The Incarcerated InkWell

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

Interview with Joan McEwen

Joan McEwen is a writer, a lawyer, and a volunteer/advocate for prisoners, including helping long-term offenders to reintegrate back into society. It was while conducting research into her second (yet-to-be-published) novel, entitled Entangled (the story about a white male parolee and his Indo-Canadian female parole officer) that Joan began volunteering in Ed Griffin’s creative writing program in Matsqui Institution.

Her current writing project is a a non-fiction book about Ivan Henry, a self-represented man convicted in 1983 of ten sex offences. After spending 27 years in jail, Mr. Henry was exonerated by the BC Court of Appeal in 2010. At age 65, he has yet to be compensated and is virtually penniless.

In her book, Joan investigates the failures of the justice system—police, prosecutor, judge, Corrections, etc. As a result, she is increasingly passionate about “Innocence” work. Tweet her @ joan1mc.

1 – With a million injustices in the world, why a book about a Canadian convict?

Many people hold Canada up as a beacon of democracy and social justice. I first contacted Ivan Henry in 2010, after reading about the exoneration decision, because of my curiosity about doing time as a sex offender. The inmates I’d become friends with included drug dealers and bank robbers; murderers and extortionists—but never, ever, the “lowest of the low” in prison-speak, sex offenders. At our first meeting, however, Ivan presented as the man-possessed that he is—intent on proving to the world that he is innocent. The more I peeled away the skins of his story, the more shocked I became at the travesty of justice he has endured: police, prosecutors, judges. 

2 – Canadians seem to have lost their taste for rehabilitation. Why do you think that is?

I don’t believe Canadians have lost their taste for rehabilitation. The story of the economic benefits of rehabilitation needs better salespeople! Yes, the public sees red at stories of blood & guts & gangs, but I truly believe that—if more stories of restorative justice, forgiveness, rehabilitation, etc., found their way into the public consciousness—public opinion would change and adapt. I recently spoke to a senior, much-respected criminal lawyer in Vancouver. He said that the institution he’s found the worst to deal with in his career is the CSC. Why? Because they’re so secretive and so seemingly obstructionist. What needs to change before society holds them accountable just like any other public institution?

3 – What does your man think of all the con-hugging volunteerism you do?

My husband, Irwin Nathanson, is a respected litigation lawyer and a big supporter of my work in the area of long-term prisoners’ reintegration into society. Indeed, we work together on many voluntary endeavours in this regard. Though Irwin jokes sometimes about how happy he is that we don’t share the same last name, I like to think he’s not serious. :-)

4 – Last year’s Occupy movement shed a lot of light on North America’s disappearing middle class. Does this have anything to do with Canada’s prison building obsession?

The disappearing middle class is a big problem. I read two articles today—one about the over-inflated pensions of judges, the other about the over-inflated pensions of police. In the past, these would have been hands-off stories. Today, the public demands answers. As for whether that widening rich/poor gap is related to the federal government’s “prison building obsession”, I can’t say. What I can say is that neither the NDP or the Liberal parties have come out strongly with a “pro-rehabilitation platform” when it comes to caring for our inmate population.

5 – 74% of Western Canadians favour a return of the death penalty in certain cases — such as Robert Pickton, Terri-Lynne McClintic or Michael Rafferty. What’s so bad about this idea?

Read Sacha Baron-Cohen’s latest book, “Zero Degrees of Empathy” (referenced in my Twitter account, joan1Mc). He writes that the concept of “evil people” is an unscientific construct. What we have, instead, are people with varying degrees of empathy. At the “bottom” end, there are people historically referred to as psychopaths. The good news? Empathy can be taught. I’d love to see more research in this area. Instead of writing people off, why not fund this kind of research? Though I am not “religious”, I truly believe that no person is irredeemable.

6 – Most people want to see last year’s Stanley Cup rioters behind bars for the property damage they inflicted. What would you like to tell British Columbians about prison?

I do not want to see last year’s Stanley Cup rioters imprisoned. The vast majority of the rioters were kids, just like my two boys, ages 21 and 22—not downtown at the time, but they could have been. There but for the grace of ….

I am not impressed with the provincial LIberal party’s rush to judgment on this issue. A “restorative justice” model (community service) for most of these kids would make way more sense.

7 – What’s the thing you like most about living in Canada?

Canada is a wonderful country, and I wake up every day grateful to be living here. However, there is much work to be done on the road to achieving social justice for all citizens. Sadly, Ivan Henry is one of many cases in point.

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