“You know what really makes me puke?” I’ve got my reasons for not biting whenever Kaukaughe cast a hook like that my way. More than two decades ago, my life-sentenced Ojibwa yard dog killed a police officer during a traffic stop gone wild. His split-second decisions that night mean he’ll likely steal his last breaths behind bars. If that doesn’t make him heave, I’m not so keen to know what does. “It’s those wannabe Injuns, wannabe Jesus freaks, wannabe whatever. They roll in here from some crackhouse and start demanding their Injun rights. An hour later they’re down at the church doing the Jesus thing. Next week they’ll be slapping a rag on their head and bowing east. I wish the sniveling little punks would just shut their blowholes and do their time.”
Kaukaughei’s what you might call a traditionalist – sort of a cross between Stephen Harper and Piltdown man. Not that I judge. A couple of decades in a dog cage could leave anyone pining for glory days. Except that, for Kaukaughe, the golden age in question was a time when hitmen, cop killers and bank robbers ruled the penitentiary food chain – and personal development meant learning to pick locks. In Kaukaughe’s world, the 21st century clink could use less Dr. Phil and a lot more Papillion. He’d make a great Public Safety Minister.
Regardless of your prison politics though, the quaint days of shut up and do your time in here are almost as done as the War of 1812. In their place has sprouted a generation of prisoners fully comfortable in shedding that which brought them here. Not that they have much choice. In a modern correctional landscape, you either grow or rot. And while an increasing number of prisoners are being fenced off from the first option, an even larger group are rejecting the second. For some of us old dogs, their appearance has been our first fresh air in years.
“Can you read this and tell me what you think?” said Julian. The 24-year-old lifer handed me a hand-inked page along with a knowing look. “It’s my letter…”
A few weeks ago, Julian told me he was writing a letter to his mother’s ex-boyfriend – a man who had sexually molested him 20 years ago. His intent is to forgive. As Julian said to me that night, he feels that forgiving this man is one step in the journey to forgive himself for the nasty things he has done. Not exactly a shallow insight. Especially for a young man who murdered another before his 19th birthday.
“I don’t care about spelling. Just tell me if you think I’m on the right track.” As he bubbled out of my cell and onto the tier, I assured him we would see each other again before day’s end. Then something kicked at the backseat of my reptilian brain.
“Hey Julian.” The red-head bounced back into my doorway. “Listen. This kind of thing can get – well, let’s just say it’s not easy. You start ripping stuff like this open inside of you, and you don’t know how it’s going to bleed. My door is open, OK? All day, every day. You need me, I’m here.” Julian offered a hand, strong-man style, and I took it. Then I pulled the half-Cree man-child in close – for a shoulder-check hug – and felt him as he lingered. Hopefully, Kaukaughe was off napping somewhere. Barf bags aren’t so easy to come by in the Big House.
Foucault once famously explained how the advent of the criminal class mirrored the rise of capitalism. In a market economy, the winners run banks, while the losers bed down in dumpsters, prison, and mental health facilities. But in the acreage between those two camps, a new demographic is budding. They’re the generation who questions everything – and don’t give a dime what the old guard thinks. They refuse to be judged. And for the ones who sprout up on my side of the barbed wire, they also reject the anachronistic axiom that what they are today is what they will be tomorrow. For these kids, criminal is a verb, not a noun.
“I saw that punk looking for you today. You know he’s a rat.”
I looked up at Kaukaughe from my new book – Fall of Giants. It’s Ken Follet’s fictional treatment of 1914 Europe – and a small group of cynical codgers who almost destroyed the world in their attempt to keep it old school.
“And you know he’s a rat because…?” I said.
“That’s what they say. Supposedly he testified against some guys in Alberta. He says he testified for them – but who knows. Look at the way he rolls around here always smiling and talking to the screws. He’s not even here six months and already he’s whining to get into programs.”
“So he’s an informant because he smiles and wants to take a program?”
Kaukaughe threw his hands up like some long-haired Don Cherry. “Exactly.”