“It’s all the same F…ing day,” Janis Joplin once famously commented. While it’s easy to attribute that cynical perspective on the human experience to an insatiable diet of heroin and Jack Daniels, rock’s short-reigning Queen wasn’t the first royalty to reach that conclusion.
“That which has come to be, that is what will come to be… and so there is nothing new under the sun,” Solomon said – three thousand years before Princess potty mouth did. Either way you spin it, the Groundhog Day effect has been in play for as long as humans have counted time. And few settings give greater evidence of that than the one where life is measured in notches on a cell wall.
A while back I was invited by prison administrators to take part in a novel criminology experiment called “Scared Straight.” The idea was to take first-time offenders who have been sentenced to probation and give them an afternoon field trip to a prison. After a tour of the facility, and twenty minutes locked in a cell, the highlight of their visit to the circus would be an hour talking to the clowns. As the program’s moniker advertised, the goal was to encourage good citizenship through the implied threat of anal gang rape in a dirty prison cell where no one cares if you scream. Fittingly, the participants that day would be teenagers – one convicted of shoplifting, the other of possessing a gram of pot.
“The way this program works is that we want these guys to see what lies ahead of them if they don’t straighten out,” the corrections official said to me. “So we need you to be very explicit—tell them about the violence and all of it. Don’t hold back. Are you interested?”
One thing that no prisoner is ever interested in is being the main attraction in a freak show. But every so often, exploiting human suffering for moralistic purposes finds its way back into vogue.
“What time do you want me there?” I asked.
“I’ll send someone to pick you up at two” he replied. I couldn’t help but notice the sparkle in his eyes as they wandered over my tattoo-sleeved arms. The ringmaster had found his two-headed boy.
By the time the guards came to get me and we navigated through strip-searches, metal detectors, and waiting rooms, I was late. The room was set up like a high school band practice—with a semi-circle of ogling cons facing two chairs that were occupied by an eighteen-year-old brunette and his straw-blond buddy. Nether blinked while a six-foot, well-muscled jailbird in a white wife beater held court.
“You think this is funny?” he screamed at our doe-eyed visitors. “You think you’re tough enough to handle this?” Both boys shook their heads in unison. They looked like synchronized pendulums on matching grandfather clocks. “You come in here you’re going to be my bitch. You’re going to be washing my balls in the shower. You hear me?” It might have been imagination, but to me the room suddenly smelled of pee.
I sat silently while the spitting drill-sergeant finished his diatribe. Then the correctional manager nodded to me, signaling my turn to wow the audience. I walked towards our guests with chair in one hand and a carefully chosen prop in the other. I sat down directly in front of the two young men, blocking their view of the delinquents behind me. I introduced myself and shook their clammy hands. On my lap sat a closed navy blue photo album.
“The first thing you need to know is that everything you have heard here today is bullshit,” I began. “If anyone in here ever tried to muscle you into sex, he’d be so full of holes he’d need a bucket of Bondo to stop the bleeding. Then he’d be living in protective custody for the rest of his days. We don’t put up with that kind of crap in Canadian prisons.” The kid on the right let out his breath, looking like he couldn’t decide between laughter and tears.
Then I opened the photo album.
“If you want to know what prison really is, take a look at this. This is my little sister. I haven’t seen her in more than a decade. And this was my grandma. She died while I was here. I never got to say goodbye. Or this one,” I said, pointing to a particularly painful photo. “This is my kid at his grade six sports day. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for any of them—sports day, first fish, first beer—none of it. He’s in his twenties now.” Behind me, the room was as quiet as a deathbed.
“When you come in here, the life you left behind you goes on. You don’t. It’s like you’re frozen in the same day for years on end, and when you get out that time is gone. Forever. That’s prison.”
Scratching Sgt. Sex-Organ’s back in the shower room seems unbearably light in comparison.