Built in 1911, these walls have witnessed over a century of "penitence". Good, bad or indifferent.
It would seem that walking along the prison walls is the coldest walk from your vehicle to the work place. The walls catch every breath of wind and magnifies it so that the cold chills you to the bone. Over time and with experience, staff learn to develop a sensitivity to what is happening on the other side of the wall before they even step through the entrance. That "gut feeling" is strong here. You know intuitively if it's going to be a good day or a bad day.
Acrylic on canvas, ( 36" x 24"), 2004 Permanent collection of Saskatchewan Penitentiary purchased by the three trade unions representing Penitentiary staff.
At 22:00 hours all offenders are ordered back into their cells, counted then re-counted during the security check. For the next 9 hours, offenders are confined to a 5'x9' box - their "house" - and sometimes partake in a bit of horseplay before they settle down. Who can blame them? Imagine being locked in a place smaller than most people's bathroom for that long!
Acrylic on canvas (24"x8") 2017
"FILTERED THROUGH NATURE"
Every time a staff member enters the walls, they can't help but bring the outside world in with them. Every time a staff member goes home, part of the prison follows. In this piece, the ornate gilded frame represents the world away from prison and the center represents the world inside the walls. In time, if left unacknowledged and unmanaged, it can become a muddled mess. Families and careers often pay the price.
Acrylic on Masonite and formerly gilded frame. (16"x20") 2013
"WHEN IT HITS THE FAN"
Conflict, in prison, often happens without warning. Offenders can be better armed than the Officers. You depend on your instinct and experience because your intermittent training goes out the window - conflict never follows the scenario presented in training. In reality, just grab a limb and hang on! Although this painting is in cartoon form, it is anything but funny in real life. People get hurt on both sides of the conflicts. Offenders officially have no weapons, however, so many every day items become extremely dangerous in the hands of angry and sometimes disturbed or intoxicated inmates. A pencil or a ruler become sharp daggers, a bar of soap in a sock becomes a "black-jack", pool balls and full pop cans become dangerous projectiles. The most mundane become killing instruments.
Acrylic on canvas. (40"x30") 2017
"YOU NEVER KNOW"
"Key up Boss" - the voice from the other side of the locked barrier. Do you unlock it or not? Is he asking for something legitimate or does he have ulterior motives? Could opening the gate put you or someone else at risk? " You never know". This is where knowledge, experience and gut feelings are the mainstays of all decisions.
Acrylic on canvas (24"x 20") 2012
The two firsts:
First day on the job - no idea of what is behind the walls
First day of retirement - I know all too well what is behind those walls.
Acrylic on canvas )20"x16") 2016
"THE NIGHT WATCH"
A surreal experience. Walking down long dark cell blocks armed with only a flashlight, a pair of safety scissors and some soft-soled shoes, the Officer's job is weighted with responsibility.
After "lock-up", it is an Officer's duty to observe each and every inmate to ensure they are "a living, breathing body" all while walking in the dark and without disturbing the inmates. In addition, the Officer must ensure nobody escapes. One Officer has this responsibility for 200 to 400 men, all sleeping in bunk beds in a 5'x9' dark cell, on as many as four levels of cell-blocks. From lock-up until your shift is done, you are required to do these punches at intervals ranging from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. On average, there are at least 8 "punches", maybe more but never less. In a single night shift, an Officer watches thousands of people and walks several miles.
Acrylic on canvas (48"x24") 2017
At -40 the dog gets the day off but the Officer still must patrol.
Becoming a Dog Handler was one of the best choices I made in my career. It was an honour and a joy to have spent time with these fine animal Officers.
Acrylic on canvas (16"x20") 2012
LOTTA STORIES: A Correctional Officer's Perspective
A relic of the 1950's -
"Saskatchewan Penitentiary Trespassing on property ; loitering on adjacent road are offences under the Penitentiary Act."
Still in effect to this day.
Multi-media (metal sign, barbed wire, wallboard natural material) 2017
"Gloving up" countless times over a career - even in a Farm Institution environment. A sad truth in today's world. We can't legally know who may have a disease, so we are reduced to treating everyone as diseased. Antibacterial hand lotion is also used so much that it has been referred to jokingly as "Con-B-Gon" .
Multi-media (Jute baling twine and rubber gloves, antibacterial lotion dispenser) 2017
"PRISON CELL INSTALLATION"
An outline of a standard 5 foot x 9 foot prison cell. Could you live in this space? Could you share it with another person for up to 24 hours a day? Now squeeze in a full sized steel bunk bed, a couple of metal foot lockers, 2 televisions, 2 stereos, clothing, shoes, hobby equipment, school books, personal photos....well you get the picture. I would lose my mind!
Gaffer's floor tape. (5' x 9') 2017
"HEY GOOD LOOKING"
Ravens - the Opportunists - are a constant comedic fixture at the Penitentiary. A conversation with the raven on the other side of the camera lens.
Acrylic on canvas (16"x20") 2013
After spending almost three decades working in Corrections, I felt compelled to illustrate some of my personal feelings and experiences.
Always a complex subject, what goes on "behind the walls" is of great curiosity to many people and frequently misunderstood. This body of work is a small reflection of what I, as a Correctional Officer, experienced and saw.
Some of these pieces are very serious and some are definitely tongue-in-cheek. It is my hope that these images help you understand that where there is bad, there can be good; where there is threat, there can be comradery; where there is anger, there can be simple humour.
A Penitentiary cannot be defined simply by it's brick walls and iron bars. There are over 1,000 human beings living and working on either side of the razor ribbon - a community - but strictly governed by rule and law.
Please scroll down to view these works.
The demise of the prison farm and heritage herd - they made a difference for troubled men.
Prison farms not only made institutions across the country more self sufficient, they gave inmates the opportunity to learn compassion, gain work ethics and develop human relations. I've witnessed it's effects. I've seen men considered to be stone-cold killers, cry like a baby while attending to a sick calf; lazy punks that learned to enjoy getting up at 5:00 am to milk cows. I've seen the pride and self-esteem that comes with hard work done well.
In 2010 these life changing farm institutions were deemed obsolete because "not that many agricultural job opportunities exist in this day and age." Established farm institutions were "ransacked" of all useful assets. Heritage herds were sold off; machinery auctioned; and farm buildings gutted. The result, human warehousing with far fewer opportunities for self-improvement.
Acrylic on canvas (16"x20") 2015
Thank you for viewing my "Lotta Stories" body of work. It continues to grow so please check back once in a while. There are more paintings and installations being worked on all the time and will be added upon completion of each piece.
Thank you and stay safe,
CXII Pat Bliss (Retired)
"A ROOKIE'S SKETCHES"
Sketches made while on duty as a Rookie to help me explain my job to my wife.
Pencil on note paper. 1985
An inmate is a human being. A Professional Officer acknowledges this with empathy not sympathy.
Violence in prison is common and no matter whether it is self-inflicted or a conflict between persons, Officers must respond with emotional distance......and that is never easy.
Acrylic on canvas (16"x20") 2014
In use for over a century, this type of key is the most commonly used in prisons around the world. An Officer carrying up to a dozen of these brass keys bears the physical weight and emotional responsibility of controlling the movement of human beings.
Acrylic on canvas (24"x36") 2015
People watching people....and so much more. Tower duty is a four hour shift and as a Correctional Officer your duty is three-fold: Protect the public; Protect the offenders and Protect the institution. It's an armed post where you may be called upon to use lethal force to fulfill one of those obligations. The chain-link and razor-ribbon looks threatening, but it's the little fence that marks out-of-bounds and that requires a response. Tower duty is about relationships - who's hanging with who; who's the king-pin this week; who's being shunned; who's got a new "crew"? A wise guard realizes that a tower has a 360 degree view and not all of the action takes place in the yard. Threats come from the outside too.
Acrylic on canvas (48"x24") 2017, From the Mann Art Gallery Permanent Collection. Third prize at the 2017 Prince Albert Winter Festival Juried Art Show.