Well, they finally kneecapped Ed Griffin. Not an easy feat. Irresistible force who endured the American Catholic hierarchy of the 1960’s, marched beside Martin Luther King in the darkest days of the civil rights movement, and has waged a cage match with advanced prostate cancer for almost two decades, finally met his match – in the immovable object of Canadian prison bureaucracy.
“After eighteen years, I’m leaving Matsqui. Some of the volunteers will keep going for as long as they can, but I’ve had it.”
It was hard hearing my mentor tap out. I knew how much teaching creative writing at the prison means to him. When Ed and his young family fled Reagan’s America in the 1980’s, Vancouver opened its arms – and heart – to them. That warm welcome was a big factor in the ex-Priest becoming a volunteer. And as a man who had often stood shoulder to shoulder with society’s outcasts, Ed chose to volunteer at the most outcast venue of them all – Abbotsford’s notorious Matsqui Institution. If East Hastings is Canada’s college of the cursed, then Matsqui is its westernmost campus. It was also the backdrop for some of Ed’s greatest successes.
“You know, in the past year, it feels like I’ve been in the Principal’s office every week. First it was about the phone calls ‘why are there inmates who have your phone number?’ they asked. Uh – because I’m their teacher? ‘Why are you bringing in books for prisoners?’ Can you imagine? Why am I bringing in books on Russian literature to a writing class? And every week it was something else.
But then they made one of our volunteers turn in her badge. Christmas cards – that was the big crime. She sent them to some of the regular students, encouraging them to keep up the good work. The next thing you know, she’s barred from prison – no warning, nothing. That was it for me. I’ve had enough of justifying every good deed. If you don’t stand up for your friends in this life, then what are you?”
I thought of a con named Rob, who had been a big fan of Ed’s writing classes. Before the volunteer quill keeper helped steer Rob’s ADHD in a positive direction, the young Meth-head had become known as Vancouver’s most prolific car thief. A YouTube clip of him outracing the police in a stolen bait-car went viral, and every time he made a bid for parole, his face graced the front pages of newspapers around the country. But after only two months in Ed’s writing class, Rob went from being a frequent flier in segregation to a permanent fixture in the prison library. Three months later he finished an autobiography. Then he just kept going – banging away at short stories, even a novel. A year later, he used the insights gained from writing his memoir to explain himself to the parole board. And when they granted him a condition-heavy release to a halfway house, he didn’t drop the ball. He became a volunteer with other at-risk youth, and finally started living up to the needs of his young daughter. I wonder how she would justify a prison writing class.
I asked Ed what was next on his bucket list. Though his doctor says he’s doing better these days, the last time I saw my friend, he looked like an extra in a Tim Burton movie. Chemotherapy had knocked the colour of life right out of him. With a PSA score off the planet, and blood so thin that it trickled from him like a leaky condo, I was sure that the only thing keeping him alive was the joy of teaching.
“Well, I’m not giving up,” he said. “I’ve found this great little transition house in Surrey – it’s called Phoenix. They help men and women coming out of prison to get on their feet. They’re incredible. They treat me like I was Hemmingway or something. Anyhow, I’m going to teach writing there on Fridays, plus I still have the reading group at Pacific. I’ll try to make it there once a month.”
Pacific Institution (also in Abbotsford) houses some of the most mentally ill prisoners in British Columbia. It also does double duty for prisoners participating in specialized programs, such as substance abuse treatment and violence prevention. When a group of volunteers began hosting a book club there two years ago, the first tome the prisoners chose was A Brief History of Everything. Then came Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. My guess is these guys don’t watch a lot of Charlie Rose. But at least they’ve got Ed.
“I’m really going to miss the guys in Matsqui, though. It feels like I’m letting them down. But I did the best I could. I brought some of the best writers I could find in there with me. Hell, I even brought Diana Gabaldon there – twice. I co-wrote a book with one prisoner, and helped a lot of other guys put their manuscripts together. I went to parole hearings, and even helped guys after they got out. But Corrections doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about any of that.”
What Ed Griffin could never know unless he lived here is that Corrections isn’t the problem. The real problem is Ed. Coast to coast, Canadians are itching for a war with criminals. Prisoners are just the low-hanging fruit. In the new Canada, hugging someone from the convict caste makes you as untouchable as they are, and the worst kept secret is that any future stories penned in the Big House will be written in blood. Spelling won’t be an issue. Witnesses would. So while Ed Griffin and his rare brand of hope will be sorely missed in the kingdom of Canadian convicts, there won’t be any brass statues. Not that he’d want one. The only tribute that Matsqui’s vicar of verbs would accept is the one that convicts give each other at the end of the sentence: He did his time like a man. Try putting a fatwa on that.