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Stand-to for count, Mr. Hughes

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There are few fields of mathematics that make my dendrites itch more than the way that governments tally up the bottom line on crime. Even that bizarre metric conversion guys do where 15 centimeters equals 10 inches seems logical in comparison. According to reliable sources, illegal drugs cost Canadians billions per year. As do property crimes. And impaired driving. And car theft. And fraud. Even the cost of unreported crime is billed to us in billions. With that many B’s you can’t help but wonder where all the honey is going. Because it sure ain’t on the crackers of convicts.

Prison is the great economic equalizer. No executive compensation. No Cadillacs or Humvees parked in front of the cell block. 99% of those who occupy the Big House are bankrupt – no matter which ruler you use. In Canada, each federal prisoner is allowed the exact same $1500 worth of personal property – which doesn’t stretch far in a world where boxer briefs are $20 each. To ensure compliance with this austerity menu, the guards roll into your cell once a month looking for any extras. Not that there will be. By the time you’ve paid your lawyer (up front), spent thousands of dollars on collect phone calls while awaiting trial in some provincial jail, had your vehicle hauled off due to missed payments, and paid somebody to clean out your apartment (and believe me, they will clean it out), the concept of personal wealth takes on a whole different meaning. In the clink, it’s your cola count — not condo size – that puts you in the 1%.

Yet even in a kingdom of paupers, there are those who play the prince. A con named Ron gave me my first taste of this. I was young, new to prison, and like most everyone else who has never been behind bars, believed the place to be filled with Mafiosos and millionaire drug dealers.

“I’m a lawyer,” said Ron. Maybe that should have been my first clue. “I’m not even supposed to be here. Revenue Canada says I owe them 5 million. I disagree. So when I sold the cars and the house in Mount Royal and moved everything offshore, they gave me 3 years. No that it’s all bad. It gives me time to work on my book.”

According to Ronnie, the book (which could not be viewed for obvious copyright reasons) was about his experience on Broadway, where he had directed and starred in a 90-minute monologue covering the final days of Mark Twain. Of course, he wrote the script himself – during the 8 months he spent in Rome, on sabbatical from his night job as a university English Professor. The Twain show had been a big hit – or so said Barbara Streisand, during one of her regular visits to Ron’s dressing room.  Random House had even given him a 200-grand advance to write the thrilling inside story. Which eventually made me wonder why he was always drinking my Pepsi.

Not that every penitentiary prevaricator is so blatant. Some have learned to massage their egos in the finer shadows of understatement. My favourite are the strikers. A striker is a biker with his nose half way into a motorcycle gang 00 one willing to eat anything just to get that magic patch. He divides his time between making sure that everyone in the place knows he’s affiliated with the über-rich you-know-who motorcycle club, while at the same time refusing to even utter the name of the you-know-who’s. These are the guys whose cork boards are usually slathered in Polaroids of six-figure motorcycles, while they smoke OPB’s (other people’s butts) in rolled up Bible paper. But then, what do I know? Maybe that’s part of the initiation.

Of course, every so often, some legitimately dapper Dan will stroll off the front of the Globe & Mail and into the gated milieu. But to see them in the mix you’d never know it. One day during lunch break, Stamper and I were sitting in the courtyard, throwing saltines at the seagulls.

“You see the guy with the hat?” my life-sentenced yard dog  asked me.

“Hat? You mean that stomped lunch sack on his head?”

“Yeah, they brought him all the way back from Madagascar last month.”

“You mean the movie?”

“He was on the run for four years,” Stamp said, ignoring my usual attempts to quash conversation. “He has less than a year left on his sentence and they spent 3 million tracking him down and bringing him back. Crazy, huh?”

Maybe. But 15 years ago the old guy had swindled investors for 23 million bucks – none of it recovered. When John law heard their boy had jumped parole and was living somewhere in the Indian Ocean – well, that is the sort of thing they lose sleep over, isn’t it? Though I really don’t know why anyone should. Besides the hat from hell, nothing about the richest guy in the jail said “look at me.” No Rolex on the wrist. No French cuff on the trousers, or hand-sewn lama slip-ons. Just a graying cotton t-shirt and the same worn dungarees as every other convict. Which really holds out hope for the rest of us strivers. Evidently, having real money means you don’t have to pretend any more. Somebody needs to let the crime counters know.

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