The Incarcerated InkWell

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

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The righteousness trap

How does a kid who spends weeknights building Lego hotels and his weekends casting for river trout turn into a career criminal and murderer? That’s what I wanted to know. So a decade ago I enrolled in a program to help me to find the answer.

In 2001, the Violence Prevention Program was new to the B.C. prison I was sleeping in, and at the time there were only twelve open spots for three hundred and forty prisoners. Lifers were not a priority. But after a couple of successful intake interviews, those in charge of seating saw something in me that they could work with – and offered me chair number twelve. I jumped at it.

Over the next five months, psychologists and program facilitators poked, prodded and challenged us until I knew more about violence than a North African dictator. Questions like, “When was the first time in your life you ever saw violence?” and “When was the first time you remember hitting someone? How did you feel?” really kicked up the dust in my memory vault. Other classes examined new terms like ”reactive” and “instrumental” violence, and the question of why we choose violence as a response (big surprise – because it works!). Nevertheless, it was the effort we put into finding the roots of violence that rewarded me most. It was there that I found the memories of a long ago assault on my dignity, memories as faint as a decades old sign in the desert.

Now if you’re thinking that this is the part where the jailbird blames his woes on a difficult childhood – time out. The only thing the blame game has ever done is put people on their knees. I may be a lot of things, but on my knees is not one of them.

However, there is an important difference between blaming and understanding. Where blaming asks “why,” understanding goes looking for “what?” – as in what the hell happened to me? It was in the thick brambles of what that I uncovered a backyard conversation between my Dad and I more than thirty years earlier. I was five years old. Dad denied saying something he most certainly had, then blamed me for getting it wrong. A pretty benign event in the everyday world of child rearing – until it plays out in front of an uncle that the kid totally worships. And that was it. One rogue moment in time became a cancer that would burrow its way into my bones; a twenty-two year nuclear war with the man who gave me life – and anyone I could paint his face on. I’ll never forget the way I felt the day it all came into focus for me. I wanted to vomit. It’s a feeling I’ve been getting a lot these days – whenever I read the national news.

The Canada I grew up in was one filled with a people who pushed words like “peacekeeping”, “environmentalism,” and “Human Rights” into the international lexicon. The first year I attended high school, every cool kid in the place wore the same pin on their sleeveless jean jacket: Free Afghanistan. It had only been one year since a conglomerate of communist countries invaded an ancient nation in western Asia, with the sole aim of bringing its untamed tribes into the fold of a centralized government of that conglomerate’s choosing. Every night at six o’clock, iconic B.C. newscaster Tony Parsons would decry the bloodshed of Afghan citizens while scorning the blatant propaganda of communist media organs. Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan sure has brought back a lot of those memories for me. What I can’t remember is whether Pravda ever advocated for a “Highway of Heroes.” It makes you wonder what buttons Russian high school kids are wearing.

Canadian politicians signing bombs to drop on an African nation that never raised as much as a voice against us; Canadian citizens howling for a return to the death penalty; Canadian corporations dealing death to developing nations; Canadian governments shepherding scorched earth industries, twenty years after Chernobyl. If ol’ Ronny Reagan was still alive, he might be excused for thinking that the “evil empire” had invaded everything upwards of the forty-ninth parallel. Regardless, I’m sure he’d be asking the same question I have lately as I look through a barred window on a country that I no longer recognize:

What the hell happened to the Great White North?

This would probably be a good place to insert a quote by some irreproachable statesman or historically cherished wise man — something about power corrupting or pride before a fall, or meeting the enemy and it is us. But twenty years of watching myself turn gray in an echo chamber have given me a few insights of my own. Surely the clearest of those is how bad it can go when the whole world is wrong except us – and the roads we can walk down to make ourselves believe it.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to


The daily food budget for a Canadian federal prisoner is $4.76. That doesn’t leave much room for quinoa and cauliflour. Here’s 6 salads I dream of sinking my plastic spork into.

1 – Beet and Apple Salad with Pistachios and Goat Cheese

2 – Tangy Spiced Eggplant Salad

3 – Pinto Bean Salad with Avocado, Tomatoes, Red Onion, and Cilantro

4 – Green Eggs With Ham… wait a minute! I thought it was a salad!

5 – Sun and Moon Orange, & Sweet Onion Salad

6 – Strawberry Spinach Salad

It rhymes with justice

On a fresh Tuesday morning three months ago, a prisoner from the cell block next to mine put on his crisp white uniform and reported to his job as a prep-cook in the kitchen. I had come to know Martin as a gifted artist, a capable barber, and a guy who had been behind bars for twenty years. The few times he waltzed around my jugular with a pair of barbering scissors revealed an exceptionally polite man, with a winsome smile and a patient ear for my awkward assassination of French verbs. But that morning in December, it would be a very different Martin that the prison would experience; a Martin who could barricade himself and a female kitchen steward — a mother of newborn twins — at knife point in a storage room for nine hours and, according to news reports, raped her repeatedly while police negotiators on the other side of the thick steel door bargained for her life.

It has taken me twelve weeks to be able to write those words. It was a week before I could even talk about it. The day Quebec’s LCN network reported the details, I couldn’t eat. In eighteen years behind bars, I’ve seen guys swigging each other’s puked up methadone; I’ve seen a prisoner with his eyes sliced in half — by his own hand; I’ve even seen a whole tier of convicts shuffle through the drained life-blood of a 22-year-old suicide victim, high-fiving each other on their way to a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowel of tomato soup (top that one, Senator Boisvenu). What I’ve never seen is anything like Martin.

In the weeks that followed, my reaction to what Martin did could be called predictable. The husband and father in me felt deep sorrow for the victim and her family. The prisoner in me was sickened to the marrow, angry that no other kitchen cons had intervened; smashed him with soup oar, cleaved his skull with frying pan, cut his throat with a paring can opener — something! Finally, the human being in me was left with only one question — the same one everyone asks when nothing makes sense. “Why?”

In the past few months, Canada has become the winter palace of “why?” In Kingston, a mother and father are convicted of murdering three bright and chirpy teenage daughters; in Vancouver, grieving stakeholders sift the memories of 50 butchered women; on a highway in southern Alberta, the lives of five young men and women are vaporized in a lighting strike of jealousy — and the newspapers, courtrooms, and church pews are filled in an attempt to find meaning. The problem is that is while Canadians quarry through mountains of nonsense, looking for that one nugget of sense, they’re probably missing the most important question of all: Why ask why?

In his provocative book, The Science of Evil — On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University (and cousin to that other famous Baron-Cohen) looks at intolerable human behavior with a fresh set of eyes — through the lens of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the scientific method. As a young Jew, raised in a community of Holocaust survivors, Baron-Cohen had an early introduction to things that make you ask why. For instance, why did German army officers turn Jews into lampshades? Or why did a German doctor amputate the hands of one family friend, then use advanced micro-surgery techniques to reattach them backwards, with her thumbs pointing down? The answers young Simon received were the usual ones. The Devil did it. God was testing us. The Nazis were evil. But none of these satisfied him — or did anything to prevent future genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. So Simon the university student kicked “why” to the curb and focused instead on the who, what, and when of the matter. The answers he eventually found may change forever the way we understand cruel human behavior.

The problem, Baron-Cohen says, is not the presence of evil, but the absence of empathy. By empathy he means “our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” After decades of investigating autistic brains, he and his team discovered that the venerable human quality we call empathy is actually a measurable substance that can be seen in action during an fMRI brain scan. Some, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, are what the Professor calls “super-empathizers” — unable to move from caring for others to thinking solely of their own interests. Others, like British mother Rekha Kumara-Baker, who stabbed her two daughters to death in June 2007, display (at least temporarily) what the Professor calls “zero degrees empathy” — or “no awareness of how they come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate others feelings or actions.” Strangely enough, zero degrees empathy is the same designation that autism patients exhibit. Why there hasn’t been an epidemic of autistic serial killers is a good question. And it’s not the only one.

How does “zero degrees empathy” occur? Is it genetic, or are there environmental factors? How wide spread is the condition? Is it treatable? Who are at greatest risk? These are the types of thorny questions that Baron-Cohen and others are fearlessly pursuing. But whether they find the answers may rely less on meticulous lab work than it will on getting into the minds of those who already know. I think I know a good place to start looking.

When the world was introduced to Robert William Pickton, it felt like we were watching a movie. As a writer, I couldn’t have created a more abhorrent creature. First, he was a skinny and balding fifty-something, with greasy hair and pasty white skin — a stretched version of Danny DeVito’s “the Penguin.” Of course he also smoked — at a time when Canadians were being programmed to hate everything about smoke and smokers. Even the name the media gave him — Willy — evoked images of a misogynist sodomite from the movie Deliverance. Then came the narrative. He butchered his victims — hung them like sides of pork in a meat locker — where he must have practiced necrophilia. He drizzled human flesh into products sold by local grocers. He fed some women to dogs and pigs while still alive. He ate them himself. By the time the judge said guilty, fact and fiction were exchangeable; all that was left was an urban legend for the ages — a soul sucking demon for whom a silver bullet was too good. And the world howled “why?”

What we never heard was who, as in “Who derives pleasure from methodically hunting vulnerable women, kidnapping them, torturing them, butchering them and feeding them to his pet pig? Who was Robert Pickton before he became a notation in the annals of infamy?” I’m no psychopathologist, but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck — then our boy Willy was one sick bird. Yet the DNA evidently says human. So when did Pickton lose that? Are there more out there like him, clinging by a finger to the last branch of their humanity? What about my workmates, my neighbors, my family? What about me? Those are the questions I’d really like answers to. But since “why?” seems to be the question-du-jour, I might as well ask one of my own. Why are so many Canadians in such a hurry to kill the one guy who can tell us how serial killers really happen? The answer has nothing to do with justice.

When things happen that knock our emotional pendulum as far off center as Pickton did, physics leaves the mind with no recourse but an equal and opposite reaction. When I killed the man I am serving a life sentence for, I did so in the absolute conviction that he was trying to kill me. That my conclusion was borne from seething rage rather than anything factual was something I never gave a moment of consideration to. An eye for an eye was my search for balance — the same feeling I had when I first heard about Martin. The difference is, I’m no longer a 27-year-old kid with a head full of hash resin. Maximum brutality may have quenched a passing desire 18 years ago, but I now know that fighting fire with fire never meets anyone’s long term needs. Instead, what two decades of help from others, and quiet thinking on my own has taught me is that the questions we ask are far more important than the volume with which we ask them. That’s where you’ll find justice. Everything else is just us

– For Diane

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

Interview with Louise Penny

Louise Penny is Canada’s pre-eminent crime fiction writer. She has won the New Blood Dagger Award for mystery writers, the Arthur Ellis and Dilys Awards, and is the four-time recipient of the prestigious Agatha Award for best novel. She is also the patroness of the Yamaska Literacy Council, where she volunteers time and financial resources to teach Quebec federal prisoners reading and writing in English. Inkwell reached her at an undisclosed location out of the country.

1) You are Canada’s most prolific and decorated mystery writer. Your books have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list, yet many Canadians have never heard of you. Did the Kardashians have anything to do with that?

Actually, I am a Kardashian, as anyone who’s seen me from behind will attest.


2) Your most recent offering Trick of the Light tips its hat to both the Alcoholics Anonymous culture and the Montreal art scene. Which of the two has shaped you more as a writer?

I have to admit, until I met my husband, Michael, I knew very little about art. it wasn’t part of the ‘conversation’ when I grew up. My parents talked about (and were passionate about) music and literature, and while we had art on the walls I suspect it was pretty pedestrian stuff. Having said that, after my father died and we were left pretty well penniless, my mother had to go back to work. The only job she could find was fill in work as a secretary – barely making ends meet….but when she got her first paycheck she got the three of us kids together, took us on the bus to a small art gallery and she used that check, not for food or heat, but to buy a piece of art. As we looked on, astonished, she explained that art and creativity and beauty were nourishing too, and vital to the soul. And we needed to find what we considered beautiful and make space to it in our lives. When she died, that painting was the first thing I chose from the house. Now, what AA did for me, as a writer, but certainly as a person, was it gave me the grace to see the power and courage and beauty in what my mother did.


3) With all the problems facing modern society, why did you get behind literacy?

You and I’ve discussed this before and share a passion for the problem – the great handicap of illiteracy. The anvil it becomes. There is a direct link between much of misery in people’s lives, and not being able to properly read and write. It’s not a philosophical concept – it’s a multilane expressway. If you can’t read and write, you can’t fulfill your dreams. You can’t get an education, can’t get a decent job. You live in fear and shame. And poverty. The vast majority of low income people are illiterate. The vast majority of the prison population is illiterate. Drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, crime – all have many causes – but illiteracy is often one, and a big one. And a solvable one. We can do something about it. How exciting is that?! Now, being able to read and write is not a guarantee of happiness – but not being able to pretty much guarantees a life that is frustrated and stunted. It seems such an easy fix – teach kids to read and write. Teach them to love it, even, as more than a necessary skill, but a joy. Teach their parents how different life is when signs and documents and newspapers and job applications and medicine bottles make sense. And let them pass it on to their children. I could go on and on, but will stop – because I know you yourself are deeply committed to helping people read and write.


4) Last summer, Amazon passed the tipping point where it has now sold more e-books than paper. What future opportunities and challenges will e-reading bring for Canadians?

This is also, like so many things, a mixed blessing. I think young people might be drawn to books they can read in a medium they understand and that isn’t foreign or threatening. E-books have so much potential, and added value. My next book talks a fair amount about music – the e-version can have a link to the exact music I’m writing about. So the lines between reader and writer, between fiction and reality, can be blurred. That’s very exciting. It’s also a wonderful tool, for people who otherwise would be weighed down with paper. Travelers, for instance. But it has already cost us a number of bookstores (what’s now known as ‘bricks and mortar’ stores). I don’t own an ereader and have no plans to get one. I suspect the people who invented it had no intention of wiping out ‘paper’ books, or bookstores or libraries….but that is what might happen. And I would be devastated. There is no way an ereader or a download could ever replace the personal service and contact of a local bookstore or library. People who know your taste, who host bookclubs, who are themselves passionate about the written word.

I suspect (and perhaps this is more a hope than a rational thought) that eventually, once the thrill had died down, many people will go back to bound books – and use e-readers as a great tool. Just like movies and TV didn’t wipe out theatre. I just hope bricks and mortar bookstores can wait it out. And I hope I’m right, and there is a place for both e-readers and bound books in our lives. I remember interviewing a prominent scientist, when I was on the CBC, and he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that we never really understand what we’ve invented. I think the e-reader’s a great example. As is the internet, the cellphone, tablets. All exciting, and all with applications that are growing, for better or worse.


5) So you and Chief Inspector Gamache are on the road right now. How would the Chief Inpector save the Eurozone from a meltdown?

I think he’d send Kris Kardashian to head up the EU. So simple it has been overlooked.


Church Bells Ringing… ?

Gone are the days you hear church bells in the distance. The scream of fire engines racing past you doesn’t distinguish from a bright day or a cloudy one. It’s more of a sign of the times we’re encased in.

I live in a small town. I’m new here, and if I had imagined that it would introduce me to barefoot walks sucking on overgrown grass fronds waiting for the strawberry wine to age, it would only be due to whispers of memories of fiction.

It has all the parts of a small town — small size, small population, and the neighbours that know you even though you have never met… yet.

But it has modern day problems. Divorces, and the accompanying children raised by so many adults they aren’t sure of who their parents are. And crackheads. Gobs and gobs of ’em. Makes me wonder when or who brought it to this small place first.

I left a big city and the bustle of its pace. I don’t know what I expected, but with the sound of emergency vehicles in my ears, and the sights of empty-eyed wisps of the local fauna, it looks like I didn’t really go anywhere at all.


Prison, it’s the new black

I finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help last night. For five nights I couldn’t put it down. I’m sure that has more to do with my first writing coach, Ed Griffin than The Oprah.

“Show, don’t tell! You owe it to the reader.” I can hear Ed howling at us even now. Stockett followed this timeless decree so closely that, this morning, I found myself calling a difficult female guard in the control post, that white woman.

But walking through 1960’s Mississippi for a week has brought out more than my inner cleaning lady. As with all good reads, this one left behind some big picture questions. Like why we believe what we do about others — and how otherwise rational, educated people can cling so tightly to “truths” that aren’t. Right now those questions feel particularly urgent. Maybe it’s because in 21st century Canada, convicts are the Nigra nouveau.

“I’ve been reading your column,” Ed said to me on the phone last week. “Good stuff.” Inside I buzz like I’ve just heard that the cutest chick in gym class likes me. I want to say something self-depreciative — to be polite. But all I can gather up is “thanks,” and even that comes out all squeaky.

“I have a question though…”

“Shoot,” I say.

“Does anyone ever get the reader comments to you? I been reading some and they’re a little bit… malicious.”

Ed is the crown prince of Anglo-Saxon expletives. It must have damned near killed him to conjure up a word like malicious.

“You mean the stuff about what a pathetic piece of vermin vomit I am, and that I should be hung by my nuts in a slow-acting gas chamber, or the stuff about my writing being the worst the Province has ever published, and the reason I’m online is because my column’s not even good enough for budgies to crap on?”

“Yeah…” I hear my seventy-five year old mentor sigh from five provinces away. “So you know. How do handle that kind of criticism?”

Criticism? Is that what it is? I thought I was just giving folks a place to blow off steam — you know, so they don’t have to beat their spouses (or pets) again this week. Besides, hating on me is the king of lost causes. To quote the most popular Lady on the planet: “I was born this way.”

Yet, I think I understand Canadian’s burning need to hate “the other.” It’s in our DNA. AboriginalsChinese — JapaneseJewsJehovah’s Witnesses — Mentally Disabled — we’ve hated, discriminated against, and even killed some of them — legally. With all due respect to Adrian Clarkson, there has never been a moment in the history of confederation where making room for all of us didn’t mean that somebody had to “tee-tee in the colored’s bathroom.”

When I was a kid growing up in the interior of B.C. it was pretty much week to week which one of those bathrooms got singled out for high contempt. There were those in the colossal “Hindu shacks” just off the main road — built by immigrant Punjabi families (whose turbans said Sikh, not Hindu), so that they could care for each new wave of arriving family.

“My lord, have you ever smelled such a gawd-awful stink in your life? That’s their food you know,” was the one I heard most often – usually from the back seat of our car.

Then there was the local “Indian school,” just off the reservation. “Little buggers can’t go to a normal school. Too wild — and dirty,” our neighbor would say. Being a church Elder, I guess he knew about that sort of thing.

But three decades of multiculturalism has left dissatisfied Canadians with a bucketful of pent up bigotry, and nowhere to dump it. Not in public anyway. “Chinks,” “Japs,” “Chugs,” “Pakies,” Wops,” “Kikes” — they’re all off the table of socially acceptable parties to blame our woes on. Heck, even bad mouthing “fags” these days will put you on an RCMP watch list, which might explain why it’s now fashionable to blame everything wrong with Canada on prisoners. Besides Nickleback, who else is left?

“Writing class out at the prison has been going good,” Ed says, changing topics. “Some of the boys are making real movement on their prose.” I ask if he’s still having problems getting community volunteers to help.

“Volunteers? No problem. There’s a line up. The problem is when they come to the prison — especially the women. The guards really put them through the ringer. One of our volunteers said that they told her ‘ never sit next to an offender, never hug an offender, never show too much personal attention to an offender, and never, ever give anything to, or take anything from an offender.’ She said it’s like they want us to treat them like they’re from another planet or something.” I allow myself a knowing smile.

Not another planet, Ed. Just another place in time.


Interview wth Heidi Greco

Heidi Greco is a writer and editor, a long-time board member of the SubTerrain Collective, and a volunteer who enjoys working with BC prisoners who write. Her most recent book, Shrinking Violets, co-winner of the Ken Klonsky Novella Award, was published by Toronto’s Quattro Books in 2011. She keeps a sporadic blog called Out on the Big Limb. We reached Heidi in a well-loved RV called “The Rattler” somewhere under the biggest plants in California.

1. You and your guy are big fans of the Redwoods. What’s the appeal?

For me, I suppose a big appeal is the fact that they’re older than I am. Beyond that, I have to admit that there’s something undeniably spiritual about standing beneath them. They’ve been part of the planet for such a long time, they fairly reek a kind of wisdom. Far more awe-inspiring than any church I’ve ever been in.


2. The Canadian media makes much to-do about the US economy since 2008. Yet, we also read that there were $800 million worth of e-readers sold in the US in 2011. How are folks really doing down there?

That’s difficult to say, as we tend to avoid cities – and cities remain, as in Canada, where most citizens live. But because we did a marathon tour last year, riding ‘The Rattler’ coast to coast, mostly through the U.S., we did see a lot. In particular, we saw a lot of ‘for sale’ signs and broken-down small towns.

Since we got home last summer, I’ve been working on-and-off on a long, extended poem with the working title, “America Abandoned.” And sure, plenty of people are still buying e-readers and I-pads and smart phones, but I wonder how many of them are doing so on credit cards with interest charges that flutter around 20%.


3. Did you release your latest book for an e-reader?

My publisher, Quattro Books, has published parallel editions. Shrinking Violets is available as an e-book and also in old-fashioned paper. With the e-book, the cover might be difficult to appreciate, as the colours are muted and subtle. But hey, good reminder – where my family pitched in and got me a Kindle for Christmas, I should request an e-copy for myself.


4. Shrinking Violets visits some hard taboos. What was your inspiration?

You sure know how to ask the tough questions, Ira. Long story. Shrinking Violets started out as an entry in the 3-Day Novel Contest. That’s a Vancouver-based (though open to the world) competition where insane people like me sign on to spend their Labour Day long weekend in front of a screen. And talk about nutty, we even pay to undergo this ordeal!

When I began writing my 3-Day Novel, all I knew was that the main character was a young woman with bright orange hair. Her name arrived almost immediately: Reggie. I knew that she needed a job, so I gave her one I knew something about – supermarket cashier. From there, Reggie led the way – crosswords, hot chocolate, taboos and all.

The manuscript didn’t win that year’s competition, so it went into the desk drawer where so many of those incomplete projects languish. When a friend became gravely ill, I found myself facing a massive case of writer’s block (or, more likely, overwhelming depression over my lack of control when it came to his illness). Then, because I get pretty stressed when I can’t (or don’t) write, Reggie called out for my attention. I immersed myself in major revisions – all I could handle, writing-wise at the time. Although my friend succumbed to his cancer, Reggie managed at least to save me.


5. What brought you to volunteer in prisons?

Again, this gives me pause. I’m not too sure how this came about. I won’t joke about a ‘captive audience’ though will say that maybe after working in public schools for many years, prison sounded like a breeze. More realistically, I suspect I may have been invited by Ed Griffin, the local patron saint of creative writing for the incarcerated. I knew that BC writer Andreas Schroeder had been a pioneer in writing programs for prisoners. I also had a passing acquaintance with Stephen Reid, another successful writer who’s done time. And who knows, as would be true for just about anyone, there are likely elements of ‘there but for the grace of whoever.’


6. A recent poll showed that 74% of British Columbia respondents favor a return of the death penalty in Canada at the same time that some American states are rejecting it. What happened to the “Left Coast”?

I don’t know who they asked. They certainly didn’t phone me. I can’t think of any of my friends who would support the return of capital punishment – okay, maybe one, but I’m never sure when he is kidding with his right-wing opinions.

As for the “Left Coast” it may well have left the building. If our elections are any indication of what people actually believe (and I shudder to consider such a possibility), any notions of true liberalism have been swallowed by the forces of greed and corporatism.

Further, I believe that our current first-past-the-post electoral system makes it impossible for the wishes of the citizenry to be represented. When’s the last time we had a prime minister or a BC premier whose numbers corresponded to more than 35 or 40% of voters? Since the right has become unified in a single party (federally, the Conservatives; provincially the so-called BC Liberals), the forces of opposition are stranded in disparate segments. I for one am ready for a coalition of some sort. Truly, it seems our only hope.


7. What’s your favorite thing about the west coast writing scene?

I never really imagine myself as particularly well connected, living out in the wilds of the southern suburbs as I do. Still, when I do venture into the city or to the islands for an event, I always feel incredibly welcome, as if I have been reunited with my ‘tribe’ somehow.

So I suppose my favourite thing about the scene is its attitude of acceptance. Spoken word artists don’t seem to sneer at those of us who are more traditional, non-fiction writers mix just fine with those who write fiction. When I think of it, so many of us cross genres all the time. And no, that’s not to be confused with crossing gender, though there are quite a few out here who have done that as well.


8. Playboy recently paid Lindsay Lohan a million dollars to pose nude for their magazine. Who would you like their next million dollar model to be?

Gosh, Ira, from what I’ve been able to glimpse of your fantastic body art, I’d have to propose you be next in line. Only, oops, the pages of Playboy are lined with women, aren’t they.

It may seem odd, but I had a subscription to that magazine for quite a few years. It always arrived in these slinky black plastic wrappers which must have frustrated my letter carrier no end. He didn’t even get to see the name of the month’s foldout, to say nothing of ogling her better bits. Weirdly, I guess I was one of those who read it for the articles.

But really, a million dollars for posing nude? I can think of at least a thousand ways a million bucks could be put to better use. Besides, I don’t think putting my name forward for the job would do any good.


9. Which of your books would you most like to see turned into a feature film?

Considering that most of my books are collections of poetry, I’m easily restricted to nominating Shrinking Violets for such adaptation. Yet in many ways, even its mostly-linear story would be tricky to interpret, as so much of it consists of internalized thoughts or convoluted dreams.

Besides Violets, the other candidate would be A: The Amelia Poems. It’s only a little slip of a chapbook, but the poems are composed as if they were written by Amelia Earhart, the pilot who’s alleged to have disappeared in 1938. I’m often attracted by conspiracy theory thinking, and my ideas about Amelia are right up there in the clouds of the bizarre. I take a page from the playwright Arthur Kopit and reckon she ended up in an asylum, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner – denied even her identity.


10. Is the view out your window stirring up any writing prompts this week?

The Redwoods? You betcha. Though considering we live in a house that’s pretty well surrounded by trees, you’d think that I’d get sick of looking at branches and bark. But no, the moods of trees are endless, their solidness an unshakeable inspiration.



If music soothes the savage beast then you’d think they’d make John Tesh a warden. Unfortunately, Corrections is scared to death of all things MP3 so the prisoner imagination is limited to rogue radio waves and CD’s from the 1990’s. Here’s 6 bands I’d be hearing more of if I had an IPOD.

1 – Lykke Li: I Follow Rivers

2 – Regina Spektor: Fidelity

3 – Groove Armada: Hands of Time

4 – The Trews: Hope and Ruin

5 – Michael Franti: Say Hey, I Love You

6 – Elbow: Open Arms

Been there, done that

“Mr. Harper should move more slowly before he cuts the CPP and OAS for older inmates.

In each case the question is, what do they do with the money? Do they spend it on prison canteen? Hardly. There are only so many candy bars a man can eat.

Do they buy illegal prison drugs? The staff would notice the older inmate stoned out of his mind.

Most older inmates send their CPP and OAS home to support their families. Some bank the money for the day they get out.

Mr. Harper’s plan would impoverish these men and their families and make them a burden on society. As history shows, make one exception to a universal program and soon the government will make more exceptions.

Beware. We may be next.” – Ed Griffin, Surrey


– Op/Ed page, Surrey Leader — June 23, 2010


If Ed Griffin could only pick stocks like he can social agendas, maybe we’d both be both living in the Playboy mansion. But in order to save my prescient pal’s shiny dome from excessive swelling, I will now reveal the source of his uncanny powers. First, Ed is an expatriate of Regan’s America, that place where the great Pharaoh from Hollywood finally “set them markets free,” while at the same time slapping a million young black men back in chains (and orange jumpsuits). Where the Romans brought straight roads to the world, Regan’s America put something at the end of those roads: prisons. So for the prophetic Mr. Griffin, watching the Canadian news these days must be like watching reruns of Jersey Shore — painful.

Secondly, Ed has been coming to Canadian prisons as a volunteer for the past seventeen years. After that long, you start to see patterns. As outrageous as the latest policy suggestion from the backbench may be, you can bet we heard it first in the Big House. When I first came into the penitentiary, everything was geared to education, and getting prisoners back into the community as tax-paying citizens. There was advanced trades training, university courses, and for those prisoners who could safely be managed, even apprenticeships — conducted outside the fence. Another pinko initiative dreamed up by the Trudeau gang while quaffing hundred-dollar bottles of taxpayer-funded Cabernet Sauvignon at the Chateau Laurier? Nope. Paid university for prisoners was the brainchild of the Mulroney Conservatives — the last gang to dance the death penalty trial balloon out before the Canadian populace.

But in 1993, less than a year after the Chretien Liberals won that party’s largest ever majority, corrections announced a “moratorium” on post-secondary training for inmates. By the spring of 1995, that moratorium had become ban, and any Canadian federal prisoner that wanted more than a grade ten education would have to pony up out of his own pocket. Care to guess what happened next? You might remember a little something called “balancing the budget,” where then Finance Minister, Paul Martin drew up a new list of Canadian priorities. If there were any Canadian students stunned to see that federal funding for post-secondary education didn’t make the top 100 lists in “Red Book” Canada, none of them were sleeping in the house of detention.

Much whelping was heard around the nation in 2011, as Canada officially pulled out of the Kyoto accord. But not a whimper was heard anywhere when Corrections Canada’s environmental impact budget for 2010 was reshuffled into the budget for hiring more prison guards. Not that it mattered. While corrections wrote policy back in 2003 (Commissioner’s Directive 318 — Environmental Programs), to ensure that “CSC… meet the letter and spirit of all environmental laws, regulations, guidelines, codes and policies applicable to its operations,” reality is that all newspapers, glass, cardboard and plastic leaving the pen went the same way it has for the past hundred years — down the toilet or into the landfill. Whatever taxpayer money that was earmarked for green-plan enforcement evidently went into prison-staff overtime cheques. If you want to know why, just ask a convict. Canadians in general really couldn’t care less about saving the earth. It’s not our problem.

The list is as long as a Brad Pitt life-skills movie: Mandatory urinalysis for employment purposes? Sorry folks, the Big House had that back in 1992. Criminalization of tobacco smoking? Gotcha again – in 2009. Mandatory minimum (segregation) sentences for possession of marijuana? Since the first day of Harper’s minority government. Circumsized public library budgets? You saw it here first folks. And now that a Conservative MP has just tabled a bill to cut Unemployment Insurance payments to convicts after they’ve done their time, care to guess where you’ll see it next? If not, just ask Ed Griffin.

Churchill once famously noted that there was no better way to measure a society’s temperament than the way it treats its criminals. Canadians need to hope that old Winston got it wrong. Because you won’t believe what they’re doing to health care in here.


I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to

The Mayor of Nowhere

So, the 13 billion dollar question tearing Canada apart is this: Can people change? And what works better – punishment or rehabilitation? To find out, I propose the following experiment: cut each of Canada’s 12,500 federal prisoners a check for 500 grand and a one way ticket to the destination of your choice — and we’ll mail you the answer. As long as the destination isn’t hell. I hear the postal service is a bit spotty there since Khadaffi arrived. Something about re-imaging the stamps.

While you mull it over, you might consider this thought for free: Change is all humans ever do. We’re like sharks. Not only are we the most efficient and feared killers on the non-liquid part of the planet. We also alternate 50-50 between feeding, and feeding on, our young. But maybe our most shark-like feature is that if we stop moving, we die. Of course, that movement comes in many different forms. In the penitentiary the majority of it is spent traveling in circles. And just as on your side of the fence, those pointless unending circles that leave you exactly where you started (albeit with less energy and more gray hair) have a name. We call them elections.

Somewhere in the lost annals of Big House history, someone came up with the 1 watt idea of having a small group of prisoners who could voice the population’s concerns to the Warden — while he sat (surrounded by armed minions) behind the safety of a thirty foot wide bulletproof desk. Later, this communication model would be used to form the House of Commons.

In the beginning, Wardens cherry-picked which salivating sociopaths to allow in their presence un-muzzled. But as Canada began embracing democracy (somewhere around 1982), it was decided that this select committee of diplomatic deviants should be voted in by the inmate population. A population for whom murder is more virtuous than robbery. A population where trust is much rarer than innocence. A population where everyone wants to run the show — and most believe they already do.

Last week, election notices for the Inmate Committee went up around the cell block. Of course, they were misspelled — in both Canada’s official languages. Maybe it was the size of the accent over the E, but the French poster looked more like an ad for male-enhancement products. And what a list to choose from! In a population of 450 prisoners, no less than 72 are running for 3 positions. You think the NDP have it tough.

“You see who put their name in for the Committee?” KauKauGhe asked me last night.

“Well, I haven’t finished reading the entire catalogue yet, but…”

“That rat bastard from down the hall is running for President,” he continued. “And the little skin hound he always hangs with is going for Vice President. Can you believe it?”

“An informer and a sexual predator running for office? What do they think this is — the Republican nomination?”

“They should just keep them same guys that’s in there now,” Michelangelo piped in. “At least them boys put on a corn spread last summer. Wooo-aye that was some gawd lovin’ corn.” The nearly 400-pound former pro-wrestler’s eyes glazed over as he reminisced the 14 cobs of Peaches & Cream he had inhaled at last year’s corn harvest. Minor Matt had to bring him back to the cell block in a wheelchair.

“They can’t,” KauKauGhe said. “The warden kicked Denis off the committee a week ago. That’s why they’re having an election.”

“Really?” I was surprised. Denis had been the Inmate Committee president since I arrived here last year. As far as I could see, he had done a good job at it too. A big part of any Committee’s job is to put out spot fires before they become big deals. In the entirety of last year, only one con has been stabbed — and there wasn’t much anybody could have done about that. It was part of a drunken one-off that not even the guards saw coming. Other than that, the place was peaceful all year. Amazingly peaceful. It’s more than the majority of Canadian politician’s can claim about their constituencies.

“Yeah. They caught him smoking a cigarette in the Committee office. They told him that being on the committee is a privilege, and he was setting a bad example. So they give him the boot.” My Ojibwa friend’s big brown eyes sparkled with the obvious irony that a serial rapist and a jailhouse informant serving life for murder qualified to run for the Inmate Committee — but a smoker didn’t.

“Well, at least when he gets out he’ll have something new for his résumé — a year in government’ He can slide it in right under dope dealer.” KauKauGhe rolled his eyes at me and clicked his tongue. What he doesn’t know is that I’m serious. There’s thirty new seats coming to Parliament and, from what I hear, they’re looking to fill them with people who can problem solve by consensus. Now that would be a change.

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to