The Ion Scanner in Canadian Prisons

I visited my brother Peter in Canadian prisons around Ontario and Quebec for nearly 32 years, and in most of these prisons, I had to go through various security checks. These checks included the Metal Detector, Sniffer Dogs, and the Ion Scanner.

The Ion Scanner (Ion Mobility Spectrometer (IMS)) is a device used to “ring off” on people who are carrying in trace amounts of illegal drugs into the prison. I noticed them starting to use it in the mid-1990s. The guard asks you to give him an item from your person, like your glasses, belt, a piece of ID, or one of your shoes. He or she will wipe the item with a cloth and feed that cloth into a machine, the Scanner. If a threshold is exceeded (“ringing off”), the screen will give some indication. They don’t show you the screen so I don’t know what that indication looks like. In the case that you ring off, it is assumed that you are trying to carry into the prison some of whatever drug registered. You are given a closed visit (glass between you and the prisoner) or sent away, and an entry is made in the prisoner’s file.

Over the years, we slowly learned how to not ring off on the Ion Scanner. These are our best practices:

  • Wash the clothes you will wear in the hot cycle. Wash them again without any soap. Soap and cosmetics can cause the Scanner to ring off.
  • Make an alcohol/ water solution and dump into it your keys, paper money, change, ID, glasses, and anything else you are taking into the prison. Use the solution to wipe down your belt and shoes.
  • It’s best if you don’t stop for gas or coffee on the way to the prison because door handles, changing money, etc. might be carrying these trace amounts of contraband. That being said, we usually stopped for coffee anyway, and then used alcohol wipes to clean our hands and any new money, and that seemed to work OK.
  • Of course, don’t bring drugs to the prison.

Even though I took all of these precautions, I would feel a sense of dread when I approached the prison, and again when it was time to be tested by the Ion Scanner. I had reason to feel that way as I have rung off twice. Once for Cannabis at Collins Bay in the late 1990s and once, they didn’t tell me what for, at Bath Institution in May of this year (2015), both times when going into a trailer visit. Our father rang off once for Ecstasy, and my brother Rob has rung off three times, once for something called Procaine.

This is a link to the CSC’s page on the Ion Scanner, in which they talk about “false positives” and other drawbacks. From that page:

“Overall, this review indicates that IMS units are useful in detecting most drugs. However, these devices are often oversensitive and are limited in their ability to detect certain forms of drugs. Additional research is needed to address gaps in our knowledge such as determining the impact of IMS units on inmate drug use and institutional behaviour, drug smuggling by inmates, staff and visitors, etc. Furthermore, additional well-controlled research is needed to support the limited research currently available on the reliability of IMS devices within a correctional context.”

I don’t think the Ion Scanner is a fair or reasonable system because many people (probably you) are carrying these trace amounts of Cocaine, Heroin, and other illegal drugs. Paper money comes into contact with the drugs in the trade and then goes into general circulation, where you pick it up at a 7/11 or MacDonalds.

Another reason the system is not fair is that the guards, administrators, and other support staff, are never checked when moving through the prison lobby. I think that if the CSC was serious about the use of the Ion Scanner as a means to stop the entry of contraband into the prisons, everybody would be tested the same way. The fact that they are not, in my opinion, reduces the Ion Scanner to an intimidation or harassment tactic against visitors.

The Final Days

My brother Peter died in prison last Thursday morning. There are a lot of people who are glad he is dead and also happy that he was never released in his final days. That is very understandable. Peter killed a policeman who was only doing his job, and took him away from his family. He also showed great disrespect at the time for the people he had hurt.

I honestly don’t think I could forgive a thing like that if it happened to one of mine. I will always be angry at the people who hurt Peter and I will never forgive them, even though he did a long time ago.

I have heard the idea that God can forgive every sin. I don’t know about that. I don’t understand God and I don’t understand forgiveness.

There is one thing I do know. If there is another life, or a next world, Peter will continue to search for redemption. He will try to make things right that can’t be made right in this world.

The Childhood of Peter Collins

These are a few words about the childhood of my brother, Peter Collins, who is serving a life sentence for first degree murder. His family history has never been examined or investigated, but I believe it has a lot to do with how he came to be so desperate and in conflict with the law.

Peter has only recently given me his go-ahead to tell this story. For the last 20 years, he has been very forgiving of his parents. I’m proud of him for that, but I don’t think they deserve it. He has told me that he has met many people inside prison who had much worse childhood’s than his own. Having only grown up in the one home, I don’t really have a good perspective. I remember going over to friend’s houses as a child and being surprised that they weren’t afraid of their mothers.

Peter was severely mistreated by his parents as a young boy.

Our mother, Joan Collins (Stothard) was an unfit parent. She was addicted to her own rage and vengeful towards her male children. Our father, Michael Collins, was unable or unwilling to protect his kids. Regarding Peter, Dad even sided with Mum over every real and made-up grievance.

Growing up, it became a kind of family policy to blame Peter for every little thing. When he was between the ages of five to six, his transgressions included:

• wetting the bed
• soiling his pants
• being dirty
• being stupid
• not smiling
• teasing Christian (me) or his sister Lucy
• stealing things from Mum and Dad’s friend’s houses on family visits
• not being good at anything

If I was to do any of these things I got off relatively lightly: a glare, a lecture or a slap. If Peter did any of these things, Mum and Dad would both behave very differently. It was a regular ritual to see Peter being humiliated and made to cry by physical or emotional attacks in front of the family. Although Mum lead these attacks, Dad would always support her when he was around.

Rather than watch, and participate in, the events at home, Dad would spend most of his time at the jazz clubs around Ottawa where he played the trumpet and sang.

When I was seven and Peter was five or six, both of us would wet the bed at night. Peter was still soiling his trousers during the day and sometimes the night. Mum didn’t like to clean up after either of us and liked to make us admit to the fact before she checked the sheets or clothes. Glares and speeches. “You couldn’t care less, could you?” Violence was always very close to the surface. Sometimes we got slapped with her hands or a wooden spoon.

Peter has told me that when he was young, he was ashamed of messing his pants and would try to never go to the bathroom, where accidents happened. Of course, that didn’t work for him.

I remember a couple of times being taken with Peter to stores that dealt with electric devices that would ring an alarm if the kid wet the bed. Mum would speak very loudly so everyone could hear, and of course I would be ashamed of myself.

One night we were getting ready for bed. Dad was out of the house.

“Peter, did you pooh your trousers today?”
“I don’t think so.”
She stamped over to him, and it must have been obvious. She began to pull his pants down.
“Yes, you have! Come on, Peter.. We’re going to wash your face.” Her voice was rising.
She had him by the wrist of one hand and had his dirty underwear in the other and was marching him to the bathroom.
“I’ve already washed my face.”
“Well, we’re going to wash it again.”
She slammed the door. A short silence. I stared at the wall in my bedroom.
Peter started to cough and cry.
That is all I remember from that night.  An atrocity that I didn’t actually see but was implied to me through my mother’s words and general menace.

All of my life, I have wished that I had told a teacher or principal at school what happened in that bathroom. At the time I was scared of Mum and also of whatever would happen if I said something. But I still wonder how things might be different, picturing Peter perhaps making a living as a graphic artist or a repairman, or one of the many things he is good at.

Around 1973, when I was thirteen and Peter was eleven or twelve, we all went to see Dr. Resnik (I think that’s the name) at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Mum and Dad told him that Peter was acting up at school and at home. Mum told the doctor, in front of the family, that she hated Peter.

We only went for a couple of sessions unfortunately. This was probably because the doctor suggested that Peter was not the cause of the problem. He told us about the “Black Sheep” family where a child was picked as being the outcast and said that our family was a good example of it. He pointed to Mum as the source of the real trouble.

We stopped going to see Dr. Resnik and Mum and Dad continued to blame Peter for all of their problems.

Another thing Dr. Resnik had suggested was that Mum might feel better in her life if she was to go to University. For the next five years or so, she went back to school and eventually earned a degree.

Peter was driven out of the house before he turned 13 years old. One day he just didn’t come home. Mum and Dad made no special effort to find him. After a couple of weeks they moved our sister Lucy into his bedroom. Mum continued to pursue her university degree. Dad made a record with the Apex Jazz Band.

Soon after he started spending nights on the street, Peter was raped by a male teacher who had offered him a place to stay out of the rain. This happened one more time with a different man, but more violently when Peter tried to defend himself with a knife and got beaten up before the rape. In his early days on the street he was once also beaten by the police. These incidents caused Peter to develop a deep mistrust of adults.

Eventually, he moved in with a 28 year old woman (Peter would have been 13 years old) who used him for sex and taught him petty fraud and theft. The police caught up with them after a few months and Peter was sent back home.

Peter was still not wanted in the house and he would spend most of his teenage years away, often literally having to sleep outside in the Ottawa winters. I don’t know much about this time in his life.

At around the age of twenty, Peter started to rob banks. He was eventually caught in 1983 and sent to the OCDC where he escaped. He was still at large when he walked into the Bayshore Shopping Centre on October 14th, 1983 in order to rob a bank. He ended up shooting and killing Constable David Utman. Peter was taken into custody later that day.

While in prison Peter has worked hard to turn his life around.

He got a Graphic, Commercial and Fine Arts Diploma by correspondence from Granton College in Toronto. He finished his high school and learned to play the guitar.

He has volunteered with several community agencies including the Prison Arts Foundation, John Howard Society, Rittenhouse, Prisoners’ with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), and the Prisoners’ Justice Action Committee.

In 2008, Peter received the Canadian Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Human Rights Watch.

In January 2015, Peter was diagnosed with terminal cancer and is dying in prison.

Mum and Dad never admitted to their part in raising a de-socialized and desperate young man. They were content to be represented in the media as hard-working parents who did the best they could with Peter. He has shown them more loyalty than they ever showed him. But after 50 years, I am tired of keeping my parent’s secrets for them.

The Lifer Video

I wrote The Lifer for my brother, Peter Collins, who is doing life at Bath Institution, Ontario.

All of the artwork in the video is by Peter. In September 2012, the prison confiscated all of his art-making equipment. Since then, there has been no paintings or drawing from Peter. I think that is a real shame.05cellabstract05

Small Town Hockey Night

Small Town Hockey Night is my submission to the CBC Hockey Song Contest. If you like it you can use the handy thumb icon to say so, and that information will be charted by the NSA for your own safety.

Mike Moore from the Wikkid Website came over yesterday and helped to mix the track. He also is singing some of the vocals. You can hear him up high in the chorus.

Daisy: A Story of Hope

Daisy: A Story of Hope is a slideshow that was drawn and written by my brother, Peter Collins. I’m doing the voice-over.

You will need to download the file in order to view it – the site (“”) that holds it will only play the audio. After downloading it, Quicktime or Windows Media Player will play it.