The Incarcerated InkWell

Federal Inmate in a Canadian Prison with a Life Sentence writes about prison life

Author Archive: I.M. GreNada

What? Don’t look at me.

Of the many great and varied mysteries in human biology, perhaps the most profound is how seven grown men can gather for a Sunday afternoon quaff of chili and ginger ale where nobody farted. Or at least such was the claim, when the telltale waft grew too pungent for polite dismissal.

“Oh my gawd,” said Kaukaughe. “What the…”

Around the table, denials flew faster than an Elections Canada robo-call inquiry. “Not me,” said one.

“He who smelt it, dealt it,” said another.

“I’m sorry, Senator, but I have no recollection of that,” quipped the Chinese kid in the corner. And then, because we are a bunch of uncivilized mouth-breathers who are comfortable in our own filth, we did what convicts do. We shovelled another snow scoop full of beans into our maws and just carried on.

It may be more than a coincidence that last weekend’s noxious nosh popped into my head today, as I read about something called “the great Pacific garbage patch.” First discovered in 1997 by sailor Charles Moore, the “patch” is a fetid ten-million ton soup of particulated plastic waste twice the size of Texas, swirling in a ten-million square mile toilet bowl known as the North Pacific Gyre. With concentrations of DDT and PCB’s a million times higher than the surrounding sea water, it has become the main snackbar for seabirds, fish, turtles, larger mammals, and even zooplankton — all of which store the toxic chemicals in their fatty tissue. That would be the same fatty tissue you will be slurping back at the Sushi bar this week–the same breaded fish flesh your kids will be feasting on for supper this Tuesday. Bon appetit.

If there’s a consolation in any of this, it may be found in that ubiquitous North American absolution, it’s not our fault. The North Pacific contains only one of five such global gyres (an ocean feature created by trade winds and circular currents). According to Captain Moore, every single one of them is full of plastic — which means that you can’t blame Canadians for the smell. After all, plastic has been around for more than a century now, and these days it’s everywhere — wrapping our bodies, our homes and our food. As the human family becomes ever more addicted to its smart phones, iPads, plasma T.V.’s and bottled water, that will only increase. Last year alone, the world produced 300 million tons of the stuff, and about half of it was classified as minimal use. That means it will be discarded anywhere from immediately to a year from now. Care to guess where the rubber ducky’s share of it goes?

“Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastic that we have ever put into the oceans still remains,” research scientist Anthony Andrady told Rolling Stone magazine back in 2009.” Plastic is still plastic. The materials still remains a polymer. Polyethylene — the most pervasive type of disposable plastic — is not biodegraded in any practical time scale. There is no mechanism in the marine environment to biodegrade that long of a molecule. “Nothing, that is, except the animals that live there — all of who now (thanks to scorched sea fishing practices) make it into our food supply. It’s our crap. And now we are eating it — literally. Talk about a buy signal for Pepto Bismal.

This spring, Dr. David Suzuki — the closest thing Canada has to Jacques Cousteau — stepped down as head of the venerable foundation bearing his name. During his Canadian tour to explain why, he paid a visit to the Globe & Mail, where he talked with self-professed doom and gloom denier Margaret Wente.

“We didn’t sell the right message,” Suzuki says — in an admission that the environmental movement has probably reached a dead end. He thinks that instead of arguing that environmental responsibility could co-exist with economic growth, the movement should have argued the need to abandon the quest for economic growth altogether. “We thought if we stop this dam, if we stop that clear cutting, that’s a great success. But we didn’t deal with the underlying destructiveness, which was the mindset that attacked the forest, or wanted to build the dam.” Really? Or is it just as likely that what Suzuki really missed was the billions of minds that gave no damn at all.

“There’s no way you can clean all this up — it’s impossible,” Captain Moore says as he inspects a jug full of murky, yellowed water filled with plastic confetti. The sample was pulled out of the drink about a thousand miles southwest of Los Angeles — near Hawaii. “Right now we’re catching all this stuff with a small net. What are you going to do, drag the entire ocean with these nets? No matter where you go, there’s no getting over it. It’s a plastic ocean now.”

Sounds a lot like shut up and eat your beans to me.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

Last (I promise) walk past the chopping block

A few years back I got some bad legal news. Really bad. It came as the result of a long-ago southern vacation, where I had helped myself to one of the neighbour’s banks. No shots fired, and if I remember right, I even offered my sincere thanks on the way out the door. Not that I’m excusing myself. I knew what I did was wrong and that, if caught, the price could be immeasurably greater than the pocket change I slithered away with that day. But then, who plans to get caught?

Twelve years later… I received a government manuscript on flat pink paper. It read like Sophie’s Choice; if ever I attempt release by parole on my Canadian life sentence, I will be immediately surrendered to an American prison sentence that will eat me alive. Frying pan or fire — your choice kid. Who knew that death came on pink paper?

Human reaction to bad news is so predictable that we finally invented a name for it: the grieving process. I went through all the steps. Denial, bargaining, anger, whatever, whatever. Once I had done all that I reasonably could to work things out with the aggrieved parties (to no avail), I settled on the inevitable: toxic detritus from complex metabolic processes, expelled from the bowels, happens. Nothing new in that. Somewhere today someone’s morning tinkle will be an unnerving shade of pink. It will be cancer. Not the card they wanted. And it’s not like they robbed a bank to get it. But when that’s the hand you’re dealt, what comes next? Hold? Or fold?

In the dozen years it took for my bullet to find me I had become a husband, a father and a valued member of a tight-knit spiritual community. That made folding — riding a belt-buckle necktie off the top bunk — a non-starter. Nor would I try my luck at that convict game of chance, Beat the Fence. For me, escape is just another version of the death card.

On the other side of the house, I’m only forty-five years old. I don’t smoke, drink, or use drugs. I’m a vegetarian and exercise regularly. I meditate daily, have a happy marriage, and a relatively low stress level. I’m going to live forever — for now. And while there are some days when I wonder what eternity will look like through bars, it’s not often. For cons like me, the light at the end of the tunnel could only be an oncoming train. Is there any point in looking?

In 2005, I became the coordinator for a pilot-project called Prisoner Advocacy. A dozen long-term prisoners — including my hippie bro, Ryan — received training in how to assist our fellow prisoners with legal issues. At the end of our tier was an old lifer named Harley. Ten years earlier, Harley had shot a drunk bully to death after the man threatened to sodomise Harley’s young son. The facts of the case pointed pretty clearly to manslaughter, not murder — the difference being a life sentence. But in Harley’s case, small-town politics played a bigger role than they should have. Then, a rookie mistake, when Harley used his divorce lawyer for a murder trial. Oops. The price was life — with no eligibility of parole for ten years. For a 67-year-old with emphysema and a raging cholesterol count, it was a death sentence. For Ryan and me it was a chance to try out our new jail-breaking skills.

It took us three years to get Harley in front of the National Parole Board. He fought us every step of the way. “I ain’t taking no bullshit violence prevention program. I don’t care if I have to die here. I shot that asshole in self-defence. I’m not a violent guy. You see what it says here?” He pointed to a fading tattoo on his rib cage. It must have been forty years old.

“NO BULLSHIT,” I read out loud.

“Right. No. Bull. Shit. I’m not one of these crack heads robbing 7-11’s or beating up grandma for her purse. And I’m not going to sit in some classroom full of them and listen to their bullshit stories about the bullshit they’ve been through in their bullshit lives and how it’s all going to change when they get out. Bullshit!”

Eventually, Harley took the program. It was the only way out. Then we coached him on how to sit through a two-hour parole hearing without using his favourite expletive — or showing off his tattoo. Ryan was sitting right next to the salty biker when the Parole Board told him he could go to a halfway house, and that in six months he could go home and live with his daughter and her girls. Apparently there were tears. No Bullshit.

A year later Ryan came by my cell for a tea. He had an envelope with him — pictures from Harley. As I thumbed through the stack, one caught my eye and burned itself in like a brand. It was of three young girls — draped like moonbeam pixies — over what could only be Hemmingway’s Old Man from the sea. Harley. And three granddaughters that were not even born the year their mother’s father was sentenced to death. Michelangelo would have begged for such joyous muses.

While life behind bars is no parent’s dream for their son, there’s one thing about it: It’s still life.

I’ll hold.

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

Athens’ Greatest hits

Hitler. Mussolini. Perón. Botha. Nixon. Ho Chi Minh. Milosevic. Besides infamy, there’s another thread that weaves these winners together in fraternity. They all came to power in free, democratic elections that teenagers around the globe are so liberally trading their blood for these days. Makes you wonder if they wouldn’t be better served by a history book than a Twitter feed.

Amongst the many wonderful things that sitting in a rent-controlled prison cell for two decades affords you is time to think. So, lately I’ve been pondering the power of propaganda. Webster’s defines it as “information, rumours, etc. deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.” By that ocean-wide definition, almost everything that TV, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet delivers to the frontal lobe – including this post – qualifies. Yet who wants to be the first to stand at the head of the class and confess that some of the biggest decisions we’ve made in our lives have been based solely on the manipulative propaganda of others?

Maybe I do.

When I was sixteen years old, I saw a movie called First Blood. In case you’ve been living in a sensory deprived cave (or a Church of Scientology cell) for the past thirty years and somehow missed it, the story line was simple enough. Take your basic “good guy” drifter who “just wants to be left alone” and add one authoritarian police officer who believes he smells trouble. Now, most upstanding citizens (a.k.a Fox News viewers) would say that’s a police officer’s job – to sniff out trouble. But when John Rambo refuses to answer officer friendly’s reasonable questions – a show down ensues. A showdown that splays an unprecedented body count of U.S. servicemen and police officers across the boreal forest of the Pacific North West (the movie was shot on location in the north end of the Fraser Valley). If there was any doubt that Rambo was the good guy in all this it was quickly erased by an almost unending number of sequels – movies that would eventually turn his name into a household verb. Watch Rambo take no crap. Watch Rambo deliver the killer line – and then the killer blow. Watch Rambo get laid. Watch the hormone-fuelled teenager who identifies with Rambo go to prison for the rest of his life.

In 2008, Stallone dusted off the First Blood franchise again, this time with the creatively named Rambo – another blood and guts groaner that should only have appealed to hormonal teenage boys and postal workers. Except that this installment, billed as an exercise in post-Iraq humanitarianism, featured a kinder, gentler Rambo guiding a group of pro-democracy preachers into – wait for it – Myanmar. Watch Rambo seek peaceful coexistence in the world. Watch Rambo introduce the ruling Burmese junta to the finer diplomacy of machetes, mantraps, and a ubiquitous 50-calibre machine gun. Watch Rambo save the girl. Watch CNN thrust democracy deity Aung San Suu Kyi onto the top-ten list of greatest global injustices.

I thought about that last week while reading an article on the prisoner cum parliamentarian and how she is now the “best hope for a free Burma.” Evidently the corporations who have been patiently waiting their turns to rape Myanmar of her rich timber, gem, and natural gas resources, have also decided that the country’s name will revert back to the good old days of the British Empire, after “Mama Suu’s” (the name Aung San’s base has given her) coronation in 2015. What is less clear is how the then 70-year-old Politico – who served out her state-sanctioned exile in a mansion while her worshippers took the sanctions she begged Western nations for right in the gut – will be able to free Myanmar from its place at the bottom of the per capita income, health care, and education list in south East Asia. Or how the ability of the Burmese to cast a ballot will solve their crushing rate of infant mortality. Equally foggy is how her trip from house arrest to the house of power will strip the Generals of their quarter million dollar sports cars, their sprawling golf course villas, and their ability to put Mama Suu back in the birdcage whenever they feel like it. Maybe she’s got Rambo on speed dial.

Last fall I heard an ”Occupy” advocate mewling on CBC Radio about the “death of democracy.” His basic premise was that through control of the markets, the media, and the military, the mega-rich now control everything. Elections are now a meaningless choice between brand A and Brand A. “Something must be done” was the official call to arms. What nobody cares to mention is that, far from dead, democracy has finally succeeded. When Athenian legislator Solon laid the foundations for democracy in the 6th century B.C.E., it was presented a s a social, political, economic, and judicial structure “for the free.” Yet, Athens (then as now) was a city comprised largely of slaves. Democracy was the foolproof plan to keep it that way. Try explaining that in 140 characters or less.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

Reflections on mirrors and Siamese fish

Well, according to Minor Matt — the twenty-something that lives downstairs — its official. I’m now a hundred years old. What else could possibly explain my sudden love affair with CBC Radio? What he doesn’t know is that I finally went Al Qaeda on my TV — after it brought me Anderson Cooper, the Kardashians, and Cake Boss all on the same day. At least the CBC gives me some animated context on the end of the world. Maybe that’s why the iconic public corporation is again in the government’s crosshairs. Too much Don Cherry, not enough David Johnston (Canada’s new Governor General).

One of the more thought provoking things I’ve heard recently on Old Guy Radio came the same week that Canada opted out of the Kyoto climate agreement. In a Q&A with some mayor from backwater India, the big question of why supposedly smart societies cannot stop the coming global sauna was finally answered: It’s not their fault. It’s the other guy.

“Countries like Canada and the United States have loaded up the carbon bank with more than their fair share,” the good mayor said with perfect English diction, and a charming New Delhi accent. “The developed nations must now back away and let developing nations have some of that space. Yet they seem unwilling to do this.”

On its face, Mayor India’s logic seems to hold water — if not carbon. That is until you clear away the cobwebs of eloquent elocution, and realize that his water smells as rotten as the Ganges. Seventeen consecutive climate change conferences and the best our world leaders can come up with is blame it on the (carbon) bank? I have some bad news folks — and it isn’t about rising mercury or sea levels. It’s that the specious reasoning from your side of the fence is starting to sound an awful lot like the psychotic meanderings from mine.

Conflict in prison is announced the same way it is in most of the English speaking world: by the loud (above 96 decibels), clear exhalation of a fashionable four-letter expletive beginning with F. Sometimes it is drawn out like the wail of a siren. Faaaaaaahhhhhhhhk. Sometimes it comes in one explosive woof, with a gaggle of little F**K’s waddling behind, like newborn chicks. This week it flew from the cell of a con named Pieces, and sliced down the tier like a straight razor on an Adam’s apple.

Pieces is an angry guy. Maybe it’s because he only has one arm. Or maybe it’s that the same birth defect also took his left ear and half a foot. Then again, it might just be the cruel way we call him Pieces, based on all the ones he’s missing. But this week, the source of his rage was not left open to interpretation.

“Can you believe it?” he seethed into any passing ear. “Some scum bag, some filthy piece of dogs**t, some ass-eating pedophile… went into my cell and stole a Pepsi. Right off of my desk!” He then clarified in Technicolor detail the various forms of anaesthetic-free surgical procedures that should be performed on said box thief, and how the wall-sharpened spoon (not too sharp) used to do it with should be bathed in a mixture of salmonella and staphylococci cultures. One could almost empathize with the disabled veteran of a thousand broken dreams, except for one small detail. That detail would be the criminal code infractions that have put Pieces in the Big House for the past twenty months. Infractions known as Break & Enter, and Theft.

If there’s a universal myopia that effects every prison population, it’s the one found in a moral code that determines exactly who the worst scumbag is — in a kingdom of scumbags. Preying on the fresh fish and getting them wired to heroin their first week in the joint (the most vulnerable time for any new prisoner) – That’s all good. Not paying your dope bill after the predators have already gotten your canteen money, your phone card money, your stamps, your watch, wedding ring, and the cherished cross that grandma gave you on her deathbed — that makes you a scumbag. As does coming to prison with a rape conviction. But putting a seventeen-year-old girl on a street corner, where every forty dollar “date” is a likely rape — now you’re in with the solid guys. Home invasion? Good. Swiping cola from another con — bad. It reminds me of another fishbowl existence I heard about recently.

“There’s a type of fish called the Siamese fighting fish,” the CBC Radio commentator said. According to her, the male of this species won’t live in the same closed environment with another male. And if you hold up a mirror next to the bowl, the fish will attack its own reflection. Apparently it can’t stand anything that looks just like it.

Which brings us back to convicts. And multinational carbon bankers. Maybe that’s why I’ve recently fallen so hard for the world of radio. I’m in love with color commentary.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

Rock & Roll should always die

Van Halen is on tour again – David Lee Roth at the mic. And Black Sabbath is back in the studio with Ozzy out front. The Stones 50th anniversary tour looks like it could be a go for next spring – if they can keep Keith alive that long. So you just know that our there somewhere, Robert Plant is humping a new thigh-master and oiling up a pair of thirty-year-old leather pants. Medic!

I was fourteen years old the day Dad walked into my bedroom with REO Speedwagon’s High Infidelity album. I had borrowed the LP from a friend at school, and mistakenly left it on the family turntable. “What the heck is this?” Dad said, pointing to the racy cover. “You do know what infidelity means?”

“Uh… I think it has something to do with stereos,” I offered.

“Something… to do with… yeah, right. Well, seeing as you’re a little slow on the English language, maybe you can explain what this means? His Dad-size digit thumped repeatedly at a silk-sheathed inner thigh splashed left to right across the cover.

I shrugged, bracing for the inevitable storm.

“Well, let me help you then.” He slid the borrowed black vinyl from its case – vinyl I had sworn on my tightest pair of Big Blues not to scratch – and snapped it into a dozen pointy pieces. Next came the cover, shredded like a Doberman dining on my homework. “It means you forgot the golden rule, mister. No. Crap. In. My. House.”

If life is about the rock & roll moments, that was mine – sitting on the end of my bed, broken shards of vinyl piercing my hormone-drenched heart like shrapnel. I didn’t even have pubic hair yet when the question of going or staying began to fuzz my brain like a Jimmy Hendrix guitar solo. Yet the sonic youth of the moment rang clear. As blurred as the path ahead might be, it would most definitely come with a soundtrack. Goodbye, Abba. Hello, Motley Crüe.

It’s funny thinking about that now – how a lifetime can be summed up in a handful of power chords. The night I left my parents’ home forever: Young Turks – Rod Stewart. My first big time girl experience: Modern Love – David Bowie. My divorce: Laid So Low – Tears for Fears. Life in Prison: Cold November Rain – Guns & Roses. I might not remember what year the Berlin wall came down, but I can sure tell you who played the concert. Pink Floyd, and Shine On You Crazy Diamond opened the set. Talk about a skipping record.

In a pitiable and recent attempt at family bonding, I asked my 23-year-old son what he thought of Skrillex, the 24-year-old DJ that grabbed this year’s Grammy factory by its short and curly moments and shook it down for all its spare attention.

“I don’t like him,” said my step-spawn, and when I asked why, he set sail on a pseudo-intellectual diatribe concerning the musician’s personal grooming. I was surprised. While I admit that the whole Martin Scorsese – Marilyn Manson lovechild look isn’t exactly my thing either, whatever happened to the days when scandal chic was a slam-dunk for winning youthful hearts (and dollars at the record racks)? How did my kid become the one slapping a preacher’s finger at the album cover?

“Actually, I don’t really mind his music – now. But he was in another band before, and that was a really bad time in my life. Whenever I see him, I think of that, so… And, I hate his look.”

I don’t know which surprised me more – that a twenty-three year old could escape the soundtrack of a misspent youth, or that he already realizes the need to. Either way, once I got over the fact that emotional intelligence had jumped at least one generation in our family, I started looking through my own CD stack with a sharper eye. How did all that Def Leppard and U2 get in there? Where is the Arcade Fire? Or Of Montreal? And so what if Skrillex is a funny looking little bugger. Anything has to be better than a fifty-year-old David Lee Roth dancing around a pair of ass-less chaps. Who knows? Maybe there’s even a new notation waiting in the wings of the soundtrack that is me. I could call it, “the day I stopped sucking in the seventies and got over myself: Disperate Youth – Santigold.”


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

The time traveler’s lawyer

”My name is Michael Jackson. I’m a law professor from UBC. I’m doing some research for a book on human rights and wonder if you would be interested in speaking to me.”

I peered out through the four-by-sixteen-inch food slot in my segregation cell door. The face didn’t match the high Oxford accent. First of all, it was tanned — really tanned. Not one of those ‘glow in the dark’ jobs from the local strip mall. This guy’s sun firing face said Bali, Bahrain, or some other far off B. And his hair was more Eddie Van Halen than Eddie Greenspan. But I had a rule of thumb. If a man travelled all the way to the pen to knock on my door — especially in the hole — the least I could do was say hello.

Well Professor, I’m not exactly dressed for company. But today is shower day. Maybe if you come back after lunch we can talk.”

Great. I’ll see if I can come back.” He parted with a smile and left me to my thoughts.

The professor wasn’t my first visitor that week. Back then I was up to my nose in something called an “involuntary transfer.” My welcome in medium-security had worn smoky thin, and everybody from my parole officer to the assistant warden was dropping by to say so. The best rumours were that my destination would be 4732 Cemetery Road – Kent maximum-security penitentiary. Besides the criminally insane ward at Essendale hospital, Kent is as end-of-the-line as the west coast gets. Now, out of nowhere, some high-power lawyer appears at my coffin door asking to chat. It was enough to put an atheist in a church pew.

The convict cleaner was still collecting lunch trays when the shadow of a bullet-shaped head filled the small glass square in my door. “You have a visitor,” the walking deepfreeze said. “Put your hands out through the slot.” I flicked to auto-pilot and followed a set of instructions I knew by heart. First the hand cuffs. Then face-down on the bed, feet towards the door. Then the door opens and one puts on the shackles while his buddy fingers the trigger on his pepper spray. Finally, the human forklifts take one arm each to ensure your destination.

“Hi. Thanks for meeting with me,” Jackson said. As I waddled into the steel clad interview room, the lawyer-cum-rock star rose to greet me. I’ve never forgotten that. Nor have I forgotten that he didn’t offer his hand. Shaking mine while they were clasped in irons would have been awkward — and intimidating. It was a yield to dignity that I would later learn exists inside Professor Jackson as deeply as a watermark.

After some very small chat concerning the distinct odour of segregation blocks and the nuances of prison food, he closed quickly to the point.

”About a year ago parliament passed a new set of laws called the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. Have you heard of it?” I admitted that it hadn’t made my summer reading list. Maybe after I finished Madonna’s Sex.”

”It took six years to write,” he continued, “and is the first piece of Canadian law that enshrines the Charter of blah, blah, blah…

It says that they can’t keep you in the hole or transfer you without giving you a chance to make your case.” Now the professor had my attention.

A week later I was back in my cell in general population. Still prison, but not the hole — and not Kent. In the clink you take your breaks where you can get them; another rule of thumb. It was this rule that I would ride right through the front gates of the prison — hidden in the back of a garbage truck full of kitchen wastes — only four months later. And the professor’s segregation law seminar was the last thing on my mind. But if there is one thing that Jackson has learned in thirty-five years of advocating for society’s least desirable humans, it’s the truth in the words to that old Aerosmith standard: life’s a journey, not destination.

It would be another three years before Jackson and I were in the same room again — and this time it was at Kent. It was if the conversation had never paused.

“I brought you a copy of that law we were talking about. I thought you might have finished Madonna by now.” His eyes flashed a wry smile. And then the professor professed. He spoke about human rights and the rule of law, and his passion for First Nations issues. He also spoke of many things — both enthralling and horrifying — that he had seen since first visiting Canadian prisons in the ‘70’s.

”I have a novel theory,” Jackson concluded that day. “I believe that the best way to teach respect for human rights is to give people human rights — especially criminals. I mean, how do you teach people something by taking it away from them? Especially if they never knew what was it in the first place?”

That may be the most courageous question I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, like so many other things about the good professor, it’s a century ahead of its time.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

Interview with Michael Jackson

Professor Michael Jackson is a longstanding member of the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia. He is also a graduate of Kings College, London and Yale Law School, a Queen’s Counsel and a greatly beloved grandfather. He has written several books and seminal reports tracking the state of human rights in Canada especially those incarcerated and aboriginal citizens. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Ed McIsaac Human Rights in Corrections award for his decades of work in promoting human rights for Canada’s most restricted citizens. Inkwell reached the professor on an anonymous south Pacific beach watching over his grandchildren.

 1) You were at the very top of your class at King’s College. Usually those types of students find their clients on Fleet Street, not Hastings Street. What got you so interested in human rights?

 It was while I was doing graduate work at Yale in the 60’s at the height of the US Civil Rights movement that I realized that lawyers had a responsibility to do something more with their lives than make lucrative careers for themselves. While teaching at the University of Chicago Law School I visited several US prisons and mental hospitals and when I came to Canada in 1970 I began research into the state of our prisons, focussing first on the disciplinary system and then the prison’s most severe form of punishment, solitary confinement- “the hole”

 2) In your 1983 book “Prisoners of Isolation” you describe some horrific scenes from your first trips into Canadian prisons. What shocked you the most?

 Initially the extreme physical harshness of the conditions in “the hole” in the old BC Penitentiary. The cells were virtually a concrete vault in which people were buried. The prisoner slept on a cement slab four inches off the floor; the slab was covered by a sheet of plywood upon which was laid a four-inch-thick foam pad. The cell was illuminated by a light that burned twenty-four hours a day. Prisoners only had cold water in their cells. Twice a week they were given a cup of what was supposed to be hot water for shaving, but which was usually lukewarm. They were not permitted to have their own razors, and one razor was shared among all the prisoners on the tier. Prisoners were confined in their concrete vaults for 23½ hours a day. Some prisoners had been so confined for over 3 years. They were allowed out of their cells briefly to pick up their meals from the tray at the entrance to the tier and for exercise. That exercise was not in the open air. It was limited to walking up and down the seventy-five-foot corridor in front of their cells. Exercise was taken under the continual supervision of an armed guard who patrolled on the elevated catwalk which ran the whole length of the tier and which was screened from the corridor by a wire-mesh fence. For the rest of the day prisoners were locked up in their cells. They had no opportunity to work; no hobby activities, no television programs, no movies, no sports, and no exercise equipment were permitted. Any visits with people from family or friends required the prisoners be strip searched, handcuffed to a restraining belt around the waist and that leg-irons be placed on them as they came down almost a hundred steps to the visiting area. Upon returning from the visit, prisoners were again subjected to skin-frisks, even though they never have left the sight of the escorting officer or had any physical contact with their visitors.

As I came to understand the regime better from talking to the prisoners, I realized that the physical harshness was not the worst thing about solitary confinement. What was more profound was the psychological torture that in some of the men (and women at the Kingston Prison for Women)) was manifested in their self mutilation by slashing their arms and throat and most horrifically reflected in the fact that two of the men I interviewed at the BC Pen had in the one case been driven into madness and the other case over the edge of madness to ending his own life. I discovered that in the solitary confinement unit the worst things about prisons -the humiliation and degradation of the prisoners, the frustration, the despair, the loneliness, and the deep sense of antagonism between the prisoners and the guards -are intensified. The images of the madness of solitary have never left me.

 3) Every poll for the past five years shows that Canadians overwhelmingly want tougher penalties for crime, tougher prison environments — even the return of the death penalty. Why do you think that is?                                               

 That is an interesting question but the answer is even more interesting and will be surprising to both you and many of your readers. In 2007, the Department of Justice conducted a survey to measure public confidence during the initial stages of looking at the tough on crime legislation that the Conservative government wished to introduce and which was most recently reflected in the passage of Bill C-10 -the Safe Streets and Communities Act. The results of the survey was published as 2007 National Justice Survey: Tackling Crime and Public Confidence and you can read it on the Department’s website at

The Justice Department asked people what they thought of the objects of sentencing that are in the law, and those are: rehabilitation, reparation, accountability, specific deterrence, general deterrence, incapacitation, and denunciation. Rehabilitation was at the top, not the bottom of people’s priorities. Most people think if you do not rehabilitate people you have accomplished nothing.  The second priority is reparation; do what you can to repair the harm to the victims.  Third are accountability, then deterrence, specific and general; incapacitation and denunciation.  That is quite consistent in other surveys that have been done.  Contrary to government assertions therefore the public, when not confronted with the exceptional case of a particularly horrific crime, particularly one involving child victims, does not measure justice only, or even primarily, in terms of punitive responses.

 4) You were recently in Ottawa to participate in the senate hearing on Bill C-10. Did you get any sort of feeling that the Omnibus Crime bill is just McCarthyism in a different hat?

 What is most distressing about the government’s pushing through Bill C 10 is that the proposals for more mandatory minimum sentences, severely restricting the availability of alternatives to imprisonment in the form of conditional sentences, making pardons more expensive and difficult to obtain and giving the Correctional Service of Canada greater legislative powers to restrict prisoners’ human rights and privileges and toughen up the conditions of imprisonment -all invoked in the name of safer streets and communities- are not only hugely expensive, but counterproductive and fly in the face of the best social science evidence- including that of the Department of Justice and Correctional Service of Canada’s research branches – of what works to actually achieve that goal. The Government sweeps aside all this evidence by appealing to and heightening public fear of crime and offenders at a time when crime rates, including violent crime, are at historic lows. If your question was intended to suggest that offenders and prisoners have become the new targets and casualties in an assault on human rights. I fear you are right.

 5) You were counsel in Delgumuukw, one of the most important aboriginal land claims case in Canadian history. How have our First Nations communities fared since then?

 That is a very large question and I think we may have to leave it for another interview. However, I can comment on what has happened to Aboriginal peoples in the criminal justice system. Two years after the Supreme Court of Canada made its judgment in the Delgamuukw case, recognizing that Aboriginal title had not been extinguished in British Columbia and was a legally protected interest in the land, the court in 1999 in the Gladue case, citing a report I had written for the Canadian Bar Association, entitled “Locking up Natives in Canada”, referred to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian prisons as a “crisis in the criminal justice system ” and “a staggering injustice”. In the 23 years since that judgment the crisis has deepened and the overrepresentation has doubled. On March 23 of this year the Supreme Court in the Ipeelee case reaffirmed in strong terms the requirement that in sentencing Aboriginal offenders, courts must take into account the unique circumstances of Aboriginal peoples, including “cultural oppression, socially inequality, the loss of self-government and systemic discrimination, which are the legacy of the Canadian government’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples”. It is both a cruel irony and a measure of the government’s indifference to the best evidence of what contributes to public safety and justice, that one of the provisions in Bill C-10, enacted just a week before the Supreme Court of Canada’s judgment, severely restricts the use of conditional sentences, the principal sentencing tool judges have to address overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples.

 6) The 20th century Canada led the globe in promoting human rights. How are we doing so far in the 21st century?

 In 2007 Canada had the undistinguished record of being one of only four countries that voted against the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was only in 2010, following considerable international and indigenous criticism, that Canada, with reservations, endorsed the Declaration. With the passage of Bill C-10, in its embrace of greater, longer, deeper and harsher use of imprisonment the government has undermined 40 years of progressive non-partisan criminal justice and corrections legislation and policy reforms. We do not have to labour over the hard lessons learnt from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay to understand the essential relationship between human rights and imprisonment. In Canada our own legacy of abuse, most recently exposed in the Correctional Investigator’s report on the death in segregation of nineteen year old Ashley Smith and in the continuing and increasing over-representation of Aboriginal prisoners should make it that we need constant vigilance and commitment to a culture of both law and practice that respects human dignity. Yet in the face of the documented record of the costly failure of other countries, particularly the United States who have gone down this path of escalating punitiveness, Canada is embarked on a deeply regressive path that will compromise and undermine our reputation in the ongoing struggle to promote and protect human rights.

 7) What’s your favourite thing about babysitting grandkids?

 It’s timely that you would ask that. The week in February that I was asked to go to speak at the Senate hearings on Bill C 10.  I was spending the university midterm break with my grandchildren in Hawaii. I left them, flew back to Vancouver and went straight on to Ottawa. I began my presentation to the Senators by saying that when I told my grandchildren that I had to leave them and come to Ottawa to talk to some important people they said, “Papa, why do you have to go?  Stay with us.”  I tried to explain to them, not that I was going to talk about the importance of human rights and the Canadian criminal justice system; I said to them, “I have to go and talk to these important people about how we act in a respectful way to each other, how we treat each other with decency.” There was, however, a common element in talking with my grandchildren and talking to the Government these days; both don’t listen to what I have got to say, but my grandchildren are a whole lot more fun to be around.


Missing Companions

Ten years ago, the SPCA ran a canine-therapy program outside the fence. The dogs – and cons – who participated were some of the most damaged creatures imaginable. I’m not sure what happened with the dogs (I wasn’t eligible to participate back then), but it sure did a number on the humans.

These are six dogs I’d like to throw a Frisbee with, but can’t – because Frisbees are banned in prison.




Chinese Crested Dog

Australian Shepherd

Ibizan Hound


Berger Picard

Border Collie



Pass the Palmolive, Pilate

Remember when the biggest problem on your side of the fence was whether the computers would work after January 1st? I do. It seems as long ago as a zit-driven anxiety attack – as long ago as the days when cyber-bully wore black and said “I’ll be back.” What the hell happened?

That’s a question almost every prisoner has cuddled up with at one time or another – usually in the concrete quiet of the night. How did I screw up this bad? How – in a country that stews its acronyms (NHL, NFL, UFC) in blood, a country that exports climate change and crushed cancer by the trainload, a country that wears dead Afghanis like merit badges – did I become the one they had to throw out of the pool? It’s a question that one con named Marc has been struggling with for at least a year – and has to explain to the Parole Board of Canada later this week. For four nights running, I’ve been helping him to find the words.

“You know, for the first two years I blamed everyone except myself.” I just nodded and listened.

“When they convicted me of attempted murder, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I wasn’t the one with the knife. I never stabbed anybody. So when the judge gave me ten years – the same as my co-accused – I was stunned. I wanted to scream. I mean, I didn’t do anything.

And that’s why I’m here. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t stop the assault. I didn’t help the victim. I didn’t call the cops. I didn’t even call an ambulance. I was like the guy in the movie, when they murdered Jesus. I just washed my hands of the whole thing. I even remember thinking: This is none of my business. I just turned the channel.”

In the past ten years there’s been many Marcs, sitting at the end of my bed, telling their story. Stories of how a kid who loved hockey became a crack head and a thief; how a guy who is such a fantastic parent could rob another child of theirs; how one who would kill to protect his own family could so coolly assault the peace of another. I used to wonder what it was that brought them – these men who didn’t really do anything. Now I think it’s because I don’t have the energy to judge them, or don’t pretend to have all the answers. I just ask the questions.

“The parole board really only wants to know two things, Marc. In some form or other they’re going to ask you to tell your story – how you got here. They want to know that you understand every step that put you behind bars. And if you even think about minimizing, justifying, or blaming your actions on anyone else – do you remember that scene in King Kong where the thing ate buddy’s head? Yeah, believe it.

The other thing they want to know is what has changed. How can they trust you won’t do this again? If you can’t answer those two questions pal… you aren’t going anywhere.”

Marc’s eyes sagged with the whole weight of his fifty birthdays. He nodded. Then he offered a hand of appreciation – which I shook – and shuffled out the door, notepad in tow. Tomorrow he sees the parole board. I wouldn’t want to be his pillow tonight.

Whenever the headlines howl with some act of human depravity, most people do exactly what we’ve been trained to. We howl along like coyotes in concert. We howl around the water cooler, we howl over a double double at Tim Horton’s, we howl in a hundred words or less to the Op-Ed page. Then we change the channel.

And why not? After all, I’m not the one that raped and killed that little girl. I’m not the one that butchered a half-hundred hookers and fed them to swine. I’m not the one that sunk his teenage daughters in the Rideau Canal. Climate change? Barbequed Afghanis? Third-world lung cancer? Wetlands holocaust? Don’t look at me.

In his 2001 book, Ordinary Men, psychologist Christopher Browning examined how tens of thousands of ordinary German Citizens played their part in the Holocaust. Using the example of one reserve police force that was responsible for the murder of forty thousand Polish Jews, he showed how even the greatest evil can become business as usual. It’s all about what you didn’t’ do.

Good citizen #1. “I didn’t round up anybody. All I did was pass on the list of Jews in my community when asked to do so.”

Good citizen #2. “I didn’t put anybody on the train. All I did was go to these addresses and arrest these people. Then I took them to the train station as I was told.”

Good citizen #3. “ I didn’t lock anybody into cattle cars. All I did was open the door and direct prisoners.”

Good citizen #4. “I didn’t drive the train to Auschwitz. All I did was close the doors on the train and make sure they were secure.”

Good citizen #5. “I didn’t direct the train. All I did was push the lever in the locomotive.”

Until recently, I had often wondered how the same group of people that brought us the printing press, the Reformation, public university, Beethoven, Goethe, and Einstein – could so casually drink the cup of genocide. I never did buy into the blame game of “It was all Hitler.” While the once German Chancellor most certainly gave the orders, an equally repulsive truth is that he also put exactly the same number of Polish Jews in cattle cars as Canada’s Prime Minister has put homeless crack heads on East Hastings: none. Instead, the heinous crime in all of human history was carried out with factory-like precision – by good people who didn’t do anything wrong. It’s breathtaking.

But at least it wasn’t me.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

Freeze Frame

“It’s all the same F…ing day,” Janis Joplin once famously commented. While it’s easy to attribute that cynical perspective on the human experience to an insatiable diet of heroin and Jack Daniels, rock’s short-reigning Queen wasn’t the first royalty to reach that conclusion.

“That which has come to be, that is what will come to be… and so there is nothing new under the sun,” Solomon said – three thousand years before Princess potty mouth did. Either way you spin it, the Groundhog Day effect has been in play for as long as humans have counted time. And few settings give greater evidence of that than the one where life is measured in notches on a cell wall.

A while back I was invited by prison administrators to take part in a novel criminology experiment called “Scared Straight.” The idea was to take first-time offenders who have been sentenced to probation and give them an afternoon field trip to a prison. After a tour of the facility, and twenty minutes locked in a cell, the highlight of their visit to the circus would be an hour talking to the clowns. As the program’s moniker advertised, the goal was to encourage good citizenship through the implied threat of anal gang rape in a dirty prison cell where no one cares if you scream. Fittingly, the participants that day would be teenagers – one convicted of shoplifting, the other of possessing a gram of pot.

“The way this program works is that we want these guys to see what lies ahead of them if they don’t straighten out,” the corrections official said to me. “So we need you to be very explicit—tell them about the violence and all of it. Don’t hold back. Are you interested?”

One thing that no prisoner is ever interested in is being the main attraction in a freak show. But every so often, exploiting human suffering for moralistic purposes finds its way back into vogue.

“What time do you want me there?” I asked.

“I’ll send someone to pick you up at two” he replied. I couldn’t help but notice the sparkle in his eyes as they wandered over my tattoo-sleeved arms. The ringmaster had found his two-headed boy.

By the time the guards came to get me and we navigated through strip-searches, metal detectors, and waiting rooms, I was late. The room was set up like a high school band practice—with a semi-circle of ogling cons facing two chairs that were occupied by an eighteen-year-old brunette and his straw-blond buddy. Nether blinked while a six-foot, well-muscled jailbird in a white wife beater held court.

“You think this is funny?” he screamed at our doe-eyed visitors. “You think you’re tough enough to handle this?” Both boys shook their heads in unison. They looked like synchronized pendulums on matching grandfather clocks. “You come in here you’re going to be my bitch. You’re going to be washing my balls in the shower. You hear me?” It might have been imagination, but to me the room suddenly smelled of pee.

I sat silently while the spitting drill-sergeant finished his diatribe. Then the correctional manager nodded to me, signaling my turn to wow the audience. I walked towards our guests with chair in one hand and a carefully chosen prop in the other. I sat down directly in front of the two young men, blocking their view of the delinquents behind me. I introduced myself and shook their clammy hands. On my lap sat a closed navy blue photo album.

“The first thing you need to know is that everything you have heard here today is bullshit,” I began. “If anyone in here ever tried to muscle you into sex, he’d be so full of holes he’d need a bucket of Bondo to stop the bleeding. Then he’d be living in protective custody for the rest of his days. We don’t put up with that kind of crap in Canadian prisons.” The kid on the right let out his breath, looking like he couldn’t decide between laughter and tears.

Then I opened the photo album.

“If you want to know what prison really is, take a look at this. This is my little sister. I haven’t seen her in more than a decade. And this was my grandma. She died while I was here. I never got to say goodbye. Or this one,” I said, pointing to a particularly painful photo. “This is my kid at his grade six sports day. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for any of them—sports day, first fish, first beer—none of it. He’s in his twenties now.” Behind me, the room was as quiet as a deathbed.

“When you come in here, the life you left behind you goes on. You don’t. It’s like you’re frozen in the same day for years on end, and when you get out that time is gone. Forever. That’s prison.”

Scratching Sgt. Sex-Organ’s back in the shower room seems unbearably light in comparison.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to