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.