The Incarcerated InkWell

Federal Inmate in a Canadian Prison with a Life Sentence writes about prison life

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By Damien Arnaout

Tonight is volunteer appreciation night

People of your stature a privilege that?s right

Can?t thank you enough for keeping things in sight

Or keeping us focused on all our future lives

We?ve all grown together and it won?t stop

Taking the time to sit, listen and talk

For all that you do can?t give enough props

The way you care takes time off our clocks

Through your guidance were made to believe

With dedication there?s nothing we can?t achieve

Volunteers such as yourselves allow us some reprieve

It?s not said enough but you are what we need

In an insane setting you do keep us sane

Helping us work through our problems and pain

Your encouragement promotes pride not shame

Reminding us that sun always comes after rain

Personally I have to say I?ve truly been touched

For those that know me seeing you is a rush

Uplifting experiences and memories I will clutch

To help myself excel at all the future stuff

That people like you, tell us we can do,

The love you emit is received and it?s true

Tonight is for us to take time and show you

Your value is priceless and volunteers ? THANK YOU!!

Prison Sentences

?A safe place? I had no safe place as a kid. If my stepfather wasn?t beating me, my mom was yelling at me and hitting me with a stick. My safe place was in the streets with my gang.

?One day when I was fourteen, she was drinking and we had a big fight. She hit me again and I walked out. I spent the night at some girls’ apartment and I never really went home after that. I ran with the gang and stole food and other stuff. Now I’m here.?

I had just given my class an assignment to write about a safe place they knew as a child, and that’s what Curtis wrote. He looked like a college kid, except for the tattoos on his arms. This was his first writing class at Matsqui Institution, a prison in the Fraser Valley.

Curtis came every week. He came at first because his buddy came, but then he came to listen to the stories and articles the guys wrote. He came because guys seemed to respect what other people wrote. They didn?t swear and beat on each other, as TV shows like Oz seem to indicate. Just the opposite. The men praised things that were read in class and only then made suggestions.

When the assignment was a poem, Curtis wrote a rap thing about how lonely prison was and how he had messed up his life. The poem got everybody talking and the discussion went on until the PA system announced, ?Five minutes to count.? As he hurried to his cell, I complimented Curtis. ?It?s a sign of a good poem,? I said, ?when we spent the whole class talking about it.? The lessons learned that day came not from institution staff, but from other cons.

Curtis gained a diploma in creative writing, but more ? writing helped him find himself, figure himself out, melt the bars around his soul. He?s out today, living in the community, free of crime ? and still writing.

There have been a lot of men like Curtis in my life since 1993 when I started teaching at Matsqui. I’ve volunteered for most of those years, except for a short time when the Surrey School District sponsored the classes.

Since last November a caring teacher, Michele, has joined me. She spends two hours with me at Matsqui and then teaches a two-hour class at Fraser Valley Institute, the federal prison for women. Carol, a third teacher will start soon at Pacific Institution, a prison for special programs. A schoolteacher at the maximum prison, Kent, has pleaded with me to start a class there, but I’m unable to find a teacher. Three other federal prisons and all the provincial ones could use a class in writing.

The first hour of class we get some instruction in. ?Show, don?t tell. Use strong verbs. Use the active voice. Writers write.? The usual things of creative writing. In the second hour, the men read their work. If it looks like there won?t be time for the readings and the instruction, we scrap the instruction. Learning comes from doing. If the men spend sixty hours in class, they gain a diploma from the Surrey Writers School. We have a round of noisy applause when a man receives his diploma, an accomplishment which the parole acknowledges.

Art releases unconscious tensions and purges the soul. That?s what Aristotle said three hundred years before Christ. Federal prisons in BC stress programs, such as anger management, cognitive skills, and violence prevention. The arts are not excluded from prison, but they aren?t stressed. Yet art therapy is well known to provide healing. Not just writing, but theater, music, painting, and the other arts. Art respects the individual and suggests that he or she has talent. That talent just needs to be developed. Programs, on the other hand, seem to indicate that the person is sick and needs curing. Both programs and art are necessary, but right now the score is Programs = 10, Art = 1.

We writers spend our lives writing, but often we?re not aware of what word we are writing with our lives. When we go into prison, we try to write the word respect. Respect for our students and respect for the institution and its rules. We have to leave a lot of attitudes at the front gate. The guards search us for drugs and cell phones, but the worst thing we can carry into a prison is an attitude that says, ?I?m better than you.? Our students are not dumb and they can spot a phony ? and a caring person ? in a second. We can?t take part in the terrible us and them that goes on in every prison. Guards against cons, cons against guards.

Teaching in a prison has its own series of rewards. I feel good that I?ve done something of value, but it?s more than that. For some reason every Friday when I leave prison, I go home and write up a storm. I?m not necessarily writing about prison, I?m just writing.

I?ve learned who I am teaching here. I’m not some great social reformer, rather I work one-on-one with guys who want to change their lives. I encourage them, work with them in the hope that they will see that they are somebody. Unfortunately, prison tears down a person’s self esteem. The PA system blares out ?Inmate Jones, report to health care.? Over and over, people are referred to as inmate. Many staff convey an attitude that they are better than the inmates. The very cement walls and steel bars say that they are dangerous animals that must be caged.

I started teaching with the vague idea that I was going to start a revolution. I felt that putting men in cages was a big mistake and prison was little more than a warehouse. If I could teach people to write, then maybe they would tell the world about the dystopia they lived in. I first taught in, the maximum-security prison in Waupun, Wisconsin where I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. A young lifer came to my class and worked intensely on his writing. He began to write articles for a Madison newspaper about prison. He wrote a story about a guard who ignored a man’s plea for medical help. The next day the man died. When the article appeared in the paper, my student was sentenced to a year in the hole. That meant twenty-three hours in a special cell, and one hour in a small outdoor cage. The sentence for punching a guard was three months in the hole, but writing about an incompetent guard was a year.

I know the prison system. It’s often vicious toward its critics. I begged my student to stop. Some revolutionary I turned out to be. When my student did just what I wanted, I tried to stop him. But he continued. An article about poor hearth care. Add another year in the hole. And a third article and another year.

My student had killed a man in a bar fight. Perhaps if he had had a good lawyer, it would have been self defense or manslaughter, but it was first-degree murder. After twenty-four years in prison, he’s out now, living and working in Wisconsin. He still writes articles about the prison system, even though life means life and he could be put back in prison at the whim of a prison official.

Another advantage I?ve found teaching in prison is that I found a friend. This was a surprise for me. I’m sort of a lone wolf, a bit on the arrogant side and, aside from my wife, I didn’t think I needed a personal friend.

Mike came into my class like a living exclamation point. Everything about him was drama. At first he tried to take over the class with his entertaining personality. He later told me he’d done this all through school and it often got him kicked out of class. I didn’t stop him and soon we were working together, teaching writing with set-up debates about whether we should ?show or tell? in a story.

When the class was over, Mike and I talked. We discussed everything and I found I could talk to him about my problems. When Mike came up for parole, he asked me to be his citizen spokesperson and I told the board I would be there for him. They granted him parole and Mike is a success today. He and I wrote a book about prison, called Dystopia. Mike’s in charge of group of community performers and he has signed up for film school.

I once had a clever student who wrote a short piece for my class. I praised the story and told him he was a good writer. He stared at me with those intelligent eyes of his and asked, ?Griffin, are you trying to blow sunshine up my ass??

I laughed and said, “No, it was a good story. Keep it up.”

That’s what’s missing from prison — sunshine.

The Healers

“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.”

She did.

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.

Chicken Run

“What’s it like,” they ask, “doing time?”

“It’s like being a kid in a family of desert Nomads,” is my standard answer. Up at dawn, milk the camel, say your prayers, breakfast of curds and grain, a twenty-mile walk through carbon-copy sand dunes, then set up a tent and fall down. Are we there yet? Doing time is a repetitive daily trek towards some doubtful destination on the calendar.

Then, every ten-million-or-so heartbeats an unexpected oasis emerges — an ennui-quenching wellspring of something uncommon. It need not be amazing, and usually isn’t. Just different. And when it happens, that dissimilarity in prison-routine makes it feel like a night with the Rajah’s harem.

It was Tiny Tim — our four hundred-thirty-five pound Inmate Committee chairman — who broke the news. The warden had approved a food-drive for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Like a Martin Luther theses, menus were suddenly everywhere. Pulses quickened. Three-piece dinners, twenty-piece barrels, hot wings, family-sized fries, and unlimited green coleslaw — the air filled with culinary anticipation. Coveting cons huddled around order-forms like the newest edition of Hustler. “Will there be milkshakes?” one asked. That night, in prisoners’ dreams, the usual dance of breasts and thighs bore fresh implications. Twenty-nine more sleeps until fried-chicken Friday.

Unfortunately, prison life is rarely so simple. Many outsiders are surprised to learn that the penitentiary has not been a warden-run dictatorship for a long time. These days, it’s more like an infighting aristocracy, played out in Jerry-Springer dramatics. The warden / guard hierarchy has been replaced with a stew of senior management, mid-upper-level management, middle-management, lower-mid-level management, those-who-imagine-they-are-management, and finally the line staff and their powerful union, UCCO. The common thread amongst these factions is that they all believe — with Taliban conviction — that they run the joint. Which means, even if the warden says we’re eating chicken, it only takes one prima donna to say, “Let them eat cake.”

The following month, those who had bet big on a plump poultry pay-day did hard time. Rumours abounded, swamping dinghy-sized psyches like rogue ocean waves. Some said it was on. Some said it was cancelled. Then someone noticed that funds had been removed from their savings account. Next to the debit stood a telltale acronym: KFC. Surely that was the signal. They wouldn’t take our money and then cancel the order. Would they?

Finally the big day arrived, and along with it, the fowl. A quarter of the joint lined-up across from the library to take delivery. The first to pick up their orders were like new fathers — shaking hands, slapping backs, and passing out drumsticks like cigars. And then, the other shoe dropped. Forty feet down the breezeway, seven beefy prison guards stood between the main living unit and us. Their intention: no fried chicken would enter the cell-block. Their rationale: it’s a health-and-safety issue (something about cholesterol-drunk convicts going psycho with chicken bones and stabbing unwary prison guards). Their bottom line: you want fried chicken — you can choke down ‘your’ twenty-piece bucket in the library. The library that closes in forty-five minutes. Bon App’tite, convict?

But prisoners are nothing if not adaptable. Someone jimmied the library closet, and found a full box of jumbo garbage bags. Before you could say conspiracy, the Colonel’s secret recipe was cleverly repackaged and body-packed with drug-smuggler skill. One fellow with more dollars than sense stuffed a twelve-piece family dinner down the front of his pants, pulling his t-shirt over the obvious bulge.

“How do I look?” he asked his buddy.

“Like a Kentucky Fried porn star,” his friend said.

My Iranian friend, Saeed — who had been lining up a southern-spiced drumstick for entry into his gaping mouth — stopped mid-motion. Convicts crotching chicken. Not even a fast-food craving could survive that. The suddenly green Saeed and his uneaten chicken went looking for some fresh air.

Finally, in-between the parcelling of contraband poultry and whispers of an inevitable riot, Tiny Tim negotiated a truce. A passel of managers arrived, phone calls were made, meetings convened, and someone even interrupted the warden’s dinner. Eventually, it was acknowledged that MSG-deprived convicts were probably a bigger health-and-safety concern than chicken bones. The word went out, and like fifty whistling dwarves, prisoners paraded their jackpots back to the cell-block — past the furrowed brows of frustrated gate-keepers. It felt like a victory, but now I’m not so sure. I think there will probably be snow in the Sahara before the Colonel’s cuisine comes to the big house again.

The 90’s most popular sit-com boasted the birth of ‘a show about nothing’. Prisoners were never impressed. For us, the spark that spawned Seinfeld is obvious. The writers must have done time.

Bend Over and Show Me Your Lobster

If there is one thing that all prisoners agree on it?s that prison sucks. And so it should. When a person plays so wickedly that they get ordered out of the (gene) pool, they should hardly expect a free trip to Disneyland. That?s why, even in a humanitarian country like Canada, prison is no petting zoo. The hours of cell lockup where the sound of your own thoughts drowns out all others; the months that turn into years, while the world you knew forgets your name; the loss of dignity when treated like meat by prison guards; the constant anxiety that every day holds a life-threatening catastrophe: that?s prison. It?s enough to test your sense of humour.

Then something will happen to confirm that you are still part of the human race. Like the day Jacky Wang decided that his fresh fifteen-year-sentence shouldn?t derail long standing birthday traditions. Where Jacky comes from, birthdays are a really big deal. His good luck in the following year depends on eating fresh lobster and drinking exactly one ounce of premium whiskey on his birthday. He claims it?s been that way since he broke from the nipple. So, in the fashion of someone who ?just doesn?t get it?, Jacky got on the phone, and made arrangements. He had the foresight to have already booked a Private Family (conjugal) visit on his lucky day. That only left his wife to stop at the vendors, then a quick dip into Superstore?s lobster tank on her dash to the prison. Evidently, Jackie?s Feng Shui demanded fresh lobster.

If you?ve never been a visitor to a medium-security federal penitentiary, the first thing that strikes you is the in-your-face security presence. Razor wire, a twelve-foot double fence, armed guards, and bold warning signs are only the entr?e. Then you enter the gate house, where you face metal detectors, ion scanners, x-ray machines, drug sniffing dogs, and guards trained in the fine art of ?pat down? searches ? what we used to call ?getting felt up?, back in high school. Finally, if any of those ?non-intrusive? search techniques raise the slightest suspicion, you may be invited to participate in a more intimate experience. A regulation strip search includes removing all of your clothing, baring your mouth like a horse at auction, and presenting the soles of your feet for inspection. Then, the main event: ?Bend over and spread ?em.? It makes you wonder why anyone would ever come here as a visitor, never mind with a mini-bottle of rye in her bra, and a live lobster strapped to her back like wee Willie Shoemaker.

The call-out time for Private Family Visits (PFV?s) is 2:30. Jacky sat in his cell and waited. By 3:15, he started pacing the tier. At 3:45, he used the tier phone to call home. No answer. Ten minutes later, his name came over the P.A. system: ?Wang, report to the 1st floor Correctional Manager?s office.? Not good. The Correctional Manager is in charge of visiting. As Jackie walked off the tier, you could see the nerves jumping under his skin, like little kernels of popcorn under heat. I truly felt for him. PFV?s are one of the greatest privileges afforded to prisoners in the federal system. Those that qualify to participate in them usually count the days until the next one. They are an opportunity for a prisoner to eat a meal with their family, fall asleep in the arms of someone who loves them, and engage in the types of normal human activities they took for granted on the outside. The thought of your PFV being cancelled for any reason is almost more than the psyche can take. When Jackie left the tier to receive what could only be bad news, my heart travelled with the likeable little Asian.

We were locked down for our regular 4:00 count before Jackie returned to the tier. When our doors opened a half-hour later, I wandered over to his cell to find out what had happened. His door was locked. The cell was dark. Looking through the 4 x 16 inch cell-door window, I saw him lying face-down on his bunk with a pillow pulled over his head. That?s when Tiny Tim told me what had happened. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I settled for a smirk. After eighteen years in the loony-bin of prison I thought I had seen everything. But the day Jackie Wang?s wife got pinched muling a contraband lobster felt like a loss of innocence. I knew that nothing would ever surprise me again. It?s too bad that it cost them a four-month suspension of open visits. But there is one rule that all prisoners know: you do the crime, you do the time. Better luck next year Jackie.

The Hate Factory

?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.

The Thirty-Fourth Miner

‘Hey, they’re bringing them up ‘ they’re bringing them up. Channel 26. Turn it on – check it out. It’s wonderful,’ Saeed announced, bursting into my cell without as much as a courtesy-knock.
If his fire-alarm delivery and anxious attempt to find the T.V.’s on-switch hadn’t been so distracting, I would have bounced him out the same way he bounced in. Then, as live-footage from Chile filled the 14-inch screen, everything else – the book I had been reading, the mid-October rain-ache in my knees, Saeed’s unsolicited invasion – faded to irrelevance. Along with the rest of the world, I spent the next twenty-four hours with my heart wound around a 700-meter cable and its labour of love.
The next morning, breakfast line-up buzzed with play-by play reports. ‘Did you see the guy who came out and started jumping around like Crazy George used to?’ said one. ‘How about that boy waiting for his Dad?’ asked another. ‘I was a wreck watching that. It reminded me of my kids waiting for me at home,’ offered a third. While the color-commentary continued, my attention wandered off through the chain-link fence keeping us in line, past the chapel, past the hospital-unit, to a two-story concrete cell-block. The hole. From outside, the segregation unit looks like a run down Soviet-era apartment building – all hell-grey concrete and long-faded paint, splashed in forty-foot colonies of mould. Inside – entombed in anxiety and pathos – lie Canada’s dirty little secrets. One of them is Kona-beard.
Kona-beard is a lifer in his late sixties, whose real name is Dylan. His unusual handle stems from an even more unusual facial feature. He has not cut his beard in seventeen years, and grooms it the same way Rastafarians do their hair. The effect is a twisted hair-rope hanging past his knees. It looks like a three-foot long bud off of a Hawaiian pot-plant. Grooming is not Dylan’s only deficit. He also suffers from nervous exhaustion – not uncommon among those buried in the penitentiary for a decade or two. In Kona’s world, the day is done at 6:00 p.m. That’s when he cocoons himself in bed, and awaits the mercy of sleep. Unfortunately for old Kona, this custom puts him in direct conflict with a new CSC policy.
Three years ago, nineteen-year-old Ashley Smith lost her life in the segregation unit of Grand Valley Institution. Part of the political fall-out from that sadder-than-sad affair came by way of the Deaths in Custody report from the Correctional Investigator’s Office. While it’s unclear whether the report’s recommendations have reduced the number of dead prisoners, it has increased the number of times inmates are required to prove that they’re breathing. Since early this year, we have been required to ‘stand-to for count’ twice a day. One of those stand-to-counts happens at 10:30 p.m. – about an hour after Kona finally drifts off to sleep. You can probably see where this is going. Waiting for the pensioner to wake up, get up, get dressed, and demonstrate a semblance of sobriety, encroaches on the cold-beer-finish-line of guards whose shift ends a half-hour later. The pragmatic solution? The Powers That Be have chosen to brand Kona’s actions as insurrection rather than old-age. They’ve had him and his fur scarf locked in the hole for many months now – in something called ‘long-term-segregation’– and there’s no rescue capsule in sight.
Last week’s liberation of the Chilean thirty-three was a high-water mark for humanity. For the second time in a decade, the whole earth gathered around televisions to share in a life-changing experience. Unlike the last one – in Manhattan nine years ago – this gathering celebrated the very best of what makes us human: Compassion. Redemption. Family. Rebirth. Here in the prison, men were slapping each other on the back, using words like ‘miracle’, and ‘awesome.’ On T.V., even the most jaded cable-news correspondents dripped with empathy. Not one voice suggested that the isolated men had ‘put themselves there,’ ‘deserved what they got for entering a dangerous mine,’ or ‘didn’t have it so bad’ because of the phones and T.V. they had down there. Instead, we listened carefully to the names of each and every man. We hung on every turn of the pulley-wheel, and got to know their families, their work-history, and their hopes for the future. For twenty-four hours, people that most of us will never meet mattered to us. Today, I am wondering if that’s where it will end.
From my place in the breakfast line-up that morning, I watched carefully the dark windows of the segregation block. No movement. No sound. I thought about what reality is for the men buried in there. Twenty-three-hours-per-day of solitary isolation. Separated from family and friends. In summer, a furnace – in winter, a meat locker. Hang in there Kona-beard. Maybe the Phoenix will rise for you too.

Of Deep Roots and Shrubs That Will Not Die

The local John Howard Society ran a contest recently, inviting incarcerated writers to submit thoughts on ?resiliency?. I grinned at that. Webster calls resiliency, ?the ability of an object to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched or squashed.? In former times it has gone by the monickers: grit, guts, or mettle. Few communities are more practiced at that ?bounce-back? than the one behind bars.

Prison is the exclusive collection of those bent, stretched or squashed in almost every way. If prison is a disease, its symptoms are substance abuse, suicide, clinical depression, divorce, assault, sex-addiction, and bankruptcy. Yet, prisoners survive, and some even thrive, in the hate-factory of incarceration. How? This contest provided the perfect excuse to find out. Besides, I needed the prize money; my phone card has a voracious appetite.

The past year has visited many changes upon Canadian prisons. One of the big ones affecting this prison is the changes to our garden program. For eighteen years, the garden provided eligible prisoners a space to salve their regrets in the healing loam of mother earth. But in prison, people are not the only things that get bent, stretched or squashed. Last fall, the Powers That Be locked the garden down, then bulldozed it. While circling in the yard one evening, I stopped to survey the plot that had once served both men and bird as an oasis of solitude. What a wretched sight. Soil that once produced fruitage for local food banks and prisoner?s families, now serves as a boneyard for construction debris and wind-gathered water-bottles. The village of garlic stalks, mint leaves, and rose beds has been overrun by crabgrass and rodent dens. It felt like standing at the grave marker of a best friend.

In my lament, something captured my attention; a familiar green hue. I stared, trying to make sense of the sight. A leaf ? no, two. No, three ? in a row. I know those leaves, I thought. They are? ?Blackberry,? I burst out, loud enough for passing prisoners to shake there head in pity at my obvious dimentia. ?For decades, guards, wardens, and grounds staff here have waged war on these spirited bushes. The guards hate the way the plant?s thorny arms gash and puncture when they probe its depths searching for contraband. The warden hates the potent home-brew its berries are infamous for. The grounds-crew’s boss hates the briar?s indestructibility. On warden?s orders, he has pick-axed, chain-sawed, roto-tilled, blowtorched, strip-mined, and DDT?ed that bush. Every time, it ?springs back quickly into shape?. If there ever was an icon for prison resiliency, it is this prison?s blackberries. Tell me, ol? bramble, how do you keep on going? How does a bush that feeds solely on convict urine and sewer rat excrement continue to suck up hate and give only sweetness in return? I had to know. The answer might feed more than my phone card.

After an evening in the company of Encyclop?dia Britannica, I now know the Blackberry?s secret. It?s the roots ??roots that stretch deep and far. The reason they can?t kill the prison?s blackberry bush is that the bush? isn?t in the prison. Its home is under the fence and across the road, on the neighbouring farmer?s property. The shoots that break ground inside the razor wire are an extension of a large family; a family that is free in the truest sense. Prisoners know that secret too. The ones that recover most quickly from distress are those that stay well connected to their people on the other side of the fence.

Another trick blackberry roots use is that they branch out, connecting with other, different plants. Those who have tried to uproot blackberries quickly find out that the roots break off deep in the ground. Those roots are entwined with other plants that act as an anchor; plants that hold on tighter than the wrenching gardener does. Within weeks, the blackberry bush is back ??in full bloom. This also works for people. ?Widening out? in association with others ? even those very different from us ? gives the best chance at re-sprouting when powerful forces dislodge us. It sure has worked for me.

The most surprising thing I learned about the plant?s roots involves its pedigree. To most, the blackberry briar looks menacing ? all razor-sharp thorns and tangle. Even its fruit is an acquired taste. But the blackberry knows something that few others do. This unnerving hedge is actually of the genus Rosaceae. The blackberry bush is really a rose in disguise. Like the blackberry, prisoners need to remember their roots. We aren?t just criminals, addicts, convicts, or numbers. We are also children, parents, husbands, and wives. We are siblings, cousins, grandchildren, grandparents, and best friends. Our genus is the human family. That truth has saved many a prisoner?s life when powerful forces were squashing them out of shape.

A famous man once said, ?Wisdom is proved righteous by its works.? I am thinking of that today as I remember the Herculean efforts ?made to break the back of that bush. I wonder when the Powers That Be will ever figure out that the bush they can?t kill makes a killer jelly without rival. Maybe there?s a story in that.

It Is What It Is

?Something?s wrong,? she said. Facing each other at one of the food-court-like tables in the prison visiting room, my sister and I were chatting when something behind me distracted her. Spinning my seat, I saw a prisoner named Dale. He seemed to be sagging, while his visitor ? an eye-catching brunette ? slapped him in the side of the head and yelled at him. But this was no lover?s squabble. With every slap, her face broadcast surging panic. ?What?s wrong? Dale, what?s wrong with you?? she shrieked. Dale slumped forward in his chair, stopping only when his face hit the table. Springing up, I dashed towards the distressed couple.

My day had been full. CSC was trying something new, and my sister and I were participants. As part of their drug interdiction strategy, Canadian prisons had recently installed Ion Scanners. But the technology and its application has serious flaws. Visitors to the prison – including spiritual advisors, lawyers, and CSC staff ? often fail the Ion Scanner?s swab test. When the machine alarms for prohibited drugs, it often means refused entry for the visitor. Alarm results are then used to justify visiting sanctions stretching into months. Due to our lengthy visiting experience, my sister and I had been invited to a two-day mediation on the topic. The emotional seminar now completed, we had hoped for some sanctuary in the visiting room. But prison very rarely gives you what you need.

Reaching the stricken prisoner, I grabbed his hulking shoulder, and lifted him level. ?Hey pal, you O.K.?? I asked. His face answered what his lips couldn?t. The bluish grey skin, bulging, glazed over eyes, and foam bubbles coating his lips told a life or death. Not good.

Quickly hooking Dale from behind, I winched him to his feet. First-aid training from long ago took over as I fired up the Heimlich manoeuvre. Handling the 260-pound unconscious prisoner took all my strength, with adrenaline on top. When a half-dozen jolts to his abdomen changed nothing, I bellowed for my sister to get help. Too late. In the thirty seconds it took for the visiting officer, Mr. Mender to arrive, the prisoner died in my arms. Though Mr. Mender and I worked together to revive the stricken man, he never responded. With Dale?s two-month-pregnant fianc? looking on in shock, his eyes milked over, and his warrant of committal expired in the worst possible way. His death certificate would read, ?asphyxiation?. What it wouldn?t reveal is that he had choked to death on a condom-sheathed package of crystal-methamphetamine smuggled into the institution? past the foolproof technology of the Ion Scanner.

Illicit drugs and the blood-red web they weave are the signature issue of the 21st century. In North America, the largest contributor to imprisonment is drug abuse. Dope?s greatest advocates ? depression, anxiety, anger, and fear ? rule the hallways in prison. This truth is something the war-on-drugs crowd cannot concede. How could they? It means admitting that the chief cause of drug abuse in prison ? and the violence that walks along side ? is the prison environment itself. Hell will freeze waiting for that admission from ?just-say-no? enthusiasts.

Debates aside, the day Dale left here in a hearse – with unborn child and fianc? trailing in the backseat of a cop car ? broke many hearts. My sister left in tears, this being her first front-row experience with human death. Wes Mender, the officer that had joined me in trying to save Dale?s life, pulled me into a side room and privately embraced me, thanking me for my effort. I commended him in return. We then collected ourselves, restoring our costumes before rejoining the roles of ‘keeper and kept’. The Warden ? who had been in his office, finishing up activities related to the Ion Scanner mediation ? looked miserable. The evening?s implications hung over him like a thundercloud. After ensuring my sister?s safe exit, I headed for the running track to clear my head.

As I jogged, one word kept time in my skull like a metronome. Why? Why did Dale and his girlfriend do something so stupid? I knew his circumstance, and that drugs had brought him back to prison on a recent parole violation. Why would he make such a rookie mistake, with so much at stake? Why would the system put a man with an obvious drug problem back into a notoriously drug-infested prison? Why not send him directly to a substance-abuse treatment centre? Why – in tackling drug abuse – do Canadians continue to do the same things repeatedly, and expect different results? Isn?t that insanity?

Rounding the back stretch, my mind echoed one of Georgie Mowers? pet mantras: ?Don?t try to make sense out of nonsense, kid. It?ll drive ya nuts.? Drawing a deeper breath, I voided my mind and increased the pace. Ten laps to go.

A House Divided

“Kale, what the heck happened?” I asked. Kale rolled towards me down the prison’s wheelchair ramp, his right leg elevated.

“I broke my leg playing baseball,” he grumbled. He looked annoyed, like he had answered the same question too many times.

“No way. That was you? I heard about it. Is it true the cops stood around and did nothing?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Can you believe this place?”

This exchange, conducted on the sidewalk last week, arose from an incident on the baseball field the previous night. During rec. time, some of the men had been throwing the ball around. Kale jumped to catch a high throw. He’s a big guy, and when he landed wrong, it cracked his femur – right down the centre. The guy who told me about it said that Kale laid there shrieking for five minutes before his friends were able to drag him to the team benches. But what happened next expanded the damage from Kale’s leg to the rest of the prison.

When it became evident that Kale was not going to ‘walk it off’, one of the men – Penthouse Perry – had the sense to go for help. I’m not sure what he said to them, but it only took moments for a convoy of nine guards to arrive on the baseball diamond. One had an orange medical gurney in tow. As they arrived, their training kicked in. First they surveyed the situation for danger, or evidence of a crime. Has the offender been assaulted? Piped? Shanked? Is he ‘in a condition other than normal?’ Their initial checklist completed, they then proceeded to do nothing. Nine highly-trained, burly men stood in a circle, grinning while refusing to help, or even touch the injured prisoner. They certainly didn’t assist him onto the gurney. A cloud of peer pressure surrounded them, with each refusing to be the first to offer assistance to a “Con“. As Kale’s friends finally helped him onto the stretcher, he screamed from the pain. Penthouse Perry said that Kale’s hands had been shaking visibly, and he was pasty white. One of the guards — grinning – said, “That looks like it hurts.” On cue, three other guards snickered. Their conduct became the talk of the prisoners that week, with comments ranging from resentment to venomous hatred.

On my way to work this morning, two female staff members asked if they could speak with me for a moment. Mrs. Dent is a P.O., and Mrs. Singh is a programs officer. I know them well, and have a good working relationship with both. Mrs. Singh asked, “If you were in the program’s building, and you saw a female staff member fall down, would you help her up?”I smiled. Is this a trick question? Where’s the hidden camera? I thought. She did not return the smile.

“Yeah, of course,” I answered honestly.

“See?” Mrs. Dent interjected. “I told you, Ranjit. Not everyone is that way.” Mrs. Singh then explained to me how three days prior, while exiting her office, she had slipped, landing on her knees with an audible crack. As she lay there mewling in pain, twenty young prisoners had callously stood by. No one asked if she was alright. No one offered a hand. Most stood there staring, and some even chuckled at her mishap. I should mention that Mrs. Singh is an attractive Indo-Canadian who typically dresses in fashionable, well arranged outfits. If her collapse had occurred in any local mall, she would have had to beat back all the male hands offering assistance. Without doubt, some of those hands would have belonged to the men who laughed at her misfortune in here. As she told her story, I looked down at the sidewalk, shaking my head from side to side in a silent message of shame. “I’m sorry that happened to you, Mrs. Singh. I’m embarrassed for us all,” I said. She could not know that “all” included the guards that had conducted themselves so shamefully the night of Kale’s injury. Before continuing my march to work, I posed a rhetorical question: “It makes you wonder what the heck this place is, doesn’t it?”

In Canada, incarcerating a man costs $101,000 per year. In the U.S., the same man in the same prison costs $24,000. The 300-percent mark-up is due to staff wages, and correctional program budgets. In Canada, base salary for a walk-off-the-street COI is $53,000. The year-over-year increase for that figure is steep. $72,000 salaries for a guard are the norm. Taxpayers bear this burden because they trust their correctional system to ensure public safety, humane treatment of prisoners, and that those entering as criminals will exit as pro-social citizens. Considering the $2.3-billion-per-year price tag, it’s a realistic expectation.

Nevertheless, in any community, there is an element that weighs more than gobs of cash. That element is culture. Since Canada’s first prison opened in 1835, both keepers and kept have worked hard to sustain an “us vs. them” culture. Recently, there have been determined attempts to change that culture. But any progress made in one camp is often met by regression in the other. Why? “Because so few people — including those who support it financially — know what prison really is, or is supposed to be.” This vacuum of understanding creates a perfect breeding ground for propaganda. It is the propaganda surrounding prison that most validates the toxic ‘guard vs prisoner’ philosophy. ?The propaganda that prisoners are scum, and guards are pigs. ?The propaganda that prisoners should suffer as much as possible. ?The propaganda that keepers and kept are enemies in a war-zone of crime. ?Until that fog of propaganda is burned off, Canada’s high-priced of healing will only be houses of hurt. ?Maybe I can help.

I.M. GreN?da