In Canada, the cost for criminal conduct is measured with a calendar, not a yardstick. While it’s true that those in the Big House bunk in six-by-nine concrete coffins, it’s the length of their stay that most concerns the court. I guess the judge figures that a minimum of two years and an average of five gives you lots of time to think. If so, then I don’t know why more of us — in all of Canada’s fifty-eight federal institutions — haven’t figured out the recipe: Prison is a place in time, not a place on the map.
“The only way out, is through,” says author Shannon Maroney. Her new book Through the Glass describes her experience of falling in love with, and marrying a life-sentenced prisoner on parole. A month after “Oh yes,” came a crushing, “Oh no!” The new hubby was back behind bars — for the kidnap and rape of two women in Peterborough, Ont. The fact that Canada has the western world’s lowest rate of criminal reoffending for lifers on parole was of no consolation. According to Maroney, her former husband (she has since remarried) wasn’t the only one who started doing time that day.
“I wished I could trade places with [him] — that I could have 24 hours a day in solitude, a place to think and three meals a day delivered to me — instead of having to mop up the disaster he had left behind,” she say. Part of that mop-up included the invasive questioning of family, friends and colleagues. “Why did he do it?” was the most common.
“I would love to know the answer,” the thoughtful and articulate author wrote in a recent Globe and Mail piece. “But in the absence of any psychiatric evaluation or treatment inside prison, the time [he] is serving is just that: time. It’s time that he could spend as a study subject so doctors could learn how to treat, cure and prevent sexual deviance disorders, or working to pay restitution to his victims.”
Readers who have been paying attention realize that the bizzaro world I write from is one that houses some of Canada’s most unbalanced actors. While the names Olson, Bernardo, and Picton sell newspapers, they are barely visible sand grains in the bottom of a well. There are nearly thirteen thousand federal prisoners in Canada. Thousands of them have engaged in multiple acts of violence — including sexual violence. What happens to them after they arrive here has been the topic of a year’s worth of columns. We climb light poles. We pick up empty pop cans. We collect certificates, clean army trucks for Afghanistan, and assemble overpriced furniture for government offices. We drink a lot of Pepsi. As Maroney has discovered for herself, mostly we do nothing — frozen in time until that magical day that the freezer door opens.
I recently asked a lifer named Kenny how he was getting along since his transfer to medium security. Kenny has spent the previous twenty-four years in max and super-max, molded into one of the most feared — and hated — prisoners in the country. The bold blue tattoo splashed across the center of his face barely distracts from a soul-deep hatred that scars him like a burn.
“I don’t know what to think any more,” he replied. “Lately, when I look in the mirror, I don’t know who that is. Most days I feel like I’m waking up from a nightmare, into another nightmare. It’s like I lost my F…ing mind when I was nineteen years old, and now I’m forty-three and can’t remember how I got here. Sometimes I really think I should just kill myself. The problem is: I’m too exhausted to even do that.”
The first time I met Kenny was almost twenty years ago. He and I were neighbours in an infamous west coast pen built on Cemetery Rd. in the Fraser Valley. I hadn’t even unpacked my coffee mug before he invited me over for a cupful of casual sex. Talk about the welcome wagon. When I graciously declined, he said, “Oh, O.K. What about your celly? You think he might be horny?” all of it asked with a complete nonchalance. When I told him I didn’t even know who my cellmate was yet, he gave me a look that felt like pity. “Well, if you need anything, just give a bang on the wall.” And as quickly as he had come, he was gone. Sitting on the bed that day, I had no clue what the years before me held. Yet one thought rang clarion clear: Whatever you do kid, don’t ever touch that wall.
Not touching walls — and not letting them touch us — is how most prisoners survive life in the deep freeze. “Jails might prevent criminals — especially violent criminals — from committing further crimes while they are incarcerated, but they also give prisoners a place to hide. They don’t have to face the people they’ve hurt,” observes Maroney. In her own case, visiting her former husband in prison after his arrest allowed her to get some answers. Answers that have helped her cast off the mantle of victimhood, while helping others to do the same. Answers that reveal why turning up the heat on crime will require much more than billion dollar expenditures. Answers that Canadians need to know — on the eve of its most colossal cross-country freezer building project ever.