“Well, lad, where you off to looking so sexy?” Patty Scissors asked.
I responded to the jailhouse-barber’s satirical compliment with my best thousand-watt grin. I did look good. With fresh-pressed blue jeans and an ink-black v-neck sweater that I had spent an hour de-linting, the keeper looked more like a convict than I did. “It’s volunteer appreciation week,” I replied. “The warden is putting on a spread for eighty outsiders. I’ve been asked to say a few words.”
“Well, it’s a fine thing to be sporting a fresh Patty Donal trim then isn’t it now? Do us proud lad.”
I shot him a soldier’s salute before continuing on to where the event was being held. Do us proud, I thought. I had spent the entire week thinking about this evening, and specifically what I would say. Of the many comers and goers through the front gates of a prison, few are treasured more than those that visit prisoners as volunteers. In Canada, over 9,000 of them volunteer in federal prisons alone. The work they do is powerful. In my case, the gentle steering of these selfless citizens has inspired me more than any mandated self-help program, or ‘correctional intervention‘. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to brand them as na’ve, dove-eyed con-huggers. Helping prisoners find their way takes courage, wisdom, and sound judgment. Like the time a volunteer named Lisa found herself neck-deep in some old-school conflict resolution.
Lisa is a volunteer with one of the many NGO’s that work inside of CSC. She used to conduct a weekly visiting / counselling program for long-term prisoners. Back then, I clerked in an office across the hall from hers. One morning, while talking to the warden’s secretary on the in-house phone, a heated conversation coming from Lisa’s office disrupted my call. I dropped the phone and attended to the disturbance. A half-dozen guys were in her office — not unusual. A few of them were cursing each other out and flaring their chests. Again, not abnormal in this place. Annoyed, I said, “Hey guys, I’m on the phone. Keep it down. You want to bring the bulls crashing down on this place, or what?” To emphasize my request, I closed the see-through door to Lisa’s office. As I did, her office exploded like a percussion grenade.
Despite the unbroken violence of the next moments, they exist in my memory mostly as still-life snapshots. The metallic glint of a shank. A set of regulation brass knuckles. I remember thinking, “Wow, brass knuckles. In prison. I wonder how you get those?” Then, Lisa. Legs crossed. A swivel office-chair. A mid-motion jujube paused in journey to her mouth. Eyes as big as Rodney Dangerfield’s. Had ‘witness a riot’ been on her shopping-list that day? Doubtful. There is one memory from that morning that plays out in full-motion: The choreography. It was like Bob Fosse, directing. Seven bodies, shanks, punches, kicks, blood spraying, and a set of brass knuckles: not even the wind of it touched Lisa. Even in the penitentiary?s most animal moments, volunteers are sacred.
Things moved pretty quickly after that. Prison staff came running, handcuffs appeared, and somewhere in the mix, someone called for a medic. Lisa, whose expertise all of this exceeded, handed me the rest of her jujubes and called it an early day. I walked her to the door leading from the prison, begging forgiveness with every step. Remember, I’m the one that locked her in — like Daniel in the lion’s den. Of the many memories from that extraordinary day, the one I will carry forever are Lisa’s parting words. With a look of complete compassion, she said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be O.K. I’ll see you next Wednesday.”
The Navajo people of the southern U.S. have no word for ‘criminal’ in their language. What they do have is a word whose literal translation is, ‘He who acts as if he has no relations’. That’s how most people find themselves in prison. To complicate matters, prisoners that do have relatives often find that their conduct has demolished the bridges leading back to their family. Prison volunteers span that breach. They stand in as surrogate relatives — uncles and aunties — to those who have previously rejected their place in the human family. Their commodity is empathy, not sympathy. Their bottom line is that no human — even those guilty of the great inhumanities — suffers, or even dies, alone. For prison volunteers, the words disposable and person are never used in the same sentence. They are the quiet heroes in the Canadian justice system, and this September, I was honoured with the privilege of thanking them. Now it’s your chance. December 5th is International Volunteer Day.
One volunteer that has especially inspired and moved I.M. GreNada as well as myself – both inside the prison and out – is Ed Griffin. We are honoured to feature Ed as our Guest Writer this week.