I think I’ve finally figured out how prison building became such a high priority in this country. As regular readers know, the Canadian penitentiary is an exclusive community comprised of interesting people from varied backgrounds, a large middle-class with a shared vision for the future (drinking beer and tossing loonies at strippers), and a ridiculously low crime rate. We also have zero unemployment. That’s right – zero. And if you’re wondering about our carbon footprint issues – Fuggedaboutit.
But it’s not by accident that the Big House has become the template for a pro-social Canada. About the same time our first disco dancing Prime Minister imagined a land hold where even dictators could feel at home, the penitentiary jumped into the multi-cultural rainbow with both feet. “Ethno-cultural Offender Programs” is the policy that Corrections currently uses to socialize the anti-social in all our fifty-four flavours. John Lennon would have been so proud. It encourages cons to form – or join – groups that meet our cultural needs and interests. These days there are minority languages groups (Punjabi, Spanish, Chinese), groups for cultures, (Aboriginal, French-Canadian, Afro-Canadian) as well as collectives for those on the same spiritual path (Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan). There are even groups that encourage yoga, novel reading, and yes – writing.
But for all this pro-socializing, there’s one group that almost no prisoner wants to join. That would be the reluctant congregation of life-sentenced prisoners – otherwise known as the lifer’s group. Not that they aren’t a swell bunch of guys. In any prison, lifers are the most stable and calming influence in the place. Wardens love them. It’s just that the membership dues can be a real killer.
“I see the queens have set up their trap line in the Lifer’s office lately,” said Stamper, the joint’s official colour commentator on la vie noir.
“Well, it is spring isn’t it?” noted Minor Matt, “Which means that the Undertaker must be in heat.”
A shudder scurried up my spine like a spring spider. That a six-foot-four man with size fourteen high tops would dress like a woman was one thing. That he might have actually developed a mating season – well there’s something mildly unnerving about that, isn’t there?
“Yah ass me, it ain’t a Undertaker you gots to worry bout,” said an old black con named Blue. Blue was on death row back in the sixties, before they commuted his sentence to life. He came back in a couple months ago after sleeping on the street got too tough to navigate. Lately, his evening perch has been a navy-coloured milk crate in the corner of the Lifer’s office – where he narrates the drama like a jaded crow. “It’s at one day call ‘Twist’ be makin all a trouble. Shaken er ass all over ta place. Huh.”
Twist is a new edition to the kiss and tell kaleidoscope around here. For the first few months, he managed to ward off the most zealous zebras by assuring them he was really a lesbian. But then one of the raincoat brigade decided that he was as well, and now he and Twist are an item, spending their evenings curled up on a bench in the lifer’s office for some hot girl-on-girl action (sipping chamomile tea and clucking about the winners and losers on America’s Got Talent). Apparently it’s painted a few of the zebras in emerald envy.
“It makes we want to puke,” said Stamper. “What the hell’s wrong with these Sodomites? I go into the office for a coffee and all you can smell is Fabreeze and baby powder. Those bloody queens bathe in it.”
“Could be worse,” said Minor Matt.
“Like if they didn’t use anything.”
The kid had a point. About a decade ago there was a fish that came in doing three years for a big fraud conviction. As he claimed to be a lawyer of some sort, it was logical that he would join the law group. But within two weeks he had also joined the black inmates group, the Aboriginal group, the art therapy group, and the Punjabi group – before joining the Inmate Committee. A couple of days after that I walked into the Committee office, where my friend Warren was busy scrubbing a spot on the carpet.
“You know that idiot that’s been doing our typing for the last week – the lawyer?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, yesterday he tried to join the lifer’s group. This morning one of them came in here and started screaming at him about the price of membership.”
“So what do you think I’m cleaning off the carpet?”
I rolled up my nose. “I thought it smelled a little musky in here.”
“The little piss kettle must have drunk an entire pot of coffee this morning.”
According to Warren, the ultimate groupie couldn’t find a guard fast enough – and when he did, he immediately signed up for the other group that no convict wants to join: protective custody. But at least he wasn’t around for mating season.