My name is GreNãda. I’m a writer and a lifer. Mostly, I have a hard time remembering when I wasn’t. When I dream, I am a prisoner. When I write, I am free.
Christmas break 2009. For me, the end of the Mayan calendar was arriving early. Canadian Corrections had dubbed the prison I was living in, “the most drug-infested human warehouse” in its national portfolio. Hardly a month passed without a 5 to 7-day lockdown search – no showers, phone calls, or hot meals. Morale was low, anxiety was high, and my gated community was quickly becoming the Planet of the Apes. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
For more than a decade, I had watched Canadian public opinion steadily sour on the concept if inmate rehabilitation. And now, a newly elected federal government was promising to “restore balance” to a criminal justice system it defined as out of control. Their plan was as simple as it was simplistic. More stick, less carrot. A lot less. Like many experienced Canadian politicians, lawyers, and criminologists – my spidey senses told me there would be blood. The question was, what could I do to help staunch the flow.
A good game theorist will tell you that a problem well framed is a problem half solved. But in Canada, the problem of criminal justice has, for many years, been fuzzed by the static of rhetoric. While one camp decries the policies of “con-coddling” Liberals, the other howls about the Nazi state being woven by the Conservatives. Having lived a lifetime between the bi-polar bullhorns of these two competing realities, I felt strongly that none of their noise touched on the real problem. The true essence of crime lies in relationships. Whether I steal your hubcap or murder your husband, crime is a deeply personal interaction between real people – people with names, people with stories, people with character. Somewhere in the statistical sound bites of our age, we’ve lost sight of that. Body count has blinded us to crime’s true nature. So I set out to lift the veil – from a point of view that no one else in the Canadian dialogue was offering.
When my brother helped me to create my first blog – The Incarcerated Inkwell – I read everything I could on how to get read on the worldwide web. With over 30 million bloggers posting by 2010, it has certainly paid to be search-engine savvy. But as every writer since the introduction of the codex has learned, the medium never outweighs the message. Sorry Professor McLuhan, it’s the writing – and always will be. That’s where a journalist can help. A journalist should never be more than a fantastic storyteller. To be a great journalist, one should at least be a capable writer of fiction. And like any capable narrator, you must never let facts murder the truth. This is especially important when helping prisoners tell their story. Every prisoner I’ve ever met wanted to tell their story in the language of facts. But where facts reign, truth falls. Maybe that’s because to tell any story well, you need to stay obsessively naive to the plot. And how do you do that when everyone – from your editor, to the front desk prison guard, to the prisoner themselves – wants to play the spoiler? For me, the trick has been to stay open – as clear as the air at a Himalayan base-camp. Most times that means asking questions about everything other than “what happened?” I leave that stuff to the weirdo working the crime desk.
Luckily, early in my story, I stumbled across the mentorship of writers who knew how to ask great questions. Each week on Friday morning, a group of them came to our prison as volunteers and immersed us in the craft of creative thinking. That’s a good exercise for any scribe – even the highly honed and well paid. All writers are prisoners to the harsh whip of their own thoughts (think Edmond Dantès). A weekly group swim amongst the verbs, hacking out sentences just for the joy of it, is a great antidote for stale prose. Chances are it might even reduce your weekly alcohol consumption. And in a place where the only brand on the shelf is Chateau de Ketchup – 2012, that’s never a bad thing.
The other piece of this that has been vital for me concerns writing online. Forget everything you think you know about page views. In its first two years, Inkwell has yet to breach the high-tide mark of five hundred views for any post I’ve written. But after 4 months of regularly posting fresh, tightly written material, my blog served as a great link in an electronic query I made to a number of Canadian newspapers. One of them liked what they saw – which opened the door to my second blog: “LIVE From the House of the Dead.” It now runs weekly in both the Province.com and Canada.com online newspapers — with a daily readership in the hundreds of thousands. Just don’t ask me about page views. For me, the most telling numbers are 06-11-2012. That’s the day that the Correctional Service of Canada informatics division blocked all access on staff computers to both my blog, and weekly online column. The delicious irony that I can’t get out of prison, while my words can’t get in, tells me everything I need to know about readership. My readers – even those whose working life isn’t spent behind bars – are hungry for something more. And I think I’ve discovered what that something is.
After eighteen years of staring out a cell window I am sure that justice is the most complicated human issue there is. Determining which kid in a gaggle of preschoolers will become the cop, and which will be the robber, makes Martian weather prediction look like Sesame Street. And rebalancing the scales when that cop finally does catch the robber – or rapist, or embezzler, or arsonist – is certainly no easier. That’s why I don’t whine when so many consistently get it wrong. It’s also why I started writing a blog. If crime is a relationship, then justice is a conversation – a conversation involving the whole human family. It will require all of our collective wisdom, all of our experience, to find our way. And for those whose craft is writing (no matter what its moniker), we have the unique privilege to guide the world through its first real opportunity at that conversation. Gutenberg’s ingenious contraption made mass storytelling an elitist endeavor. Five hundred years later, cyberspace is finally letting the story be the story. Now if we could just cook up a twenty-dollar tablet computer that runs on co2 and spits out oxygen.