-use, they can join their predecessors in one of the prison system’s numerous dumpsites for damaged and rejected goods.
While Eedie’s body remains physically confined, she has in many ways attained a level of freedom that many survivors, incarcerated or otherwise, go their entire lives without realizing.
“I didn’t go through this for nothing.” She tells me, her face hardening with a stony conviction. “Do you know how many people I advise in here? I know this system. I know it like the back of my hand.”
Eedie is a woman who has stared back into the faceless gaze of the overseer, studying the drives and motives of the state’s judicial apparatus in painstaking detail. She has come to understand and accept that her life’s circumstances are the product of complex systems of power and oppression, rather than the simple outcome of her actions as an individual. It is this understanding which has allowed her to free herself from the internalized shame and self-hate that torment so many survivors of abuse, both structural and direct—and that is a freedom no one can take away from her.
This article originally appeared in the Fifth Estate.