Joy in the land of bread and water

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Recently, one thoughtful reader left a comment at this site that truly stumped me. After a brief inventory of the hurdles life has piled up in front of him, the fellow summarized his meditation with an appeal for me to stop making prison seem so charming. Evidently, my tales of wha? have him considering a career in three-hots-and-a-cot. According to calculations which seem a little suspect, he believes that even if his first attempt at “non-violent” crime is a compete belly-flop, the booby prize would be infinitely better than what he awakens to every morning. Now, I’m no stranger to desperate thinking. Sometimes I think I invented it. Nor am I well equipped to judge the moral compass of another. But the man’s musings do beg a question or two. And maybe the first one should concern exactly what the heck you guys are up to out there.

Though few readers have – or ever will – see my face, I trust that the writing speaks for me. I’m a pretty happy guy most of the time. I’ve also been blessed with relatively good health – though I claim at least partial responsibility for that. I haven‘t smoked as much as a joint in over 18 years. I never grease my palate with Big Macs, and I’m pretty judicious with the white sugar too. I exercise daily, enjoy a rich spiritual life, aim for at least seven hours in the sack each night, and try not to isolate myself. The latter keeps stress levels manageable, and gives me plenty to share with readers. None of these choices are cost-prohibitive – which, for a guy making .75¢ an hour, is saying something. Fellow convicts once voted me, “Most likely to be eaten in a Himalayan plane crash.” I was flattered.

Of course, serving a life sentence in the penitentiary also has its darker moments. For almost two decades, I’ve been living in my bathroom. Most of the guys I came in with are either dead, doped up, or disappeared. My neighbourhood has a suicide rate four times greater than even the most poverty-laden Canadian communities. And on a personal level, my captors assure me that they have no plans to open the front gate as long as I’m still breathing. So much for my Dancing with the Stars debut.

But as I often tell the big bottom lips dredging the cell block floor around me, the hippies did get a couple of things right. One of them was their legacy new-age mantra, “It’s not where you are, it’s where you’re at.” James Q. Wilson, the famous American social scientist who died this spring at 80 years of age, also knew this. And it brought him no end of amusement. As a thoughtful observer of the animate world, the swarming mass of humanity topped Wilson’s list of favourite subjects. What made them tick – scared them – pleased them – made them violent? Wilson was a watcher, and no detail of human response was too insignificant for his curious eye.

For the majority of us, a broken window in a passing building doesn’t even register. But in 1982, Wilson co-wrote an article in the Atlantic noting that when one vandalized window in a building wasn’t repaired quickly, the other windows around it soon followed suit. This discovery laid the groundwork for the many “broken window” policies now employed in major US cities.

He also observed that in a neighbourhood where the cop walks a regular beat, crime rates didn’t drop as much as a percentage point. But the elderly person sitting at the bus stop felt safer and swore that crime was reduced by a police presence. How do you quantify that? For Wilson, most of the people problems he pondered always came back to culture, and ways of thinking. He once famously said that the most important things about human beings aren’t measurable. But, if you lift your eyes up beyond the end of your nose, they definitely are observable.

A reader of my weekly column at the Province.com, and Canada.com, once wrote a comment questioning my agenda. That’s fair enough. Even in a world that has swapped out Catholicism for capitalism, everybody still wants to know who (and how big) is your God. But in my case, somewhere along the path between self-absorbed deviant and selfless parent, life handed me a flittering nugget of truth. The most valuable – most fascinating – resource on this planet is its people. Throwing a double razor-wire fence around them doesn’t change that in the least. Nor does homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, chronic illness, or any of the other prisons that humans might find themselves in. Hard times have never been fun. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be funny. And where there is humour, there is joy. I just hope that readers won’t need a lifetime stint in the clink to figure that out.


  1. TimothyNo Gravatar

    Good Morning Mr. GreNada…

    My name is Timothy and I’m the one you are referring to in your article titled “Joy in the land of bread and water” and I’d like to tell you that after I read your rebuttal , I think I’ve actually had my very first epiphany thanks to you.

    As I’ve stated in the past , I have been a reader of yours for quite some time now and in my letter to you I wasn’t trying to imply that prison life was a fun thing to go through, I was just saying that with the way you portray it to Joe Public sometimes makes it sound like it wouldn’t be all that bad. Growing up for me the thought of being in jail was the scariest thing of all (Remeber that 70’s show SCARED STRAIGHT)I thought it was full of people that would kill a newbie just from a bad look but I guess times have changed so much now that old visions of prison life is a thing of the past and in the this day and age it’s not as bad as it once was cracked up to be. Basically my friend I wonder out loud as I type to you WHERE ARE THE DETERRENTS???

    If you take a guy like me (45 years old) with no criminal record who was actually thinking about being a Bunkie with some crackerjack instead of trying to make my free life better then it was, then what does that say about our prisons? It doesn’t scare me anymore but thanks to you , you’ve made me realize that with the situation I’ve been in I’m already in prison only I don’t have the wire around me. Your in there and I’m out here but I bet we’re doing pretty much the same thing… I’m reading the news and updates checking email while I have my morning tea and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if you were doing pretty much the same so our prison’s only differ by the razor cage that surrounds you and a screw telling you it’s time to go to bed at least that’s how it appears to me as I read your musings. I know you have to make light of a bad situation for yourself and yes incorporating humor into our daily lives sure does help pass the time away but I’d like to know the real negative side of being locked up so that younger people or people such as myself stop thinking that going to jail is a walk in the park. Maybe you don’t want to face that reality I don’t know it could be to hard to talk about and that’s okay my friend but for those of us loyal readers outside those wires, it would be nice to be reminded how lucky we do have it being on the outside because it’s so easy to forget .

    I’ve been playing guitar since I was 10, recorded in Nashville, and been on the radio and TV so perhaps now that the snow has fallen I should strap my guitar on my back and head south of the border to play a show at Folsom Prison but I think if I ended up doing that and how tough that prison is, I’d end up dressed up as Little Bo-Peep for some dude with no neck telling me how much he likes to be manhandled.

    Well my friend these walls are my prison just as yours are for you so I will do what I can to make the best out of every day and hope you can do the same.

    Happy Remembrance Day


  2. ShereenNo Gravatar

    Timothy, I not sure we can ever fully appreciate the things we take for granted.

    I have been inside many prisons in many countries. I have met many prisoners. I have spent years trying to explain why imprisonment is dehumanizing and why it should only be used when it is the only possible way to ensure public safety. But, like Timothy, I think most people cannot grasp the essence of the experience. Perhaps that cannot be conveyed in words.

    I have sometimes organized the explanation into the elements of daily life on the outside, that we take so for granted, which boil down to ‘choices’ and ‘dignity’. In prison you cannot make the choices that you can on the outside and we get to make hundreds a day. In fact, I am about to run out to the grocery store where I will get to select and choose items that will never be seen in a prison canteen.

    Prisons, by their very nature erode personal dignity. Today, I will enjoy my privacy and the quiet of my home. Later I may choose to go out for dinner and maybe a movie. I will make these choices as adults can without checking with anyone and without the prying eyes of the state watching me. I will not suffer the indignity of snide remarks or yelling or indifference from those around me- in fact, just writing this has made me want to take a long, hot bath in the bathroom I share with no one other than my beloved spouse. Did I mention I have never seen a bathtub in a prison?

    1. I.M. GreNada

      You make a good point Shereen. But today, a six-foot-three 230 lb trans-gender prisoner and his 130 lb African / American sugar-daddy asked me if they could borrow my blow dryer and soft bristled barber’s brush for a couple of days. While it’s not exactly clear what they had in mind, I can’t think of another Canadian neighbourhood where you see that kind of wildlife.

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