I peered out through the four-by-sixteen-inch food slot in my segregation cell door. The face didn’t match the high Oxford accent. First of all, it was tanned — really tanned. Not one of those ‘glow in the dark’ jobs from the local strip mall. This guy’s sun firing face said Bali, Bahrain, or some other far off B. And his hair was more Eddie Van Halen than Eddie Greenspan. But I had a rule of thumb. If a man travelled all the way to the pen to knock on my door — especially in the hole — the least I could do was say hello.
Well Professor, I’m not exactly dressed for company. But today is shower day. Maybe if you come back after lunch we can talk.”
Great. I’ll see if I can come back.” He parted with a smile and left me to my thoughts.
The professor wasn’t my first visitor that week. Back then I was up to my nose in something called an “involuntary transfer.” My welcome in medium-security had worn smoky thin, and everybody from my parole officer to the assistant warden was dropping by to say so. The best rumours were that my destination would be 4732 Cemetery Road – Kent maximum-security penitentiary. Besides the criminally insane ward at Essendale hospital, Kent is as end-of-the-line as the west coast gets. Now, out of nowhere, some high-power lawyer appears at my coffin door asking to chat. It was enough to put an atheist in a church pew.
The convict cleaner was still collecting lunch trays when the shadow of a bullet-shaped head filled the small glass square in my door. “You have a visitor,” the walking deepfreeze said. “Put your hands out through the slot.” I flicked to auto-pilot and followed a set of instructions I knew by heart. First the hand cuffs. Then face-down on the bed, feet towards the door. Then the door opens and one puts on the shackles while his buddy fingers the trigger on his pepper spray. Finally, the human forklifts take one arm each to ensure your destination.
“Hi. Thanks for meeting with me,” Jackson said. As I waddled into the steel clad interview room, the lawyer-cum-rock star rose to greet me. I’ve never forgotten that. Nor have I forgotten that he didn’t offer his hand. Shaking mine while they were clasped in irons would have been awkward — and intimidating. It was a yield to dignity that I would later learn exists inside Professor Jackson as deeply as a watermark.
After some very small chat concerning the distinct odour of segregation blocks and the nuances of prison food, he closed quickly to the point.
”About a year ago parliament passed a new set of laws called the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. Have you heard of it?” I admitted that it hadn’t made my summer reading list. Maybe after I finished Madonna’s Sex.”
”It took six years to write,” he continued, “and is the first piece of Canadian law that enshrines the Charter of blah, blah, blah…
It says that they can’t keep you in the hole or transfer you without giving you a chance to make your case.” Now the professor had my attention.
A week later I was back in my cell in general population. Still prison, but not the hole — and not Kent. In the clink you take your breaks where you can get them; another rule of thumb. It was this rule that I would ride right through the front gates of the prison — hidden in the back of a garbage truck full of kitchen wastes — only four months later. And the professor’s segregation law seminar was the last thing on my mind. But if there is one thing that Jackson has learned in thirty-five years of advocating for society’s least desirable humans, it’s the truth in the words to that old Aerosmith standard: life’s a journey, not destination.
It would be another three years before Jackson and I were in the same room again — and this time it was at Kent. It was if the conversation had never paused.
“I brought you a copy of that law we were talking about. I thought you might have finished Madonna by now.” His eyes flashed a wry smile. And then the professor professed. He spoke about human rights and the rule of law, and his passion for First Nations issues. He also spoke of many things — both enthralling and horrifying — that he had seen since first visiting Canadian prisons in the ‘70’s.
”I have a novel theory,” Jackson concluded that day. “I believe that the best way to teach respect for human rights is to give people human rights — especially criminals. I mean, how do you teach people something by taking it away from them? Especially if they never knew what was it in the first place?”
That may be the most courageous question I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, like so many other things about the good professor, it’s a century ahead of its time.