Prison is the members only club house for could-have-been’s and never were’s. And as the last of this year’s falling foliage beckons November rains, the view through the bars is filled with the year that was — not.
2011 was the year I travelled twenty-five hundred miles — and didn’t meet with family members of the man I murdered almost two decades ago. I knew when I started the journey that such was a very real possibility. Resurrections can be a messy business, and letting your dead sleep on is sometimes the best sort of healing. I know that Professor Liz Elliott would have agreed with that.
Liz was a fellow traveller on the journey that brought me to Quebec almost a year ago. She was one of the first to introduce me to a concept called restorative justice. This fall, after a decade long death-match with the big C, she finally closed her eyes and drew in the darkness. Hers is a shadow that will not quickly fade. Liz was one of those mentors who believed that they who can teach must also do. To that end she would spend hours filling thirsty minds at SFU’s faculty of criminology, then load those same apprentices into vans and ferry them to the dungeons of the Fraser Valley — where the rubber of theory meets the road of reality.
“I sure as hell am not an abolitionist,” she would tell rooms packed with curious prisoners. “Right now, prisons are the best tool we have to get dangerous people off the street in a hurry — just like hospitals are the best thing we have for treating the sick. The problem is we aren’t sending anybody here to get better. We send you here knowing that you’ll probably get sicker, and at some future time you’re coming out — and probably moving next door to us. The thing that drives me nuts is that we spend billions on this.”
Professor Elliott spent her professional life trying to awaken listeners to the thought processes that made violent criminals out of ordinary citizens — and how to address these problems in ways that made society safer. When she passed away on September 9th, (a week before Parliament opened the book on the most agressive lock down of Canadian citizens in its history), I couldn’t help but wonder whether she had closed her eyes purposefully — to the train wreck she saw coming. If so, too bad. She would have felt a great satisfaction at what happened next.
“The Correctional Service of Canada has confirmed that Clifford Olson is dead. At 71 years of age, the notorious BC serial killer succumbed to cancer last night in a Quebec prison hospital,” CBC Radio announced on September 30th. In her travels, Elliott had often fielded the question, “and what about Olson?” The one asking would invariably spit out the serial killer’s name with a venom reserved for the vilest of expletives. On more than one occasion, I was in the room to hear the professor’s thoughtful response.
“Olson is never getting out,” she would say with a sigh, as if teaching grade-school grammar to grad students. “Everyone knows that. Corrections knows it, the parole board knows it, the police know it — and every government for the past thirty years has known it. Even the media knows. The only ones who don’t seem to get it are the public. But that’s been worth a lot of money to people in the right places.” Liz would then run down a top ten list of benefactors (in either cash or votes) from the fear that Olson would one day be released — or that his cell in super maximum security was somehow too soft. In the years after the serial killer’s conviction, policing budgets across Canada went up like Mount St. Helens. Fear-mongering “private member bills” put no-name politicians on the map. And the name Olson placed anywhere on the front of a Canadian newspaper guaranteed a sold out edition.
“Believe me,” Liz would conclude, “I’m no fan of Clifford Olson. I was a social worker in Vancouver when he was killing kids. I was pregnant. The prick scared the hell out of everybody. But after he was locked up, then what? Even if we had hung him, there was still a lot of pain — everywhere. We had to start putting our lives back together. Olson is one of the reasons I got involved with restorative justice.”
I guess that makes two of us.
Things are moving quickly in the justice system these days. With the passing of whipping post legislation and the biggest prison building budget in the nation’s history, the forty year experiment in criminal rehabilitation is as done as 20’s greenery. No one knows what Canada’s Alcatraz spring will look like when the dust settles. But for two very different Canadians who have returned to the dust, it won’t matter. Their sentences are forever finished, and the pens they were written with now belong to memories.