Author Archive: I.M. GreNada
The local John Howard Society ran a contest recently, inviting incarcerated writers to submit thoughts on ?resiliency?. I grinned at that. Webster calls resiliency, ?the ability of an object to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched or squashed.? In former times it has gone by the monickers: grit, guts, or mettle. Few communities are more practiced at that ?bounce-back? than the one behind bars.
Prison is the exclusive collection of those bent, stretched or squashed in almost every way. If prison is a disease, its symptoms are substance abuse, suicide, clinical depression, divorce, assault, sex-addiction, and bankruptcy. Yet, prisoners survive, and some even thrive, in the hate-factory of incarceration. How? This contest provided the perfect excuse to find out. Besides, I needed the prize money; my phone card has a voracious appetite.
The past year has visited many changes upon Canadian prisons. One of the big ones affecting this prison is the changes to our garden program. For eighteen years, the garden provided eligible prisoners a space to salve their regrets in the healing loam of mother earth. But in prison, people are not the only things that get bent, stretched or squashed. Last fall, the Powers That Be locked the garden down, then bulldozed it. While circling in the yard one evening, I stopped to survey the plot that had once served both men and bird as an oasis of solitude. What a wretched sight. Soil that once produced fruitage for local food banks and prisoner?s families, now serves as a boneyard for construction debris and wind-gathered water-bottles. The village of garlic stalks, mint leaves, and rose beds has been overrun by crabgrass and rodent dens. It felt like standing at the grave marker of a best friend.
In my lament, something captured my attention; a familiar green hue. I stared, trying to make sense of the sight. A leaf ? no, two. No, three ? in a row. I know those leaves, I thought. They are? ?Blackberry,? I burst out, loud enough for passing prisoners to shake there head in pity at my obvious dimentia. ?For decades, guards, wardens, and grounds staff here have waged war on these spirited bushes. The guards hate the way the plant?s thorny arms gash and puncture when they probe its depths searching for contraband. The warden hates the potent home-brew its berries are infamous for. The grounds-crew’s boss hates the briar?s indestructibility. On warden?s orders, he has pick-axed, chain-sawed, roto-tilled, blowtorched, strip-mined, and DDT?ed that bush. Every time, it ?springs back quickly into shape?. If there ever was an icon for prison resiliency, it is this prison?s blackberries. Tell me, ol? bramble, how do you keep on going? How does a bush that feeds solely on convict urine and sewer rat excrement continue to suck up hate and give only sweetness in return? I had to know. The answer might feed more than my phone card.
After an evening in the company of Encyclop?dia Britannica, I now know the Blackberry?s secret. It?s the roots ??roots that stretch deep and far. The reason they can?t kill the prison?s blackberry bush is that the bush? isn?t in the prison. Its home is under the fence and across the road, on the neighbouring farmer?s property. The shoots that break ground inside the razor wire are an extension of a large family; a family that is free in the truest sense. Prisoners know that secret too. The ones that recover most quickly from distress are those that stay well connected to their people on the other side of the fence.
Another trick blackberry roots use is that they branch out, connecting with other, different plants. Those who have tried to uproot blackberries quickly find out that the roots break off deep in the ground. Those roots are entwined with other plants that act as an anchor; plants that hold on tighter than the wrenching gardener does. Within weeks, the blackberry bush is back ??in full bloom. This also works for people. ?Widening out? in association with others ? even those very different from us ? gives the best chance at re-sprouting when powerful forces dislodge us. It sure has worked for me.
The most surprising thing I learned about the plant?s roots involves its pedigree. To most, the blackberry briar looks menacing ? all razor-sharp thorns and tangle. Even its fruit is an acquired taste. But the blackberry knows something that few others do. This unnerving hedge is actually of the genus Rosaceae. The blackberry bush is really a rose in disguise. Like the blackberry, prisoners need to remember their roots. We aren?t just criminals, addicts, convicts, or numbers. We are also children, parents, husbands, and wives. We are siblings, cousins, grandchildren, grandparents, and best friends. Our genus is the human family. That truth has saved many a prisoner?s life when powerful forces were squashing them out of shape.
A famous man once said, ?Wisdom is proved righteous by its works.? I am thinking of that today as I remember the Herculean efforts ?made to break the back of that bush. I wonder when the Powers That Be will ever figure out that the bush they can?t kill makes a killer jelly without rival. Maybe there?s a story in that.
?Something?s wrong,? she said. Facing each other at one of the food-court-like tables in the prison visiting room, my sister and I were chatting when something behind me distracted her. Spinning my seat, I saw a prisoner named Dale. He seemed to be sagging, while his visitor ? an eye-catching brunette ? slapped him in the side of the head and yelled at him. But this was no lover?s squabble. With every slap, her face broadcast surging panic. ?What?s wrong? Dale, what?s wrong with you?? she shrieked. Dale slumped forward in his chair, stopping only when his face hit the table. Springing up, I dashed towards the distressed couple.
My day had been full. CSC was trying something new, and my sister and I were participants. As part of their drug interdiction strategy, Canadian prisons had recently installed Ion Scanners. But the technology and its application has serious flaws. Visitors to the prison – including spiritual advisors, lawyers, and CSC staff ? often fail the Ion Scanner?s swab test. When the machine alarms for prohibited drugs, it often means refused entry for the visitor. Alarm results are then used to justify visiting sanctions stretching into months. Due to our lengthy visiting experience, my sister and I had been invited to a two-day mediation on the topic. The emotional seminar now completed, we had hoped for some sanctuary in the visiting room. But prison very rarely gives you what you need.
Reaching the stricken prisoner, I grabbed his hulking shoulder, and lifted him level. ?Hey pal, you O.K.?? I asked. His face answered what his lips couldn?t. The bluish grey skin, bulging, glazed over eyes, and foam bubbles coating his lips told a life or death. Not good.
Quickly hooking Dale from behind, I winched him to his feet. First-aid training from long ago took over as I fired up the Heimlich manoeuvre. Handling the 260-pound unconscious prisoner took all my strength, with adrenaline on top. When a half-dozen jolts to his abdomen changed nothing, I bellowed for my sister to get help. Too late. In the thirty seconds it took for the visiting officer, Mr. Mender to arrive, the prisoner died in my arms. Though Mr. Mender and I worked together to revive the stricken man, he never responded. With Dale?s two-month-pregnant fianc? looking on in shock, his eyes milked over, and his warrant of committal expired in the worst possible way. His death certificate would read, ?asphyxiation?. What it wouldn?t reveal is that he had choked to death on a condom-sheathed package of crystal-methamphetamine smuggled into the institution? past the foolproof technology of the Ion Scanner.
Illicit drugs and the blood-red web they weave are the signature issue of the 21st century. In North America, the largest contributor to imprisonment is drug abuse. Dope?s greatest advocates ? depression, anxiety, anger, and fear ? rule the hallways in prison. This truth is something the war-on-drugs crowd cannot concede. How could they? It means admitting that the chief cause of drug abuse in prison ? and the violence that walks along side ? is the prison environment itself. Hell will freeze waiting for that admission from ?just-say-no? enthusiasts.
Debates aside, the day Dale left here in a hearse – with unborn child and fianc? trailing in the backseat of a cop car ? broke many hearts. My sister left in tears, this being her first front-row experience with human death. Wes Mender, the officer that had joined me in trying to save Dale?s life, pulled me into a side room and privately embraced me, thanking me for my effort. I commended him in return. We then collected ourselves, restoring our costumes before rejoining the roles of ‘keeper and kept’. The Warden ? who had been in his office, finishing up activities related to the Ion Scanner mediation ? looked miserable. The evening?s implications hung over him like a thundercloud. After ensuring my sister?s safe exit, I headed for the running track to clear my head.
As I jogged, one word kept time in my skull like a metronome. Why? Why did Dale and his girlfriend do something so stupid? I knew his circumstance, and that drugs had brought him back to prison on a recent parole violation. Why would he make such a rookie mistake, with so much at stake? Why would the system put a man with an obvious drug problem back into a notoriously drug-infested prison? Why not send him directly to a substance-abuse treatment centre? Why – in tackling drug abuse – do Canadians continue to do the same things repeatedly, and expect different results? Isn?t that insanity?
Rounding the back stretch, my mind echoed one of Georgie Mowers? pet mantras: ?Don?t try to make sense out of nonsense, kid. It?ll drive ya nuts.? Drawing a deeper breath, I voided my mind and increased the pace. Ten laps to go.
“Kale, what the heck happened?” I asked. Kale rolled towards me down the prison’s wheelchair ramp, his right leg elevated.
“I broke my leg playing baseball,” he grumbled. He looked annoyed, like he had answered the same question too many times.
“No way. That was you? I heard about it. Is it true the cops stood around and did nothing?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Can you believe this place?”
This exchange, conducted on the sidewalk last week, arose from an incident on the baseball field the previous night. During rec. time, some of the men had been throwing the ball around. Kale jumped to catch a high throw. He’s a big guy, and when he landed wrong, it cracked his femur – right down the centre. The guy who told me about it said that Kale laid there shrieking for five minutes before his friends were able to drag him to the team benches. But what happened next expanded the damage from Kale’s leg to the rest of the prison.
When it became evident that Kale was not going to ‘walk it off’, one of the men – Penthouse Perry – had the sense to go for help. I’m not sure what he said to them, but it only took moments for a convoy of nine guards to arrive on the baseball diamond. One had an orange medical gurney in tow. As they arrived, their training kicked in. First they surveyed the situation for danger, or evidence of a crime. Has the offender been assaulted? Piped? Shanked? Is he ‘in a condition other than normal?’ Their initial checklist completed, they then proceeded to do nothing. Nine highly-trained, burly men stood in a circle, grinning while refusing to help, or even touch the injured prisoner. They certainly didn’t assist him onto the gurney. A cloud of peer pressure surrounded them, with each refusing to be the first to offer assistance to a “Con“. As Kale’s friends finally helped him onto the stretcher, he screamed from the pain. Penthouse Perry said that Kale’s hands had been shaking visibly, and he was pasty white. One of the guards — grinning – said, “That looks like it hurts.” On cue, three other guards snickered. Their conduct became the talk of the prisoners that week, with comments ranging from resentment to venomous hatred.
On my way to work this morning, two female staff members asked if they could speak with me for a moment. Mrs. Dent is a P.O., and Mrs. Singh is a programs officer. I know them well, and have a good working relationship with both. Mrs. Singh asked, “If you were in the program’s building, and you saw a female staff member fall down, would you help her up?”I smiled. Is this a trick question? Where’s the hidden camera? I thought. She did not return the smile.
“Yeah, of course,” I answered honestly.
“See?” Mrs. Dent interjected. “I told you, Ranjit. Not everyone is that way.” Mrs. Singh then explained to me how three days prior, while exiting her office, she had slipped, landing on her knees with an audible crack. As she lay there mewling in pain, twenty young prisoners had callously stood by. No one asked if she was alright. No one offered a hand. Most stood there staring, and some even chuckled at her mishap. I should mention that Mrs. Singh is an attractive Indo-Canadian who typically dresses in fashionable, well arranged outfits. If her collapse had occurred in any local mall, she would have had to beat back all the male hands offering assistance. Without doubt, some of those hands would have belonged to the men who laughed at her misfortune in here. As she told her story, I looked down at the sidewalk, shaking my head from side to side in a silent message of shame. “I’m sorry that happened to you, Mrs. Singh. I’m embarrassed for us all,” I said. She could not know that “all” included the guards that had conducted themselves so shamefully the night of Kale’s injury. Before continuing my march to work, I posed a rhetorical question: “It makes you wonder what the heck this place is, doesn’t it?”
In Canada, incarcerating a man costs $101,000 per year. In the U.S., the same man in the same prison costs $24,000. The 300-percent mark-up is due to staff wages, and correctional program budgets. In Canada, base salary for a walk-off-the-street COI is $53,000. The year-over-year increase for that figure is steep. $72,000 salaries for a guard are the norm. Taxpayers bear this burden because they trust their correctional system to ensure public safety, humane treatment of prisoners, and that those entering as criminals will exit as pro-social citizens. Considering the $2.3-billion-per-year price tag, it’s a realistic expectation.
Nevertheless, in any community, there is an element that weighs more than gobs of cash. That element is culture. Since Canada’s first prison opened in 1835, both keepers and kept have worked hard to sustain an “us vs. them” culture. Recently, there have been determined attempts to change that culture. But any progress made in one camp is often met by regression in the other. Why? “Because so few people — including those who support it financially — know what prison really is, or is supposed to be.” This vacuum of understanding creates a perfect breeding ground for propaganda. It is the propaganda surrounding prison that most validates the toxic ‘guard vs prisoner’ philosophy. ?The propaganda that prisoners are scum, and guards are pigs. ?The propaganda that prisoners should suffer as much as possible. ?The propaganda that keepers and kept are enemies in a war-zone of crime. ?Until that fog of propaganda is burned off, Canada’s high-priced of healing will only be houses of hurt. ?Maybe I can help.
Jail-break. For prisoners, the word is an adrenaline rush of conspiracy, murmured at brush-fire pace. For the public, prison breach is an alarm cried in air-raid broadcasts. With the “Red Threat” now a distant memory, a prisoner on the lam is the “duck-and-cover-drill” of the new Canadian century. Dramatics aside, a typical escape from prison is neither as clever, nor life-threatening as imagined. Instead, when one of prison’s ten-counts-per-day comes up a convict short, the results can even be wonderful.
Georgie Mowers is a 76-year-old lifer, and has been in the system since Harry Truman dropped the bomb. With ivory locks flooding over the collar of his prison-green jacket, and a matching 1970’s hockey moustache, he often holds court on the sidewalk in front of the library. Two weeks ago, as he and I sat there waiting to be paged for a visit, I asked him about his visitor. He responded with a story so riveting that when they called my name for visits, I made him finish before leaving his company.
Prior to returning to this high-medium prison three years ago, Georgie had progressed all the way to a minimum-security camp. But his term there didn’t go well. He and his P.O. had a sharp difference of opinion over his upcoming release. Georgie responded by packing a couple of blankets, some tobacco, and pocket cash into a sack, before strolling out of the fenceless compound into the wilds of British Columbia. After a night of shivering cold, he walked the closest logging road to a local Inn that he knew sold spirits. There, he saw his picture in the newspaper, with a 200-word-article about a desperate, dangerous killer on the loose after a dramatic prison break. Pulling his collar high and cap down low, he paid for the mickey of brandy before slipping out quietly. Georgie told me how, after reading that article, he knew he would never make it on the run. The way the paper described him, he’d be lucky if some nut didn’t shoot him on sight. He then told me how admitting that depressed him more than words. He knew he had to turn himself in.
On his death-march back to prison camp, a white van pulled up behind, slowing to a crawl. As it crept up beside him, the electric window on the passenger side rolled down. “Hello there. Nice weather isn’t it?” a schooled British accent called out from the driver’s seat. “You wouldn’t be the fellow that absconded from the prison camp would you?” As we sat there together chuckling, Georgie told me how he had nearly swallowed his government sponsored dentures right then and there. He then went on to detail how that candid question – asked by a stranger on a deserted logging road – had been the opening move in a remarkable relationship.
The day after Georgie surrendered himself, the van’s driver realized that he had indeed been talking to the infamous Georgie Mowers. But rather than locking the doors of his trailer in a trembling fear of “what if,” Nigel S. Bostlebottom made an immediate visit to the local prison camp. There, he enquired about the welfare of the kind-faced man that had refused Nigel’s offer of a ride. When informed that Georgie had been transferred to a higher security prison 25 miles away, Nigel thought it natural to ask how he could visit him. For the second time in two days, Nigel’s question left a respondent speechless. The guards were shocked that anyone from the community would want to have association with such an obviously dangerous and desperate criminal. But Nigel would not be deterred, and eventually received the proper forms. Four weeks later, while Georgie watched the Fifth Estate in his cell, a young prisoner filled the doorway. “They’re calling you to visits Georgie,” he said.
“Naw, it ain’t me,” Georgie replied. When you are a 76-year-old prisoner with a 65-year criminal record, no one is coming to visit. Everyone you know is either dead or lives on your cellblock. But when another prisoner confirmed the announcement, Georgie decided to walk to the office, if only to inform the visiting staff of the obvious mistake. That’s how Georgie and Nigel met for the second time.
As we sat there together, he told me with a smile that this evening’s visit marked an anniversary: Twenty-eight months of friendship. Like Georgie, Nigel is an older gentleman. Like Georgie, he has led a remarkable — though very dissimilar — life. Their relationship comes without the baggage of romance, co-dependency, or any other unhealthy trait. They are – in the truest sense – friends.
Recently, Nigel wrote a letter to the Warden, and Parole Board. In it, he expressed his qualifications as a human of sober judgment. He encouraged those in charge to give serious thought to letting Georgie out. He reminded those decision makers how in Sudan (that great pillar of human rights), prisoners are automatically released at 70 years of age — regardless of their crime or behaviour in prison. His letter concluded with the question of what keeping a man of Georgie’s age in prison says about us as Canadians. Evidently, Nigel has a life-long habit of asking questions that stop people in their tracks. I’m sure that’s what Georgie likes about him the most.
Churchill once explained Russia as, ‘A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. Of his many quotes, that one best defines the prison experience. Even those living the dystopia of a caged life smirk in wonder at the loopy things we see. Like the time I met Bea.
My first encounter with Bea came in the exercise yard of a prison in western Canada. The prison is notorious for the volume of street drugs it contains, and is often referred to as a ‘campus of East Hastings‘. One day, while heading out to clear my head on the yard’s half-mile running track, the sight of a fellow prisoner stopped me like a bullet. Most prisoners use rec. time to pass a baseball or soccer ball around, lift weights, or walk endless laps on the loose-gravel track. Not this convict. As I rounded a corner leading to the elevated upper yard, there on the shoulder lay Bea – on a large Budweiser beach towel, bottom to the sun, wearing nothing but a hot pink thong that accentuated well bronzed buns.
Now, before your mind rails in a chorus of, “I knew it!” you should know that there are no co-ed prisons in the CSC inventory. Confused? Try being me. I had just returned to prison from a spree of extremely-unauthorized-activities-while-on-parole. My partner had run off with the money, guns, and my wife. My foul mood hung over me like a cloud. Finally, in search of solitude and clarity, I am confronted with what looks like – but cannot be – a buns-in-the-sun ‘she’. What would Churchill say?
I wish I had a day off my sentence for every time I’ve heard outmates expressing amazement at ‘how normal inmates are‘. What amazes me is their reaction to this discovery. How long will it take to figure out that people are people are people, whether they are having a good day, or a bad decade?
As for Bea – christened Barry at birth — prison is not the only challenging circumstance in her? er, his life. Bea is a traveler in the journey called ‘gender reassignment’ – an ambiguous phrase for plucking the plumbs and changing an outsy to an insy. Canadian prison policy is that drag queens be held in all-male prisons if they still have the guy goods. Sensible, non? At a time when even fish can’t figure their sex out, gender confused humans are hardly news. Then, when one of these burdened beings finds themselves in breach of criminal law, they have to sleep somewhere. Since incarcerating a penis in an all-female prison creates more problems than it solves, CSC decided that if you can hit the urinal from twelve inches out, you bunk with the boys. Where the intrigue begins is in a policy that also allows these disoriented debutants to cross-dress. This explains the mad mirage confronting me on the track, that July of long-ago.
Bea & I would cross paths often in the years following that summer of the mad mirage. Like me, he is a lifer, and also like me, he has a temper. Even though he’s a little guy with big boobs, he can pick a fight while locked in an empty room. It’s not surprising that eventually Bea and I would run into each other in maximum security.
The max I speak of is painted into the setting of postcard-pretty mountains and farms. Despite its metal detectors, restricted movement, high resolution camera’s and machine gun-wielding marksmen, the administration makes an effort to keep the prisoners calm. Maximum security houses those who have created chaos at lower security: escape, murder, rioting, staff assaults, etc. Keeping these guys cool is not a liberal, con-coddling concession, but a security strategy gleaned through experience. The prison has a fully equipped gymnasium, a weight room, and large exercise yard with a half mile long asphalt-paved running track.
One day, when entering the exercise yard, I had a sudden attack of Bea-je-vu. The Indian princess invaded more than my field of vision. Wearing a pair of Daisy Dudes Bea had painted his face with thick lash manscara, a shade of eye-shadow best described as violent, Revlon #10 lipstick, and enough rouge to mistake him for a domestic assault victim. A too-short lemon halter top completed the ensemble. Yet, for once it wasn’t Bea’s attire that elicited unblinking stares. It was what he was doing. Bea? was exercising.
Feet sheathed in powder blue rollerblades, ear-bud cord and raven hair streaming in the wind, he rolled past in full sashay, howling the lyrics to that feline favourite, “Don’t you wish your girl fiend was hot like me,” by the Pussycat Dolls. Next to me stood Texas Dan, a young prisoner who had arrived at the max only that week. As Bea skated by, the Texas Dan’s head followed his eyes in disbelief.
“Well, there’s something you don’t see everyday,” I said to him. His gaze returned to me, speechless and jaw agape.
The thing you learn quickly about prison is that the people here are just as wonderful, evil, ordinary, screwed up, focused, deviant, moral, lost, and found as they are in any other community. Prison life is just like any other life — albeit more concentrated. Maybe if old Winston had looked at Russia through that lens, it would have made more sense.