A few years back a twenty three-year-old waif named Bruce was transferred to the maximum-security prison I was in. His blemish free skin and curly, shoulder length locks made the first-time offender look like he was twelve. We took to calling him Blondie. Before coming to us, Blondie had spent a few months smoking dope and masturbating at medium security — habits he had evidently honed during a decade of squatting in the basement at his single, working-class mother’s house.
“So, what brings you to the pen?” I asked.
“I wanted to go to university.”
Though it’s not my habit to pry, Bruce’s response surely begged a few more questions. Didn’t you notice that the school bus had gun ports? was the first one that came to mind. But before I could query the queer lad, he offered up a salacious story that is really a tale for our times.
“I was kicking back at home, playing some vids and trying to figure out what to do. I had a couple of jobs after high school — you know, Tim Horton’s, Foot Locker, that kind of thing — but I never really made any money. So I started thinking that I should rob a jewellery store. That way, if I got away with it, I could use the money to go to university. And if I got caught, I’d just come here and take university.”
Sounded like a foolproof plan to me. Then again, I’m not exactly what you’d call balanced.
“The problem is, my cousin used to work there,” Bruce said. “Somebody recognized my voice. I got four years for it. Then I get to the reception center and find out that the university program in here was cancelled years ago. Man, I was pissed. After that, things really went downhill.”
While Bruce seemed moderately distressed that day, it didn’t take long for him to find his comfort zone. A month later, I dropped by his cell to see how he was holding up — and found him neurons deep in a new Nintedo-64 that his mom had dropped off during her weekly visit. Super Mario held his attention like a vice, and the ceramic sheen glazing his eyes said he probably wouldn’t be passing a piss test this week. Blondie may have missed the turnoff to the halls of higher learning, but at least he won the consolation prize. He was home.
I have some really bad news for those Canadians who think that making prison “tougher” will make the streets safer. Ninety-five percent of all criminals are idiots. And no, I don’t count myself out of that conservative estimate. As I often remind those quick to praise me, my best thinking put me here — a place where most of us couldn’t draw a straight line between cause-and-effect even if you held the crayon for us. Sorry. I know that comes as a great disappointment to the many folks out there who want to “teach them bastards a lesson they won’t forget.” But it gets even worse. According to writer Charles Murray, in his new book, one the biggest reasons that the bottom twenty percent of society (the permanent address of the North American criminal class) are only rowing with one oar is because so many of us actually are bastards.
According to Murray, in 1960, more than eighty-five percent of middle aged America was married — including white folks who worked at blue-collar and low-skilled employment. That same year, only two percent of all white births in the US were to unwed mothers. By 2008, the US marriage rate amongst those with no post-secondary education, and employed at low-skill jobs had plummeted to forty-eight percent — and single mother births in that same demographic rose to twenty times higher. “We have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions,” Murray commented recently in The Wall Street Journal. And he’s not referring to whether folks prefer pro-wrestling over Swan Lake. By culture he means the values you pass on to your kids, and defining what it means to be a man; jobs best not left to a videogame console — or a prison, no matter how “tough” it is.
Bruce came to mind this week because he recently showed up in my mail. I was surprised, as I hadn’t heard from him in more than five years. He wanted to let me know that he’s getting out of prison — again. This will be his third federal sentence since we first met. And even though he’s not a kid anymore, he still sounds youthfully buoyant. He quit using dope more than two years ago. Says he found God. Apparently he’s even made some friends that have families, work, and don’t smoke crack. His mom says he can stay with her until he gets on his feet. He’s going to freak when he sees the new PlayStation 3