A few years back I got some bad legal news. Really bad. It came as the result of a long-ago southern vacation, where I had helped myself to one of the neighbour’s banks. No shots fired, and if I remember right, I even offered my sincere thanks on the way out the door. Not that I’m excusing myself. I knew what I did was wrong and that, if caught, the price could be immeasurably greater than the pocket change I slithered away with that day. But then, who plans to get caught?
Twelve years later… I received a government manuscript on flat pink paper. It read like Sophie’s Choice; if ever I attempt release by parole on my Canadian life sentence, I will be immediately surrendered to an American prison sentence that will eat me alive. Frying pan or fire — your choice kid. Who knew that death came on pink paper?
Human reaction to bad news is so predictable that we finally invented a name for it: the grieving process. I went through all the steps. Denial, bargaining, anger, whatever, whatever. Once I had done all that I reasonably could to work things out with the aggrieved parties (to no avail), I settled on the inevitable: toxic detritus from complex metabolic processes, expelled from the bowels, happens. Nothing new in that. Somewhere today someone’s morning tinkle will be an unnerving shade of pink. It will be cancer. Not the card they wanted. And it’s not like they robbed a bank to get it. But when that’s the hand you’re dealt, what comes next? Hold? Or fold?
In the dozen years it took for my bullet to find me I had become a husband, a father and a valued member of a tight-knit spiritual community. That made folding — riding a belt-buckle necktie off the top bunk — a non-starter. Nor would I try my luck at that convict game of chance, Beat the Fence. For me, escape is just another version of the death card.
On the other side of the house, I’m only forty-five years old. I don’t smoke, drink, or use drugs. I’m a vegetarian and exercise regularly. I meditate daily, have a happy marriage, and a relatively low stress level. I’m going to live forever — for now. And while there are some days when I wonder what eternity will look like through bars, it’s not often. For cons like me, the light at the end of the tunnel could only be an oncoming train. Is there any point in looking?
In 2005, I became the coordinator for a pilot-project called Prisoner Advocacy. A dozen long-term prisoners — including my hippie bro, Ryan — received training in how to assist our fellow prisoners with legal issues. At the end of our tier was an old lifer named Harley. Ten years earlier, Harley had shot a drunk bully to death after the man threatened to sodomise Harley’s young son. The facts of the case pointed pretty clearly to manslaughter, not murder — the difference being a life sentence. But in Harley’s case, small-town politics played a bigger role than they should have. Then, a rookie mistake, when Harley used his divorce lawyer for a murder trial. Oops. The price was life — with no eligibility of parole for ten years. For a 67-year-old with emphysema and a raging cholesterol count, it was a death sentence. For Ryan and me it was a chance to try out our new jail-breaking skills.
It took us three years to get Harley in front of the National Parole Board. He fought us every step of the way. “I ain’t taking no bullshit violence prevention program. I don’t care if I have to die here. I shot that asshole in self-defence. I’m not a violent guy. You see what it says here?” He pointed to a fading tattoo on his rib cage. It must have been forty years old.
“NO BULLSHIT,” I read out loud.
“Right. No. Bull. Shit. I’m not one of these crack heads robbing 7-11’s or beating up grandma for her purse. And I’m not going to sit in some classroom full of them and listen to their bullshit stories about the bullshit they’ve been through in their bullshit lives and how it’s all going to change when they get out. Bullshit!”
Eventually, Harley took the program. It was the only way out. Then we coached him on how to sit through a two-hour parole hearing without using his favourite expletive — or showing off his tattoo. Ryan was sitting right next to the salty biker when the Parole Board told him he could go to a halfway house, and that in six months he could go home and live with his daughter and her girls. Apparently there were tears. No Bullshit.
A year later Ryan came by my cell for a tea. He had an envelope with him — pictures from Harley. As I thumbed through the stack, one caught my eye and burned itself in like a brand. It was of three young girls — draped like moonbeam pixies — over what could only be Hemmingway’s Old Man from the sea. Harley. And three granddaughters that were not even born the year their mother’s father was sentenced to death. Michelangelo would have begged for such joyous muses.
While life behind bars is no parent’s dream for their son, there’s one thing about it: It’s still life.