Of all the faux-pas in Canadian prison, whistling may be the most universal. Rumour is that the anathema against blowing a jolly jig in the clink dates back to those days when guards would work up a show tune in four-four time, while frog-marching the condemned to the noose. Apparently that old dwarf standard, Whistle while you work was their favourite — and seems much sunnier than the American version. Their baroque chant “dead man walking,” (detailed by Sister Helen Prejean in her book of the same name) would kill you from tedium before you even got to the needle. Who says Canadian prisons aren’t softer?
It’s been fifty years since the last Canuck dangled at the Don Jail, but the convict ban on whistling has stood curiously firm. At first I thought it might be in reverence for the good old days that never were, or even that prisoners are happiest when those around them aren’t. Then, when I asked Stamper about it this week, the joint’s septic sceptic offered a theory that holds as much poop as any other. He says it’s because they never stopped killing us.
“Look around,” he said.
I accepted the invitation. The spring bright courtyard was filled with a hundred hunched trolls, traipsing circles in lockstep while awaiting the stroke of the back-to-work bell. Despite the late March sun, most of them were packaged in prison-green parkas, collars up, gazes down. The only thing missing was a German gun-tower and the wrought-iron sign linking freedom and work.
“Tell me this crew isn’t dead from the neck up,” he said. “If you marched them off to the rendering plant, they’d leap into that glue vat like lemmings.” He smiled openly at the thought.
“Careful. There might be some Conservative senators around.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. Look at them — who’d buy the glue made from this lot? They can’t even hold their lips together, never mind plywood.”
Stamper; when you need a little vinegar with your greens, no one serves it up better — or more bitter. That’s what twenty-nine years in the whine barrel buys you. But sometimes it’s the sourest grapes that emit the truest notes. In January I was talking to a friend who visits prisoners behind bars for the John Howard Society. A former convict himself, he helps prisoners to finish their “correctional treatment plans” while inside, and build release plans for the street. The problem is that a growing number of them are no longer interested.
“I’m getting more and more guys on my caseload,” he says, “who aren’t even interested in getting out. Especially the guys who’ve been in for a long time. They just go to their job, eat, and lay in their cell. They don’t exercise, go to visits, nothing. It’s like they’re already dead.”
If that’s true, the bullet that killed them could be the evening news. For Canadians who have been behind bars for more than a decade, the country they once knew is looking more like a rabid dog than a placid beaver. First we went from peacekeepers to warmongers. Then we bounced the cheque on the community of First Nations, and used the money to build post-secondary institutions for their kids; we call them prisons. We sell dime bags of death— Asbestos — to nations too poor to “just say no”, and a decade after Al Gore gave us the Inconvenient Truth, we still block, waylay, or disregard every major climate-change initiative ever proposed, while rolling out the magic carpet for some of the most environmentally destructive energy products on the planet. Maher Arar, gazillion dollar fighter jets, Attawapiskat, old age pensions, and government-sanctioned torture protocols — the checklist for a crueller Canada could eat up pages. So maybe the big bottom lips and zombie stares in here aren’t really from being locked in. Maybe it’s that there’s only a thin row of razor-wire keeping the rest of the world out.
“Ass a bunch a crap,” said one pruney con leaning up against the sun washed cell block.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“At crap ‘bout whistlin’. I was sentence to hang in 1966, an spend tree an a half years on debt row in Bordeaux prison be-foe day commute ma sentence. We use ah whistle down air all a time. Kep us from goin’ nuts. Now ease young punks wanna tell me at day know sumpin’ ‘bout sumpin’. Day don’t know sheeyit.”
“You been in since ‘66?” Camper asked the coffee-coloured con.
“Nope. Bin out foe time. Gist come back ‘gain lass week.”
The seventy-three-year-old lifer then spun a Dickensian tale that included homelessness, bad weather, loneliness and addiction. Finally, after getting his cheek split one night by a “bunch-a-punks,” the old fella dropped his last ten bucks on a generous hit of crack before turning himself in at the local precinct. “Lease in here I got a bed an clean close,” he said in summary.
Which leaves me thinking that maybe the new Canada isn’t such a joyless place after all. I mean, at least the Big House has a three-hots-and-a-cot. And with this new construction, even the homeless won’t need a reservation. All you need is to give us a whistle.