The Incarcerated InkWell

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

Weekly Blogs

Pimp my pen

One of the most valuable lessons my Dad taught me as a kid was the linear working of a car motor. Back then fuel left the gas tank, traveled to the carburetor, and was dribbled into cylinders where a spark did the rest. The pistons then pushed a cam shaft and a transmission talked to the back wheels, and the result was that the harder you pressed on the gas pedal the quicker you got to the Tasty Freeze. The universe made sense back then.

So as I watch the frenzy of prison building now happening in this country, and the way Canadians en masse have lined up to drink the Kool-Aid of longer prison terms (even for children), I’m thinking it might be a good time for a lesson on the linear working of the motor that powers the Canadian justice system. It may not get you to your goal any faster, but at least you’ll understand where all the gas is going.

Today’s lesson will be a field trip – let’s call it a walk with Billy Bean. The first thing we need to know about Billy is that Billy loves crack cocaine. Unfortunately for him, Canada doesn’t (yet) have a state sponsored crack cocaine program, so Billy spends his afternoons breaking into cars and houses, liberating whatever his heart desires – or whatever the pawn shop will take off his hands. Today, Billy is walking down your street, and notices your porch light on and that you haven’t cleared the mailbox in a couple of days. Everybody say hello to Billy.

The next day, you and your small family return from a hard earned week away, and even as you pull into the driveway, you know that something isn’t right. The front window blinds are hanging all wrong. Your heart beats a little faster. Grabbing your phone from the visor, you look at your wife and ask her to stay in the car for a minute. She looks back at you with eyes just a little more knowing than normal.

Bypassing the carport door you always enter through, you instead walk up to the front door – like a stranger. Then you do something no person should ever have to do at the front door of their own home. You knock. Loudly. And after taking a deep breath, you turn the key and walk into what the whispering shadows of your mind tell you might be the dead end of a really great day.

If there is any good news in the above scenario, it’s that the overwhelming majority of home burglaries in Canada never result in physical violence. Like any other rodent invasion, you are far more likely to find the poop than the rat. Unfortunately, on this day, there is poop everywhere. Dresser drawers open – including the one where your wife’s silky things usually are. Stereo speakers (the ones that sat in front of the living room blinds) are gone, and with them the new Blue Ray player you got the family last Christmas. But the deepest cut of all is the watchcase. It was your Dad’s – the only thing you kept after the funeral. The empty space where it last sat on your bedroom dresser now throbs like a phantom limb, and under your breath you swear that somebody is going to pay. What most Canadians never stop to consider is that that somebody is you. Walk with me.

Step one – call the cops. 911 will ask if it’s an emergency, and after discerning that it isn’t, will direct you to the general inquiries number of your local police precinct. Eventually (sometimes the same day) a car or two will come around, and a couple of pleasant officers will take your statement. Then they’ll lift a few fingerprints from the usual places: drawer fronts, doorknobs, a window casing – the half full beer bottle Billy left on the counter. They’ll say a few comforting words in parting, accept your heartfelt thanks, and leave you with the belief that the worst is behind you. At $78,000 per year, a compassionate cop can really feel like money well spent.

Step two – call a carpenter. The crack head who broke into your house wasn’t just stupid enough to leave his finger prints everywhere; he had to rip out the entire window casing in your kitchen to get in – instead of just breaking the thirty dollar window in the door right next to it and turning the inside knob. But securing the family home is not an option, and the $900 dollar bill is just the price of sleeping soundly. You write a cheque.

Step three – call your insurance broker. This is where your teeth stop chattering and start grinding. Do you have receipts for your wife’s missing underwear? Are you aware that the replacement price of electronics is hardly what you paid last year? Do you have a photo of the watchcase? Did you ever have it appraised? And most importantly, are you aware that your particular policy has a $1,500 deductible? Grrrr.

Step four – Constable Caring phones you. Good news. Our multi-million dollar fingerprint identification system has spit out a name – Billy Bean. Do you know him? Whether you do or not is immaterial, because Billy is well known to police. In fact, the precinct has assigned a couple of their best burglary detectives to track him down. It feels good to know that these $93,000 per year senior officers are on the case. Somebody is doing something.

Step five – eureka. Billy is busted. A $113,000 per year junior Crown Prosecutor named Sarah calls you at work with the good news, and says you may need to testify if there is a trial. No problem. You can’t wait to see the scumbag’s face in court. She says that the suspect has a long record of this sort of thing, and is confident that they’re going to put him behind bars for a long time. You ask if the scumbag happened to have your Dad’s watchcase when they caught him. Sarah isn’t sure. But if she hears something, she’ll let you know.

Step six – the trial. It’s been eight months since your life was turned upside down. For the past two weeks, you‘ve gone over it repeatedly in your head: what you will say to the judge; the look of disgust you will give the creep as you stare him down from the witness box; the demand you mill make that your precious heirloom be returned. You book the day off work and arrive at the courthouse at 9:30, as instructed. Sarah meets you outside Provincial courtroom 303 and greets you with a warm smile. She directs you to a bench and says your case is the third one scheduled. She will send an assistant out to get you when they’re ready.

Two hours and eleven games of Tetris later – Sarah comes out to let you know you can go home. They don’t need you. Bean’s lawyer has moved the case to disclosure court, downstairs. As yours wasn’t the only house he invaded that week, Bean’s Legal-Aid funded lawyer has struck a deal for him to plead guilty to seven other break and enters in exchange for a global prison sentence of two years. It’s over.

Two years. At least the scumbag will be paying for the grief he caused your family. But it hardly feels like justice. You sure wish he had gotten more time – and that you could have gotten the watch box back. Then again, sometimes you just have to let things go. It’s a beautiful spring day, and you have other important things to think about. May 1st is coming, and you still haven’t done your taxes. With the break-in, and all the stress-time off work, it’s been a tough year for net income. You wonder if you might have to dip into your overdraft to keep Canada Revenue Services at bay. Then, as you approach the paid parking spot where you left your car, a metallic taste fills your mouth. You know there’s no way that you left that passenger side window unrolled…

In 2009, Statistics Canada reported that the cost of policing the nation had jumped six percent over the previous year – to eleven billion dollars. It was the biggest one-year jump in police costs since 1990.

That same year, the budget for federal and provincial prisons combined exceeded four billion dollars. The government expects that number to balloon to almost ten billion by 2015, and has gotten a jump start on that with the hiring of seven thousand new federal corrections officers – at more than $70,000 a year each.

The cost of administering justice, in the form of thousands of Legal-Aid lawyers, Crown Prosecutors, Judges, and clerical staff, is much harder to peg. The legal industry isn’t sweet on baring its books. But cross-country consensus says that no one above the clerical level brings home less than six figures, and that certainly includes the hundreds of folks that sit in parliamentary committees and senate hearings creating new criminal offences every year. Taken all together, that’s one hungry carburetor.

While it’s reasonable that the cost of driving a free and just society will never be cheap, it’s also reasonable to ask if it really needs to be this expensive. Especially when governments are eyeing up pension and health care funds to fuel the nitrous oxide of retribution. And while I freely admit to having more questions than answers, the one thing I do know is that it won’t be Billy filling your tank. He’s too busy smoking weed in the cell down the hall.

 

If you build it

The season of snow has also brought with it an education for me — mostly in how this democracy stuff really works. As the government yawned, I watched the media play pitch-and-catch with a lineup that included top Corrections managers, criminologists, provincial Justice Ministers, and even Joe-from-down-the-street. “How do you feel about the Conservatives implementing policies that have already failed in the U.S.?” and, “What are your thoughts on the Conservatives locking up children for mandatory minimum sentences?” were among the most predictable queries. At least Rex Murphy, on his CBC-Radio standard Cross Canada Checkup, asked listeners if it was possible that Bill C-10 wasn’t tough enough. One caller from Saskatchewan responded by asking why the legislation didn’t include mandatory pink underwear. What Farmer Fred doesn’t know is that some of us are really into pink underwear.

Meanwhile, as the country was supposedly debating the big lockdown, the real story was in my backyard. That’s where — starting in November (long before Parliament voted on it) — backhoes, tampers, bulldozers, and a lineup of double-axle dump trucks (they even brought a fifty foot crane) were paving Bill C-10 right over top of what used to be our baseball field.

“What are they doing?” Boo asked me a couple of days after Halloween.

“They’re building a curling rink,” I said straight-faced. “With a cappuccino bar.”

Boo ogled me from the corner of his hot glued and scotch-taped bifocals. Then his attention returned to the boisterous invasion behind our cell block, and the thirty foot deep hole in the spot where last year’s fall classic played out.

“Naaaah,” he mewled. “It’s too big.”

Boo is one of those guys with a permanent “kick me” sign stitched to his back. His handle has less to do with a Harper Lee novel than it does his misshapen mug. Rumor is he’s never worn a mask to go trick-or-treating. And the cerebral sewage that pours from the two-toothed hole in his face is just as bad. I keep thinking I need to follow him around and just write down everything he says. It’s Jackass gold.

“Can’t slide nothing past you, can I? Actually, it’s a new condominium-style cell block with an in-ground recreation room and a community kitchen.” I said. “They’re even putting in wiring for high-speed Internet.”

“Gaaaawwd, why do I ask you anything? If you don’t know, just say so.” Boo stomped away, bottom lip bouncing off his chin. I guess it’s true what they say. Some people just can’t handle the truth.

A funny thing happened when I stopped smoking all that B.C. bud two decades ago. I found out I had a brain. Not that it was a big eureka moment. Especially after I learned that the grey matter God gave me never quits analyzing. Lately, the list of things I must understand to the thirty-third decimal point includes how Michael Jackson’s death bed rated a bidding war, when three years before it was exhibit one in an inappropriate-touching trial — or why it is that we never see Peter McKay and Sarah Jessica Parker in the same room at the same time. But for more than a year now my list has been topped by the question no one will answer. After forty years of leading the world away from incarceration, how did prison — a 19th century throwback that has never served a society’s needs — become Canada’s way forward?

Today, the answer hit me like an inside curveball. It happened while I was watching a large flatbed offloading stainless steel toilets onto what used to be third base. Obviously, some unnamed Right-wing Advocate for Yesteryear (R.A.Y.) has been hearing voices…

R.A.Y: “Why the long face my co-replicating martial associate? Is it the economy?”

R.A.Y’s wife, A.N.N.I.E. (A Nuptial Necessity for Impersonal Economists): “My god Ray, what is it with you and the economy? I wish you’d just shut up about the stupid economy. It’s you I’m worried about. I heard you in the backyard last night, talking to the ornamental shrubs.”

“Oh, Annie, that wasn’t the shrubs. I was talking to Bootless Billy Miner.”

“Bootless…”

Billy Miner. He was a bank and train robber in the early 1900’s.”

Annie, squinting, does some quick math in her head. “And you were… talking to him? To a 150 year old train robber?”

“166. He got his nickname during an escape from the B.C. Penitentiary in 1912 — when he left his boots behind. Snuck right past the guards wearing nothing but a pair of Hudson Bay socks — you know, the ones with the colored stripes? Damn wool socks scandal nearly sunk Lord Borden’s Conservatives. Anyhow, when we first came to Stornoway in 2004, Miner came around and started taunting me there. Claimed that Canadian prisons are for pussies, and dared me to build one he couldn’t steal out of. So, I been thinking…”

“Ray?”

“Yeah, Annie?”

“Tell me again how you’re going to save the economy.”

Well if that’s not how it went down, then you explain to Boo what that three-story ditch in the back yard is. ‘Cause it sure as heck ain’t an Olympic swimming pool.

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

 

The war of ’12

I went to school in a small B.C. community in the ‘70’s – a pretty cool time. Back then, everybody knew the difference between a Saskatchewan Roughrider and one from Ottawa. Every kid with a TV also knew who Tommy Hunter was (whether you wanted to or not), and that Reach for the Top came on just before The World of Disney on Sunday evenings. Then one day in the summer of my 12th year, our parents sat my sister and me down on our 700-year-old Simpsons Sears couch (because they lasted that long back then) for the talk.

“Your Dad and I have been discussing it, and we’d like to know if you would like to get… cablevision.”

Cablevision. In 1978, asking a kid in western Canada if he wanted cablevision was like asking a hound dog if he would be mildly interested in a ham hock. MTV wasn’t even a gleam in a network’s eye yet when sis and I choreographed our response – a full-on five-minute musical performance that featured hopping (what hip-hop was before Kanye), synchronized swim motions (high-fiving hadn’t been invented yet) and a trilling technique recently demonstrated by some visiting Africans on The Irish Rovers show. Or maybe they were Australian Aboriginals.

“The thing is, it’s going to cost eight dollars a month,” Mom said, “and the only way we can afford it is if we use the monthly child allowance cheque the government sends for you and your sister. What do you think?”

Child allowance? All I could think of was the Fonze, the Incredible Hulk, Fantasy Island, and CHIP’s. My sister’s eyes glazed over with her own bucket list that included Laverne and Shirley and One Day at a Time. Child allowance cheque? What good is a birthright if you don’t have The Love Boat?

“Yes!” we chirped in sync, like a couple of Dutch traders who had just bought Manhattan for a bag of fishhooks. Before you could say three’s a company, our backyard Saturdays of fort building and All Star Wrestling were swallowed up in a tsunami of Scooby Doo and Space 1999. But as the summer of 12 P.P.H. (pre-pubic hair) fades to an ever smaller dot in the rear view mirror of memories, I sometimes wonder if the trade we made that year had more in common with Faust than it did with Peter Minuit. And evidently I’m not alone.

Every so often, Canada goes through an identity crisis of sorts, where it can’t figure out whether to redefine or reinvent itself. 2012, by all appearances, seems to be the year of high redefinition. Around the country, the regurgitated portrait of loquacious Liz – our sovereign in every way except fact – has become the smart symbol of when we were beautiful, while in Ottawa, the ruling junta parades the troops like they were returning from Italy instead of Afghan-irrelevant. With John A. McDonald on the best seller’s list, a boring as sod Anglo-Saxon male in the Governor General’s shack, and the feds building prisons like they haven’t since the days of Diefenbaker – you have to wonder if they’ll soon be driving the last spike on a coast to coast subway.

But of all the entertaining steps backward this year, the funniest may be the suddenly chic War of 1812 – better known in Canadian high school history tests as the War of wha? According to the party line being bank rolled out of Ottawa, 1812 was the year Canada served notice that we are not Americans. That’s rich.

According to a recent piece by John Allemang in the Globe and Mail, at the beginning of the skirmish, the average Upper Canadian was “a newly arrived American lured by cheap land and low taxes.” Yup, Americans (and British regular army conscripts) – fighting Americans – to prove that they weren’t American. Sombody needs to call Monty Python. In the book The Civil War of 1812, Alan Taylor even notes that the peace treaty that eventually settled the row in 1814 was signed in Belgium, between the british and the Americans. Not a single Canadian in sight. And history says there was a good reason for that.

“The idea of the border was an artificial creation,” back in 1812, says Major John Grodzinksky, a history professor at Royal Military College. According to him, long before the Six Million Dollar Man leapt the 49th parallel, “there was considerable shared contract and trade,” on both sides of the invisble wall. The (North) Amercians of the early 19th century liked it that way. And if Wal Mart, Target and Nordstrom’s are to be believed, little has changed.

The it-could-be-worse truth of the matter is that Canadians have always been Americans in heart – just as Americans have always been British and vice versa. Just ask Madonna. Or Gerard Butler. Or Justin Bieber. And while $29 million worth of ado will be made this year about how un-American the Great White North is, my advice is to pop a cold Pepsi and enjoy the fact that Celine Dion and Cirque de Soleil now have a bigger piece of Vegas than Elvis ever did. Trust me on this. I saw it on TMZ.

 

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

Nobody move or the convict gets it

Prison may be the last chance hotel for big ideas. Last night the guy in the cell below mine had a big idea. I don’t know how long it took him to save up the oranges, sugar packs and bread slices needed to cook up a batch of liquid thunder. Regardless, last night was taste test time for his labor of love.

“All inmates return to your cells for lockdown count.” Whenever you hear that all-points bulletin blared over the P.A. system, you know that the rest of your day is pretty well in the crapper.

“What’s going on,” I asked the Undertaker. The Undertaker is a six-foot-four, two-hundred-sixty-pound drag queen that lives on my block. After thirty-four years in prison, he always knows what’s happening. It’s like he has evolved a whole new organ for these sorts of things.

“Some stupid asshole downstairs got into the brew. He’s barricaded himself into his cell, and blocked the windows.”

Great. The Undertaker isn’t the only one here with extra senses. After a couple of decades, I’ve sprouted some of my own — including one that tells me it will be too many days until my next shower. As the Undertaker babbled his play-by play for the events one floor below, I stripped down and looked for a bar of soap. I wonder how Lorne Greene would have explained convict behavior on Last of the Wild.

“When alarmed, the long-tooth jailbird immediately sheds its clothing — in the hallway, in the kitchen, in the gym, or wherever — and plunges into the closest body of soapy water. Biologists believe that this self-defense mechanism is prehistoric, from a time when filthy fowl was the preference of the bird’s natural predators.”

“Enter your cells IMMEDIATELY for lockdown count,” the speaker outside the shower room screamed. The doors of some of the newer cons clang shut with an urgency. In the shower room, my neighbor Barney vacates a stall and leaves the water on for me. We smile knowingly at each other as we pass. When it comes to the lingua franca of the pen, lifers know something that the new fish don’t. “Immediately” means at least five minutes. What are they going to do — throw us in jail?

After a leisurely three minute shower, I sloshed back to my cell — past the four-deep lineup of lifers cooking up some toast and tea — immediately. That’s when I heard the high theater being played out one cell below.

“Don’t try it, you F….in’ pig. You open that door and I’ll slice my F…in’ throat.”

Now this is something that has always elicited a deep wonderment in me. For instance, why — in the United States of Hang ‘em High — is there CPR training for the staff who work on death row? I mean, these folks are trained to use medical heroics to save the same guy they’ll be walking to Ol’ Sparky next week. Even in Canadian prisons — where we just bore criminals to death — staff are trained in a very specific “use of force protocol” when dealing with the risk of prisoner self-harm.

1. Ask offender if he or she would like to talk over their concerns with a prison psychologist. If they say yes, duck out of site and talk to the offender through the door, like you are Dr. Phil. Ask lots of questions about feelings. Check your pepper-spray canister for operational capacity.

2. Ask offender if they would like to go for a walk, to get some fresh air. Do not mention that the walk will end at the segregation block.

3. Ask offender if they would be willing to trade their razor blade / ligature / heroin-filled syringe for something nicer. Offer pizza. Or Pepsi. Do not mention handcuffs and shackles.

4. Encourage offender to try yoga stress relief positions. Offer the following:

Position 1: Lie flat on the ground face down.

Position 2: Spread legs wide.

Position 3: Place hands behind head and interlock fingers.

Important: Encourage offender to breathe deeply and close eyes. Tell them the pizza is on the way.

5. If offender complies with protocol 4, or fails to comply with protocols 1-3, insert percussion grenade under cell door. Follow with tear gas canisters (maximum of 10). Wait 3 minutes. Mask up with personal breathing apparatus. Enter cell and pepper spray offender repeatedly. Apply physical restraints firmly, and place offender in observation cell. Ensure that offender in no way self harms.

Three hours after the guards finally got us corralled into our cells, I saw six of them in riot gear rolling a trussed up convict through the courtyard in a wheelchair. I’m not sure if he was screaming or singing. Today the Warden put out a communiqué saying that, until further notice, oranges will no longer be served on the menu, and sugar rations are reduced by half. So much for our big Super Bowl plan.

 

The righteousness trap

How does a kid who spends weeknights building Lego hotels and his weekends casting for river trout turn into a career criminal and murderer? That’s what I wanted to know. So a decade ago I enrolled in a program to help me to find the answer.

In 2001, the Violence Prevention Program was new to the B.C. prison I was sleeping in, and at the time there were only twelve open spots for three hundred and forty prisoners. Lifers were not a priority. But after a couple of successful intake interviews, those in charge of seating saw something in me that they could work with – and offered me chair number twelve. I jumped at it.

Over the next five months, psychologists and program facilitators poked, prodded and challenged us until I knew more about violence than a North African dictator. Questions like, “When was the first time in your life you ever saw violence?” and “When was the first time you remember hitting someone? How did you feel?” really kicked up the dust in my memory vault. Other classes examined new terms like ”reactive” and “instrumental” violence, and the question of why we choose violence as a response (big surprise – because it works!). Nevertheless, it was the effort we put into finding the roots of violence that rewarded me most. It was there that I found the memories of a long ago assault on my dignity, memories as faint as a decades old sign in the desert.

Now if you’re thinking that this is the part where the jailbird blames his woes on a difficult childhood – time out. The only thing the blame game has ever done is put people on their knees. I may be a lot of things, but on my knees is not one of them.

However, there is an important difference between blaming and understanding. Where blaming asks “why,” understanding goes looking for “what?” – as in what the hell happened to me? It was in the thick brambles of what that I uncovered a backyard conversation between my Dad and I more than thirty years earlier. I was five years old. Dad denied saying something he most certainly had, then blamed me for getting it wrong. A pretty benign event in the everyday world of child rearing – until it plays out in front of an uncle that the kid totally worships. And that was it. One rogue moment in time became a cancer that would burrow its way into my bones; a twenty-two year nuclear war with the man who gave me life – and anyone I could paint his face on. I’ll never forget the way I felt the day it all came into focus for me. I wanted to vomit. It’s a feeling I’ve been getting a lot these days – whenever I read the national news.

The Canada I grew up in was one filled with a people who pushed words like “peacekeeping”, “environmentalism,” and “Human Rights” into the international lexicon. The first year I attended high school, every cool kid in the place wore the same pin on their sleeveless jean jacket: Free Afghanistan. It had only been one year since a conglomerate of communist countries invaded an ancient nation in western Asia, with the sole aim of bringing its untamed tribes into the fold of a centralized government of that conglomerate’s choosing. Every night at six o’clock, iconic B.C. newscaster Tony Parsons would decry the bloodshed of Afghan citizens while scorning the blatant propaganda of communist media organs. Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan sure has brought back a lot of those memories for me. What I can’t remember is whether Pravda ever advocated for a “Highway of Heroes.” It makes you wonder what buttons Russian high school kids are wearing.

Canadian politicians signing bombs to drop on an African nation that never raised as much as a voice against us; Canadian citizens howling for a return to the death penalty; Canadian corporations dealing death to developing nations; Canadian governments shepherding scorched earth industries, twenty years after Chernobyl. If ol’ Ronny Reagan was still alive, he might be excused for thinking that the “evil empire” had invaded everything upwards of the forty-ninth parallel. Regardless, I’m sure he’d be asking the same question I have lately as I look through a barred window on a country that I no longer recognize:

What the hell happened to the Great White North?

This would probably be a good place to insert a quote by some irreproachable statesman or historically cherished wise man — something about power corrupting or pride before a fall, or meeting the enemy and it is us. But twenty years of watching myself turn gray in an echo chamber have given me a few insights of my own. Surely the clearest of those is how bad it can go when the whole world is wrong except us – and the roads we can walk down to make ourselves believe it.

 

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

It rhymes with justice

On a fresh Tuesday morning three months ago, a prisoner from the cell block next to mine put on his crisp white uniform and reported to his job as a prep-cook in the kitchen. I had come to know Martin as a gifted artist, a capable barber, and a guy who had been behind bars for twenty years. The few times he waltzed around my jugular with a pair of barbering scissors revealed an exceptionally polite man, with a winsome smile and a patient ear for my awkward assassination of French verbs. But that morning in December, it would be a very different Martin that the prison would experience; a Martin who could barricade himself and a female kitchen steward — a mother of newborn twins — at knife point in a storage room for nine hours and, according to news reports, raped her repeatedly while police negotiators on the other side of the thick steel door bargained for her life.

It has taken me twelve weeks to be able to write those words. It was a week before I could even talk about it. The day Quebec’s LCN network reported the details, I couldn’t eat. In eighteen years behind bars, I’ve seen guys swigging each other’s puked up methadone; I’ve seen a prisoner with his eyes sliced in half — by his own hand; I’ve even seen a whole tier of convicts shuffle through the drained life-blood of a 22-year-old suicide victim, high-fiving each other on their way to a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowel of tomato soup (top that one, Senator Boisvenu). What I’ve never seen is anything like Martin.

In the weeks that followed, my reaction to what Martin did could be called predictable. The husband and father in me felt deep sorrow for the victim and her family. The prisoner in me was sickened to the marrow, angry that no other kitchen cons had intervened; smashed him with soup oar, cleaved his skull with frying pan, cut his throat with a paring can opener — something! Finally, the human being in me was left with only one question — the same one everyone asks when nothing makes sense. “Why?”

In the past few months, Canada has become the winter palace of “why?” In Kingston, a mother and father are convicted of murdering three bright and chirpy teenage daughters; in Vancouver, grieving stakeholders sift the memories of 50 butchered women; on a highway in southern Alberta, the lives of five young men and women are vaporized in a lighting strike of jealousy — and the newspapers, courtrooms, and church pews are filled in an attempt to find meaning. The problem is that is while Canadians quarry through mountains of nonsense, looking for that one nugget of sense, they’re probably missing the most important question of all: Why ask why?

In his provocative book, The Science of Evil — On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University (and cousin to that other famous Baron-Cohen) looks at intolerable human behavior with a fresh set of eyes — through the lens of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the scientific method. As a young Jew, raised in a community of Holocaust survivors, Baron-Cohen had an early introduction to things that make you ask why. For instance, why did German army officers turn Jews into lampshades? Or why did a German doctor amputate the hands of one family friend, then use advanced micro-surgery techniques to reattach them backwards, with her thumbs pointing down? The answers young Simon received were the usual ones. The Devil did it. God was testing us. The Nazis were evil. But none of these satisfied him — or did anything to prevent future genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. So Simon the university student kicked “why” to the curb and focused instead on the who, what, and when of the matter. The answers he eventually found may change forever the way we understand cruel human behavior.

The problem, Baron-Cohen says, is not the presence of evil, but the absence of empathy. By empathy he means “our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” After decades of investigating autistic brains, he and his team discovered that the venerable human quality we call empathy is actually a measurable substance that can be seen in action during an fMRI brain scan. Some, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, are what the Professor calls “super-empathizers” — unable to move from caring for others to thinking solely of their own interests. Others, like British mother Rekha Kumara-Baker, who stabbed her two daughters to death in June 2007, display (at least temporarily) what the Professor calls “zero degrees empathy” — or “no awareness of how they come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate others feelings or actions.” Strangely enough, zero degrees empathy is the same designation that autism patients exhibit. Why there hasn’t been an epidemic of autistic serial killers is a good question. And it’s not the only one.

How does “zero degrees empathy” occur? Is it genetic, or are there environmental factors? How wide spread is the condition? Is it treatable? Who are at greatest risk? These are the types of thorny questions that Baron-Cohen and others are fearlessly pursuing. But whether they find the answers may rely less on meticulous lab work than it will on getting into the minds of those who already know. I think I know a good place to start looking.

When the world was introduced to Robert William Pickton, it felt like we were watching a movie. As a writer, I couldn’t have created a more abhorrent creature. First, he was a skinny and balding fifty-something, with greasy hair and pasty white skin — a stretched version of Danny DeVito’s “the Penguin.” Of course he also smoked — at a time when Canadians were being programmed to hate everything about smoke and smokers. Even the name the media gave him — Willy — evoked images of a misogynist sodomite from the movie Deliverance. Then came the narrative. He butchered his victims — hung them like sides of pork in a meat locker — where he must have practiced necrophilia. He drizzled human flesh into products sold by local grocers. He fed some women to dogs and pigs while still alive. He ate them himself. By the time the judge said guilty, fact and fiction were exchangeable; all that was left was an urban legend for the ages — a soul sucking demon for whom a silver bullet was too good. And the world howled “why?”

What we never heard was who, as in “Who derives pleasure from methodically hunting vulnerable women, kidnapping them, torturing them, butchering them and feeding them to his pet pig? Who was Robert Pickton before he became a notation in the annals of infamy?” I’m no psychopathologist, but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck — then our boy Willy was one sick bird. Yet the DNA evidently says human. So when did Pickton lose that? Are there more out there like him, clinging by a finger to the last branch of their humanity? What about my workmates, my neighbors, my family? What about me? Those are the questions I’d really like answers to. But since “why?” seems to be the question-du-jour, I might as well ask one of my own. Why are so many Canadians in such a hurry to kill the one guy who can tell us how serial killers really happen? The answer has nothing to do with justice.

When things happen that knock our emotional pendulum as far off center as Pickton did, physics leaves the mind with no recourse but an equal and opposite reaction. When I killed the man I am serving a life sentence for, I did so in the absolute conviction that he was trying to kill me. That my conclusion was borne from seething rage rather than anything factual was something I never gave a moment of consideration to. An eye for an eye was my search for balance — the same feeling I had when I first heard about Martin. The difference is, I’m no longer a 27-year-old kid with a head full of hash resin. Maximum brutality may have quenched a passing desire 18 years ago, but I now know that fighting fire with fire never meets anyone’s long term needs. Instead, what two decades of help from others, and quiet thinking on my own has taught me is that the questions we ask are far more important than the volume with which we ask them. That’s where you’ll find justice. Everything else is just us

– For Diane

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

Prison, it’s the new black

I finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help last night. For five nights I couldn’t put it down. I’m sure that has more to do with my first writing coach, Ed Griffin than The Oprah.

“Show, don’t tell! You owe it to the reader.” I can hear Ed howling at us even now. Stockett followed this timeless decree so closely that, this morning, I found myself calling a difficult female guard in the control post, that white woman.

But walking through 1960’s Mississippi for a week has brought out more than my inner cleaning lady. As with all good reads, this one left behind some big picture questions. Like why we believe what we do about others — and how otherwise rational, educated people can cling so tightly to “truths” that aren’t. Right now those questions feel particularly urgent. Maybe it’s because in 21st century Canada, convicts are the Nigra nouveau.

“I’ve been reading your column,” Ed said to me on the phone last week. “Good stuff.” Inside I buzz like I’ve just heard that the cutest chick in gym class likes me. I want to say something self-depreciative — to be polite. But all I can gather up is “thanks,” and even that comes out all squeaky.

“I have a question though…”

“Shoot,” I say.

“Does anyone ever get the reader comments to you? I been reading some and they’re a little bit… malicious.”

Ed is the crown prince of Anglo-Saxon expletives. It must have damned near killed him to conjure up a word like malicious.

“You mean the stuff about what a pathetic piece of vermin vomit I am, and that I should be hung by my nuts in a slow-acting gas chamber, or the stuff about my writing being the worst the Province has ever published, and the reason I’m online is because my column’s not even good enough for budgies to crap on?”

“Yeah…” I hear my seventy-five year old mentor sigh from five provinces away. “So you know. How do handle that kind of criticism?”

Criticism? Is that what it is? I thought I was just giving folks a place to blow off steam — you know, so they don’t have to beat their spouses (or pets) again this week. Besides, hating on me is the king of lost causes. To quote the most popular Lady on the planet: “I was born this way.”

Yet, I think I understand Canadian’s burning need to hate “the other.” It’s in our DNA. AboriginalsChinese — JapaneseJewsJehovah’s Witnesses — Mentally Disabled — we’ve hated, discriminated against, and even killed some of them — legally. With all due respect to Adrian Clarkson, there has never been a moment in the history of confederation where making room for all of us didn’t mean that somebody had to “tee-tee in the colored’s bathroom.”

When I was a kid growing up in the interior of B.C. it was pretty much week to week which one of those bathrooms got singled out for high contempt. There were those in the colossal “Hindu shacks” just off the main road — built by immigrant Punjabi families (whose turbans said Sikh, not Hindu), so that they could care for each new wave of arriving family.

“My lord, have you ever smelled such a gawd-awful stink in your life? That’s their food you know,” was the one I heard most often – usually from the back seat of our car.

Then there was the local “Indian school,” just off the reservation. “Little buggers can’t go to a normal school. Too wild — and dirty,” our neighbor would say. Being a church Elder, I guess he knew about that sort of thing.

But three decades of multiculturalism has left dissatisfied Canadians with a bucketful of pent up bigotry, and nowhere to dump it. Not in public anyway. “Chinks,” “Japs,” “Chugs,” “Pakies,” Wops,” “Kikes” — they’re all off the table of socially acceptable parties to blame our woes on. Heck, even bad mouthing “fags” these days will put you on an RCMP watch list, which might explain why it’s now fashionable to blame everything wrong with Canada on prisoners. Besides Nickleback, who else is left?

“Writing class out at the prison has been going good,” Ed says, changing topics. “Some of the boys are making real movement on their prose.” I ask if he’s still having problems getting community volunteers to help.

“Volunteers? No problem. There’s a line up. The problem is when they come to the prison — especially the women. The guards really put them through the ringer. One of our volunteers said that they told her ‘ never sit next to an offender, never hug an offender, never show too much personal attention to an offender, and never, ever give anything to, or take anything from an offender.’ She said it’s like they want us to treat them like they’re from another planet or something.” I allow myself a knowing smile.

Not another planet, Ed. Just another place in time.

 

Been there, done that

“Mr. Harper should move more slowly before he cuts the CPP and OAS for older inmates.

In each case the question is, what do they do with the money? Do they spend it on prison canteen? Hardly. There are only so many candy bars a man can eat.

Do they buy illegal prison drugs? The staff would notice the older inmate stoned out of his mind.

Most older inmates send their CPP and OAS home to support their families. Some bank the money for the day they get out.

Mr. Harper’s plan would impoverish these men and their families and make them a burden on society. As history shows, make one exception to a universal program and soon the government will make more exceptions.

Beware. We may be next.” – Ed Griffin, Surrey

 

– Op/Ed page, Surrey Leader — June 23, 2010

 

If Ed Griffin could only pick stocks like he can social agendas, maybe we’d both be both living in the Playboy mansion. But in order to save my prescient pal’s shiny dome from excessive swelling, I will now reveal the source of his uncanny powers. First, Ed is an expatriate of Regan’s America, that place where the great Pharaoh from Hollywood finally “set them markets free,” while at the same time slapping a million young black men back in chains (and orange jumpsuits). Where the Romans brought straight roads to the world, Regan’s America put something at the end of those roads: prisons. So for the prophetic Mr. Griffin, watching the Canadian news these days must be like watching reruns of Jersey Shore — painful.

Secondly, Ed has been coming to Canadian prisons as a volunteer for the past seventeen years. After that long, you start to see patterns. As outrageous as the latest policy suggestion from the backbench may be, you can bet we heard it first in the Big House. When I first came into the penitentiary, everything was geared to education, and getting prisoners back into the community as tax-paying citizens. There was advanced trades training, university courses, and for those prisoners who could safely be managed, even apprenticeships — conducted outside the fence. Another pinko initiative dreamed up by the Trudeau gang while quaffing hundred-dollar bottles of taxpayer-funded Cabernet Sauvignon at the Chateau Laurier? Nope. Paid university for prisoners was the brainchild of the Mulroney Conservatives — the last gang to dance the death penalty trial balloon out before the Canadian populace.

But in 1993, less than a year after the Chretien Liberals won that party’s largest ever majority, corrections announced a “moratorium” on post-secondary training for inmates. By the spring of 1995, that moratorium had become ban, and any Canadian federal prisoner that wanted more than a grade ten education would have to pony up out of his own pocket. Care to guess what happened next? You might remember a little something called “balancing the budget,” where then Finance Minister, Paul Martin drew up a new list of Canadian priorities. If there were any Canadian students stunned to see that federal funding for post-secondary education didn’t make the top 100 lists in “Red Book” Canada, none of them were sleeping in the house of detention.

Much whelping was heard around the nation in 2011, as Canada officially pulled out of the Kyoto accord. But not a whimper was heard anywhere when Corrections Canada’s environmental impact budget for 2010 was reshuffled into the budget for hiring more prison guards. Not that it mattered. While corrections wrote policy back in 2003 (Commissioner’s Directive 318 — Environmental Programs), to ensure that “CSC… meet the letter and spirit of all environmental laws, regulations, guidelines, codes and policies applicable to its operations,” reality is that all newspapers, glass, cardboard and plastic leaving the pen went the same way it has for the past hundred years — down the toilet or into the landfill. Whatever taxpayer money that was earmarked for green-plan enforcement evidently went into prison-staff overtime cheques. If you want to know why, just ask a convict. Canadians in general really couldn’t care less about saving the earth. It’s not our problem.

The list is as long as a Brad Pitt life-skills movie: Mandatory urinalysis for employment purposes? Sorry folks, the Big House had that back in 1992. Criminalization of tobacco smoking? Gotcha again – in 2009. Mandatory minimum (segregation) sentences for possession of marijuana? Since the first day of Harper’s minority government. Circumsized public library budgets? You saw it here first folks. And now that a Conservative MP has just tabled a bill to cut Unemployment Insurance payments to convicts after they’ve done their time, care to guess where you’ll see it next? If not, just ask Ed Griffin.

Churchill once famously noted that there was no better way to measure a society’s temperament than the way it treats its criminals. Canadians need to hope that old Winston got it wrong. Because you won’t believe what they’re doing to health care in here.

 

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

The Mayor of Nowhere

So, the 13 billion dollar question tearing Canada apart is this: Can people change? And what works better – punishment or rehabilitation? To find out, I propose the following experiment: cut each of Canada’s 12,500 federal prisoners a check for 500 grand and a one way ticket to the destination of your choice — and we’ll mail you the answer. As long as the destination isn’t hell. I hear the postal service is a bit spotty there since Khadaffi arrived. Something about re-imaging the stamps.

While you mull it over, you might consider this thought for free: Change is all humans ever do. We’re like sharks. Not only are we the most efficient and feared killers on the non-liquid part of the planet. We also alternate 50-50 between feeding, and feeding on, our young. But maybe our most shark-like feature is that if we stop moving, we die. Of course, that movement comes in many different forms. In the penitentiary the majority of it is spent traveling in circles. And just as on your side of the fence, those pointless unending circles that leave you exactly where you started (albeit with less energy and more gray hair) have a name. We call them elections.

Somewhere in the lost annals of Big House history, someone came up with the 1 watt idea of having a small group of prisoners who could voice the population’s concerns to the Warden — while he sat (surrounded by armed minions) behind the safety of a thirty foot wide bulletproof desk. Later, this communication model would be used to form the House of Commons.

In the beginning, Wardens cherry-picked which salivating sociopaths to allow in their presence un-muzzled. But as Canada began embracing democracy (somewhere around 1982), it was decided that this select committee of diplomatic deviants should be voted in by the inmate population. A population for whom murder is more virtuous than robbery. A population where trust is much rarer than innocence. A population where everyone wants to run the show — and most believe they already do.

Last week, election notices for the Inmate Committee went up around the cell block. Of course, they were misspelled — in both Canada’s official languages. Maybe it was the size of the accent over the E, but the French poster looked more like an ad for male-enhancement products. And what a list to choose from! In a population of 450 prisoners, no less than 72 are running for 3 positions. You think the NDP have it tough.

“You see who put their name in for the Committee?” KauKauGhe asked me last night.

“Well, I haven’t finished reading the entire catalogue yet, but…”

“That rat bastard from down the hall is running for President,” he continued. “And the little skin hound he always hangs with is going for Vice President. Can you believe it?”

“An informer and a sexual predator running for office? What do they think this is — the Republican nomination?”

“They should just keep them same guys that’s in there now,” Michelangelo piped in. “At least them boys put on a corn spread last summer. Wooo-aye that was some gawd lovin’ corn.” The nearly 400-pound former pro-wrestler’s eyes glazed over as he reminisced the 14 cobs of Peaches & Cream he had inhaled at last year’s corn harvest. Minor Matt had to bring him back to the cell block in a wheelchair.

“They can’t,” KauKauGhe said. “The warden kicked Denis off the committee a week ago. That’s why they’re having an election.”

“Really?” I was surprised. Denis had been the Inmate Committee president since I arrived here last year. As far as I could see, he had done a good job at it too. A big part of any Committee’s job is to put out spot fires before they become big deals. In the entirety of last year, only one con has been stabbed — and there wasn’t much anybody could have done about that. It was part of a drunken one-off that not even the guards saw coming. Other than that, the place was peaceful all year. Amazingly peaceful. It’s more than the majority of Canadian politician’s can claim about their constituencies.

“Yeah. They caught him smoking a cigarette in the Committee office. They told him that being on the committee is a privilege, and he was setting a bad example. So they give him the boot.” My Ojibwa friend’s big brown eyes sparkled with the obvious irony that a serial rapist and a jailhouse informant serving life for murder qualified to run for the Inmate Committee — but a smoker didn’t.

“Well, at least when he gets out he’ll have something new for his résumé — a year in government’ He can slide it in right under dope dealer.” KauKauGhe rolled his eyes at me and clicked his tongue. What he doesn’t know is that I’m serious. There’s thirty new seats coming to Parliament and, from what I hear, they’re looking to fill them with people who can problem solve by consensus. Now that would be a change.

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

Start me up

What a year a difference makes. First, I took down my shingle — the one that said “lean on me” — and went looking for a brand new pair of shoes. Fifteen years of serving locked-down neighbours as an “all hours” peer counsellor and legal advocate had taken their toll (my first grey pube!). Next, I did what every other guy in the eye of a mid-life crisis does: I bought a Corvette, got a new rope chain, and hit the clubs. O.K., so I’m stretching on the Corvette. But I did go out to a club — a writing club — where I met someone totally hot. That he was over seventy, bald, and had a raging case of chemotherapy wasn’t the first thing that caught my eye. No, that belonged to his bulging right brain — his ability to spray the colors of creativity onto dull prison walls — that’s what made Ed Griffin so comely. And hooking up with him opened doors for me that I had only ever walked past. Doors like writing for a tough audience…

But there’s opening a door and there’s opening a door, isn’t there? Just ask Cosmo Kramer. Since August 2010, The Incarcerated Inkwell has been a place for me to show Canadians what prison really is. The timing was right. Canadians en masse were drinking the billion-dollar Kool-Aid served up by a growing gaggle of prison prophets, and all things penitentiary had become the year’s leading Canadian newspaper topic. Even Post Media saw the value of bringing an insider’s POV to the table. For more than a year, their flagship British Columbia paper The Province has featured my weekly column, LIVE from the House of the Dead — columns I reprint here for readers (Canadian and otherwise) who are not regular visitors to The Province. But now that Inkwell readers know more about prison than those building them do, a little voice on my shoulder has been pestering me to widen out. Starting with this post, The Incarcerated Inkwell will now show a little less angst, and a little more leg — and not just my leg. You may have recently noticed that the site has started opening windows and letting in some fresher breezes. Now that the place is finally aired out, let me show you around…

Home Page: This will continue to be the spot for regular I.M. GreN?da posts, but beginning this week, those posts will now come twice weekly. One will revisit a recent LIVE from the House of the Dead column, while the other will be thoughts on a wider world that can only be found here at Inkwell. If readers have learned anything about my through-the-bars POV, it’s that not even razor wire can keep in the sunshine. It’s time to let more of it out.

Mercedes Muses: Yes she does — and the world needs to know it. Thirteen years ago a deeply beautiful woman and her two showstopper kids put their arms around me as a wife and stepchildren. That I was serving a life sentence for murder, lived in a maximum-security prison, and was sleeping two-hundred miles down the highway left those who knew them in shock. Now most of that shock has turned to awe. See for yourself how a bright and really funny lady makes a full time occupation out of following her heart, while turning the phrase prison mole into a badge of honour.

Writers Bloc – The Interviews: It took me a life sentence to figure it out, but the most fascinating thing in the human experience is the people who come into it. If the journey really is a path, then mine has been landscaped by an intriguing hotchpotch of nuts, geniuses, artists, rogues, survivors and renascence rascals. They have changed my life in a way that no blank cheque from Warren Buffet ever could. While some of them have tasted the prison experience, others only wish they had. All of them have seen the world through a unique set of eyes. Come see it through theirs.

Keep Six – On rare occasion, my world stops spinning just long enough for me to remember that, I am still a prisoner. And if prison is about anything, it’s about the things that I miss. In this unique weekly view of the sky we live under, I provide my own bucket list of things I wish I could do, see, and experience. Maybe readers will help me along by experiencing them for me. What better way to remind yourself which one of us is in prison?

Reader comments – While my custom of tackling contentious subjects will not change, it will always be the thought provoking comments of readers that give those topics breath. And while the world has no further need for haters, Inkwell will always be open to the dignified comments of our readers, no matter how strongly opposed they are to my own. It’s called free speech for a reason, folks.

Book Stash – I accomplished two notable goals in 2011. First I shut off the TV. For good. The Kardashians made that an easy choice. Secondly, I shut off Google Ads. After reading Martin Lindstrom’s  Brand Washed, it was the least I could do — and much easier than setting up an Occupy site in the big yard. The brainchild of these choices is Book Stash, featuring the things I have read, am currently reading, or are on my shelf to read in the near future. For your convenience, links have been provided for you to purchase books by means of Amazon links on our Book Stash page.

Writing on the Wall – Seeing as we’re all reading now, and Captain Oprah has gone chasing the great white wail (“philanthropy will save Africa!”), how’s about an online book club? Select any book from the Book Stash page and comment along with other readers. Also read fresh comments from the author (if they’re still breathing). Consider it a new way to turn your brain on — and mine too.

Gang Colors – The Incarcerated Inkwell might be low-rant, but it ain’t low rent. Partial proceeds from Inkwell paraphernalia (t-shirts, toques, etc.) go the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry Societies, where they are used to support community-based programs that help prevent more Canadians — especially young ones — from enrolling in the new Conservative daycare program called prison. So put your currency where your concern is — and trust that Inkwell will follow your lead.

And that’s the new place. Of course, you can still read a bit more about me in a recently updated bio, and peruse former posts and interviews in the archives page. Hopefully the renos will make it more comfortable for you (and your friends) to put up your feet and visit awhile. Readers can now also link to Inkwell through the I.M. GreN?da Facebook page. And as always, we will continue to post thought-provoking reader comments and queries — even if they are malodorous tirades. Just one small favour though? Try to make them brainy tirades. I don’t mind if you want to kill me. Just think of novel ways to do so — and express it in language that’s light on the expletives. I got kids, remember?

In the highly democratic new world of electronic publishing, there is one fact that every scribe begs his readers to memorize: A writer is only as good as his page views. So please — just pass me around like a Justin Bieber photo at a Penn State coach’s party. Link Inkwell to your Facebook page. Tweet us. Better yet, tweet about us. Email us to your mom, your neighbour’s mom, Stephen Harper’s mom — whoever. The more people reading about, thinking about, and debating crime and punishment from all possible angles, the better our ideas of how to address it will be. And let’s face it — anything has to be better than a system that already cost the U.S. a hundred billion dollars, thirty years of class warfare, and a lost generation counted in millions. Doesn’t it?

 

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