?When I was five-years-old, the babysitter tied me with a dog-leash to the hot-water-heater in our basement. He diddled my two-and-a-half-year-old sister in front of me while she cried for me to make him stop. I can?t stop seeing it.?
The day Billy said those words we were walking laps on the half-mile track of a max called Kent. The company had been easy. Much of Billy?s young life had been in custody of some sort, so he made a good yard dog. Conversation that day was light, with lots of empty spaces between ? none of it awkward. The sun-washed spring day highlighted snow-capped Mt. Cheam in the distance ? and the lime-coloured?budding of?saplings nearer by. Billy?s unprompted declaration vacuumed the breath from what should have been a perfect moment. We walked-on in silence.
A half-lap later, the echo from Billy?s explosive revelation finally faded enough for me to respond. ?Wow bro. That?s heavy,? was all I could muster. A glance revealed his rolling tears. I quickly looked away.
?Yeah, I know,? Billy said in a nasally voice. ?She?s all I have left in this world. I got to get out of here and help her. She?s having a hard time right now.?
I removed my jacket. My body would need all of the sun?s strength to evict the death-chill that Billy?s comment had injected in it. I didn?t question his inability to erase those memories of his early life. Twelve years on, I still can?t forget.
Billy is the kind of prisoner that ? at one time in my life ? was a strong magnet for me. Masculine, rebellious, and aggressive ? he said what he meant and meant what he said. Disrespect him and you always paid the price, often with scars as a memento. Billy made no exception for guards. When hassled by them, he attacked like a cougar. All the same, he was no bully. Billy never preyed on weaker prisoners. Neither did he seek trouble with the guards. But if he saw a prisoner being picked-on by a bigger man ? be a bull or a con ? he took it personally. Over the years, Billy earned a reputation as the kind of dangerous, anti-authoritarian con that prison staff hate ? and prisoners love. Now he walked beside me in anguish, while a guard-tower sniper tracked our every move.
Prison is a place typically reserved for the most dangerous of citizenry. The events that make people prisoners are the same ones that regularly lead the evening news. But the advent of 24-hour-cable-news channels is giving Canadians an incomplete picture of crime. By cycling its most sensationalistic ? often violent ? stories in half-hour loops, these ?if it bleeds it leads news portals are whipping up a public frenzy for retribution.?What those three-minute news clips don?t provide is context. The standard violent crime is counted in seconds. The consequences ? for offenders and victims ? are counted in years. But the footprints leading up to violent crime are usually counted in a lifetime of tragic vignettes. That?s where the real story is. One of them is Billy?s.
Shortly after our walk in the yard that day, Billy and I lost each other in the ebbing tide of penitentiary life. He transferred to one medium-security prison, I to another. As I sat in my cell writing one afternoon, P.P. – Penthouse Perry – came knocking. ?Did you hear about Billy Y?? he asked. I put my pen down, bracing for the latest cluster of gossip from the prison grapevine.
?No, why? Is he here?? I asked.
?Nah, he?s over at the nuthouse,? P.P. responded, referring to the psychiatric prison facility next door. ?He?s been there a year now. But now he?s blind.?
?What? What do you mean blind?? I asked, shaken. The thought of my robust friend without his vision was unimaginable.
?Yah, it?s not good. He sliced his eyes in half with a razor blade. He?s completely lost it.? P.P. delivered this last detail with a disbelieving shake of his head, as if for emphasis. An emphasis unneeded. For the second time, events in Billy?s sad life had stolen my breath.
I spent the rest of that afternoon on my bunk, staring at the ceiling. I kept hearing Billy?s words on that perfect spring day in the Fraser Valley. Was his brutal act of self-hatred an extreme attempt to erase what he had seen as a child? Or was it an act of exchange ? bartering the pain in his head for pain in the flesh? I?ll probably never know. No one has heard about Billy for many years now. What I do know is that no prison whip conceived by man can exceed the self-induced torture of a hate-filled mind.