Thirty years. It doesn’t seem so bad when you say it fast. That’s how long it’s been since I first hauled my teenage shoulder chip into the fading west coast nightmare that was Oakalla jail. And while that British Columbia landmark lives only in photos now, its impressions linger in me as strongly as the hallmark stench of laundry soap that clung to its corridors.
“What happened?” Usually that’s the wrong question to ask in prison, especially when you’re a young nobody. But blood will do that – raising curiosity to the point of peril.
“Cop show,” said my neighbour, as if pulling back the curtains on the grand unified theory. I glanced again at the plasma smears leading to the tier’s main gate. Something told me that one question per day was probably the limit for a 17 year old in Canada’s most violent lockup. Then again, I was 17.
My self-appointed guru broke it down for me. When it comes to communal TV viewing, jail has its own hierarchy of needs. Sports trumps all. Then comes the news. In the mid 1980’s, music videos nudged their way onto the playlist – as long as it didn’t bump off a fresh installment of Cheers. But under no circumstance, in no corner of the universe, during this lifetime or the next, was it tolerable to watch a crime drama. Or even ask. That day’s involuntary blood donor had made the mistake of polling the crowd for a possible TJ Hooker review. Maybe they let him watch it in the infirmary.
But it’s a kinder, gentler clink these days. In the Canadian penitentiary, community TV rooms are as done as the drive-in – replaced by the same law governing all 21st century human relationships: self-absorption. Nobody – not even the turnkeys – care what you do (or watch) in your 6 x 10-foot postage stamp, as long as you keep it to yourself. Maybe that’s what makes this week’s water fountain fodder such a thunder clap of irony.
“Pigs killing pigs – what’s not to like?” asked a new lifer named Stan. The topic was the new police drama Low Winter Sun. And 30 years after a cop show would get a convict’s skull cracked, everybody’s watching.
“I don’t know what the problem is with that bald pig though – the main one,” said Seagull. “That pig they dumped was a serious goof. He killed the other pig’s old lady. You gotta draw the line somewhere.”
Not exactly Starsky and Hutch, but what can you do? After the Conservatives fired all the prison librarians, it’s either cop shows or 24-hour cable news. At least on cop shows, they Tazer the teens before they shoot them. And if the only choice is Dexter or Honey Boo Boo, which one do you want your 8 year old watching? ‘Nuf said.
Like most Canadians of a certain age, I grew up with parents who circumscribed my TV habits. Smashing Yosemite Sam over the head with a 100lb sledge hammer before discharging an artillery piece in his face was acceptable. Even cheering Mohammed Ali as he beat Joe Frazier into a monosyllabic poster child for reconstructive surgery passed the test. But McLeod? Or The Rockford Files? Fuggedaboudit.
And it wasn’t even so much the violence. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was born to people with a pretty evolved sense of humanity. For 2 kids whose secular education ended in high school pregnancy, they sure asked a lot of deep questions.
“Do you ever notice that those detective shows always end the same way? The bad guy gets shot or locked up. The good guy gets the pretty girl. Why is that?” I remember my mom drifting that question out over the family dinner table one night, like a Syrian gas attack. I had tried every trick in my 10-year-old arsenal to convince her that the bald lollipopping cop coming on channel 6 that night was actually a moral guide for the ages. And if I didn’t watch the episode that night, then the very next day would see me debarred from every social network of any relevance in the entire neighbourhood, likely leading to a drooling death of alcoholism and lifetime incarceration.
“What kind of world would it be if the only way to solve problems was shootings or prison?” Mom said, answering her own question with a question. Great. Every other kid’s on the block had a mom reading Dr. Spock. I get yellow beans at the dinner table of Descartes. And now look where I live.
A couple weeks back, Seagull asked the group a question loaded with deep significance. Why are their no zombie cop shows? There’s zombie strippers, zombie fish, and probably even extreme zombie couponing. Why no zombie law enforcement?
After a robust and caffeinated debate, it was determined that a show featuring zombie cops would be too much like real life, and do we really need another reality cop show? Then, just as we were moving to the next world issue, a young newbie added his life experience to the coffee chatter by informing us old cave-dwellers that there are at least 2 modern video game classics featuring zombie cops. In one, the undying detectives can be lit up with a flame thrower – to the sound of crackling bacon. This news, of course, did much to bridge the generation gap.
Oh, if Arthur Conan Doyle could see us now.