Leaving. That’s a loaded topic, especially in my life this year. I always leave Ira, to stand in the rubble at the pen. I’m not leaving him behind; just simply for now.
My mother left in November. Her exit was painful resulting in my appreciating its ending. Like the lady that she was, she ushered me to this, the afterwards time of life. There’s an ache here that I never knew before and I look at the world with new eyes. (Thank you Mom, for continuing to teach me. Until we meet again, I hold a kiss in my heart for you.)
I left my father and that feels more like a “leaving behind.” Especially now. But I suppose that’s what children do.
Yes children. Mine left early and I am the one left behind. (hmmmm) And in my state of leaving, I am filled with worry because I am Mom. (Gotta learn how to relax about them. They’re precious sweethearts… yup, I’m a mom.)
I don’t have problems with leaving others. I guess if I’m done, then it’s time for me to go, and I’m gone…
But shouldn’t I be meeting all of you with “hello” instead of “good-bye?”
Actually, I am.
New beginnings come to mind as spring approaches. Puppies being born. Same with kittens. Bulbs breaking through the ground. Grass growing. (Oh, the mowing.) Trees bursting with leaves.
verb (used without object)
to put forth leaves; leaf.
Then we’re actually approaching leaving with each passing day, the kind that brings about life. Little buds filling with colour, and nourishing all the greenery they belong to. Opportunities for brand spanking new introductions.
The circle of life.
Okay, now, I’m getting cheesy. So this is the part where rather than bidding you a fond adieu, I’m extending my hand.
Happy to meet you.
What a year a difference makes. First, I took down my shingle — the one that said “lean on me” — and went looking for a brand new pair of shoes. Fifteen years of serving locked-down neighbours as an “all hours” peer counsellor and legal advocate had taken their toll (my first grey pube!). Next, I did what every other guy in the eye of a mid-life crisis does: I bought a Corvette, got a new rope chain, and hit the clubs. O.K., so I’m stretching on the Corvette. But I did go out to a club — a writing club — where I met someone totally hot. That he was over seventy, bald, and had a raging case of chemotherapy wasn’t the first thing that caught my eye. No, that belonged to his bulging right brain — his ability to spray the colors of creativity onto dull prison walls — that’s what made Ed Griffin so comely. And hooking up with him opened doors for me that I had only ever walked past. Doors like writing for a tough audience…
But there’s opening a door and there’s opening a door, isn’t there? Just ask Cosmo Kramer. Since August 2010, The Incarcerated Inkwell has been a place for me to show Canadians what prison really is. The timing was right. Canadians en masse were drinking the billion-dollar Kool-Aid served up by a growing gaggle of prison prophets, and all things penitentiary had become the year’s leading Canadian newspaper topic. Even Post Media saw the value of bringing an insider’s POV to the table. For more than a year, their flagship British Columbia paper The Province has featured my weekly column, LIVE from the House of the Dead — columns I reprint here for readers (Canadian and otherwise) who are not regular visitors to The Province. But now that Inkwell readers know more about prison than those building them do, a little voice on my shoulder has been pestering me to widen out. Starting with this post, The Incarcerated Inkwell will now show a little less angst, and a little more leg — and not just my leg. You may have recently noticed that the site has started opening windows and letting in some fresher breezes. Now that the place is finally aired out, let me show you around…
Home Page: This will continue to be the spot for regular I.M. GreN?da posts, but beginning this week, those posts will now come twice weekly. One will revisit a recent LIVE from the House of the Dead column, while the other will be thoughts on a wider world that can only be found here at Inkwell. If readers have learned anything about my through-the-bars POV, it’s that not even razor wire can keep in the sunshine. It’s time to let more of it out.
Mercedes Muses: Yes she does — and the world needs to know it. Thirteen years ago a deeply beautiful woman and her two showstopper kids put their arms around me as a wife and stepchildren. That I was serving a life sentence for murder, lived in a maximum-security prison, and was sleeping two-hundred miles down the highway left those who knew them in shock. Now most of that shock has turned to awe. See for yourself how a bright and really funny lady makes a full time occupation out of following her heart, while turning the phrase prison mole into a badge of honour.
Writers Bloc – The Interviews: It took me a life sentence to figure it out, but the most fascinating thing in the human experience is the people who come into it. If the journey really is a path, then mine has been landscaped by an intriguing hotchpotch of nuts, geniuses, artists, rogues, survivors and renascence rascals. They have changed my life in a way that no blank cheque from Warren Buffet ever could. While some of them have tasted the prison experience, others only wish they had. All of them have seen the world through a unique set of eyes. Come see it through theirs.
Keep Six – On rare occasion, my world stops spinning just long enough for me to remember that, I am still a prisoner. And if prison is about anything, it’s about the things that I miss. In this unique weekly view of the sky we live under, I provide my own bucket list of things I wish I could do, see, and experience. Maybe readers will help me along by experiencing them for me. What better way to remind yourself which one of us is in prison?
Reader comments – While my custom of tackling contentious subjects will not change, it will always be the thought provoking comments of readers that give those topics breath. And while the world has no further need for haters, Inkwell will always be open to the dignified comments of our readers, no matter how strongly opposed they are to my own. It’s called free speech for a reason, folks.
Book Stash – I accomplished two notable goals in 2011. First I shut off the TV. For good. The Kardashians made that an easy choice. Secondly, I shut off Google Ads. After reading Martin Lindstrom’s Brand Washed, it was the least I could do — and much easier than setting up an Occupy site in the big yard. The brainchild of these choices is Book Stash, featuring the things I have read, am currently reading, or are on my shelf to read in the near future. For your convenience, links have been provided for you to purchase books by means of Amazon links on our Book Stash page.
Writing on the Wall – Seeing as we’re all reading now, and Captain Oprah has gone chasing the great white wail (“philanthropy will save Africa!”), how’s about an online book club? Select any book from the Book Stash page and comment along with other readers. Also read fresh comments from the author (if they’re still breathing). Consider it a new way to turn your brain on — and mine too.
Gang Colors – The Incarcerated Inkwell might be low-rant, but it ain’t low rent. Partial proceeds from Inkwell paraphernalia (t-shirts, toques, etc.) go the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry Societies, where they are used to support community-based programs that help prevent more Canadians — especially young ones — from enrolling in the new Conservative daycare program called prison. So put your currency where your concern is — and trust that Inkwell will follow your lead.
And that’s the new place. Of course, you can still read a bit more about me in a recently updated bio, and peruse former posts and interviews in the archives page. Hopefully the renos will make it more comfortable for you (and your friends) to put up your feet and visit awhile. Readers can now also link to Inkwell through the I.M. GreN?da Facebook page. And as always, we will continue to post thought-provoking reader comments and queries — even if they are malodorous tirades. Just one small favour though? Try to make them brainy tirades. I don’t mind if you want to kill me. Just think of novel ways to do so — and express it in language that’s light on the expletives. I got kids, remember?
In the highly democratic new world of electronic publishing, there is one fact that every scribe begs his readers to memorize: A writer is only as good as his page views. So please — just pass me around like a Justin Bieber photo at a Penn State coach’s party. Link Inkwell to your Facebook page. Tweet us. Better yet, tweet about us. Email us to your mom, your neighbour’s mom, Stephen Harper’s mom — whoever. The more people reading about, thinking about, and debating crime and punishment from all possible angles, the better our ideas of how to address it will be. And let’s face it — anything has to be better than a system that already cost the U.S. a hundred billion dollars, thirty years of class warfare, and a lost generation counted in millions. Doesn’t it?
Ed Griffin is a former Catholic priest, a full-time writer, and double-decade volunteer who teaches writing in various prisons in the Vancouver area. He is the author of 3 novels and 2 non-fiction books: Dystopia, The Story Of Prison he co-wrote with an inmate, Mike Oulton. Once A Priest is his autobiography. All Ed’s books are available as Ebooks.
Why did you write a memoir?
I wrote little segments of my life and laid them out on a table, as it were. When I put the pieces together, I saw a pattern. I may have left the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1968, but the priesthood hadn’t left me. I kept many of the values I learned in the church – caring for the poor, working for peace, struggling for a better world.
It’s very interesting to write your own story. You discover that you’re not the hero you thought you were. As you look back, you get a fairer picture of reality.
It’s also humiliating. When I left the priesthood, I was 32 years old and I had never been on a date. I was a 32 year-old virgin. I had to learn all about sex and dating. For awhile I dated an ex-nun who could have written her own sex manual.
All the things I had once preached against, like pre-marital sex, went poof into thin air.
I made mistakes, but I survived, mostly because I believed in myself.
What led you to take off the roman collar?
Reason one. I marched from Selma to Montgomery with Doctor Martin Luther King. It was the high point of my life, an inspiring march, led by this hero of a man, who was hated by many in 1965. We marched, we sang freedom songs and we ignored the threats hurled at us from the crowds along the way. I was shocked to see the National Guard with rifles in my own country.
On that march, I felt like a Christian, maybe for the first time. Even though I was an ordained priest, I don’t think I was a Christian. I mean, I didn’t do things because of my commitment to Jesus Christ. But I participated in that march because I believed God made everyone and loved all of us, black or white.
When I returned to my all white parish, I discovered that people had gone to the pastor and the bishop and said, “Either you get rid of that nigger-lover priest or we will never give another dime to the church.”
The bishop caved in and moved me to a parish in Cleveland’s ghetto. This church that was supposed to speak the truth had given way to racism. I was shocked.
Second reason. It’s very hard to leave a job that you love and you spent twelve years preparing for. I entered the seminary when I was thirteen, just going into high school. But someone helped me, gave me the push I needed. I fell in love with a beautiful black woman, a youth worker in the new parish. I was 31 and had never been in love before. I didn’t date the woman, hold her hand, or ever kiss her, yet loving her helped me to leave.
Who is your favorite Catholic?
Pope John XXIII, the one who called the second Vatican Council. He wanted to throw open the windows in the church and let in some fresh air. Popes since him have been trying to shut the windows. All my life I’ve been opening windows in my mind. It’s a wonderful way to live.
What advice would Martin Luther King have for our era?
Discrimination and racism come in many forms, against Indo-Canadians, against gay people and against people in prison.
You mention being a refuge from Reagan’s America. Any future plans on fleeing Harper’s Canada?
Ronald Reagan tried to tear down the America my wife and I had worked for. He favored the rich and built up the military. We came to a Canada in 1988 that seemed to stand for peace and for caring for the poor. Canada was respected in the world. Now Stephen Harper builds new prisons, refuses to sign the Kyoto accord, hurts Canada’s image in the world, and helps the rich while he screws the poor.
My life is here in Canada now. I can’t leave. I’m embarrassed by Harper.
You’ve been teaching creative writing to convicts for more than 20 years. Aren’t there other Canadians more worthy of your talents?
I also teach creative writing to adults in Surrey. But the arts are sadly missing from our prisons. No music, no painting, no theatre and in many prisons, no writing. The prison system believes in programs, Anger Management, Substance Abuse etc.
The arts come to a person and say, “You’re talented and we’re going to help you develop that talent.” Programs approach an inmate and say, “You’re sick and we’re going to cure you.”
Both approaches have benefits, but right now the score is Programs – 99.9 %, the Arts .01%
In your memoir, you talk about you two decade battle with cancer. What’s your favourite thing about cancer?
I think my favourite thing about cancer is that I’m no longer afraid. In 1996, my urologist operated and took out my prostate. I was weak after the operation, but I was happy. He had cut out the diseased part of me and thrown it away. Amen, brothers. Cancer was gone.
Ten days later my doctor came to me and said, “Ed, I’m sorry. We didn’t get it all. It’s spread beyond the prostate.”
After I absorbed that message, I don’t think anything else can scare me.
And I appreciate medical science. It’s doing great things. My doctor always has another pill or another treatment in the background in case the one I’m on fails.
Cancer has brought Kathy and me closer together.
If you knew you had 50 years of healthy life starting today, what would you do with it?
Become a famous reformer and change the prison system. They’re just warehouses now and they’re costing the public billions. I won’t put inmates in cages, but I’ll insist that they change, which is far, far harder than ‘sitting in a cage and doing your time.’
Grow tulips for a living
Become a criminal lawyer and help some inmates I’ve met who’ve been screwed by the system
Become a family doctor. I watch my family doctor and I like what I see. I could do that.
Become one of the first colonists on Mars. Carl Sagan said we should not be a one-planet species.
Start my own church. The “not sure about anything, but always asking questions and seeking the transcendent” church.
Marry my wife again and get another 42 years. Have the same two kids again, but adopt a whole mess of kids that nobody else wants.
Every morning for those 50 years, I will write for an hour.
There sure is a lot of gray hair in the clink these days. Maybe I should expect that. After all, 2011 is the year that the largest herd of hard-drinking, dope-snorting males in the history of the world starts turning sixty-five. So unless a Cialis-driven plague of biblical proportions wipes out a few million boomer boys soon, Canada’s house of adult detention will soon look more like the house of adult diapers.
In order to head off this statistical avalanche at the pass, those who enjoy their nappy time in the House of Commons recently took steps to freeze the geriatric underworld in its tracks. They cut the old age pension for prisoners. Now that’s what I call tough on crime.
I can see it now. In the backroom of some inner-city neighborhood where retirement-aged criminals typically hang out — like Bay Street — two liver-spotted Fagan’s are plotting the future.
“So, 2012. What do we have on the books for humanity’s last year on earth?” asks one.
“Dope?” his colleague replies.
“Nah. They just gave everybody a free pass on five plants. The stuff will be everywhere now — like Chia pets.”
“Fuggedaboutit. They just smashed the gun registry. There’ll be more arms than asbestos out there this year.”
“SHUT. UP! That’s friggin’ brilliant. If we register in Nunavut, the feds will even cut us a cheque to get going.”
“Very Canadian. But there’s just one thing.”
“We really got to watch our backs this year. If we take a pinch on this thing, it’s not just jail time anymore. Now they take our government pension too.”
“Oh yeah. No more $538 a month to salt away in our numbered offshore accounts.”
“Man, that’s cold. These guys are playing hardball. I guess that only leaves us one option.”
“Yup. From now on, we got to pack heat. If they box you in, just let ‘em have it. Make sure to save the last bullet for yourself.”
“But where are we going to get that kind of firepower with our records?”
“The same place every other gangster with a death wish does.”
“Right. I’ll grab the Canadian Tire money.”
The squall in a shooter glass that led parliament to intervene in pensions for prisoners began the same way that every national security emergency for the past three decades has: With a cursory peek into Clifford Olsen’s mail.
In 2005, Canada’s 20th century Satan turned sixty-five. In Canada, you get paid for that. Probably not for much longer — only as long as China stays wired to the ecocide called the Oil Sands. But with terminal bowel cancer, Olsen was sure to outlive that — which meant that every thirty days some creatively named government branch called Service Canada would be cutting the infamous serial murderer a cheque.
Thankfully, just in time (five years after the first payments started arriving), one of Correction Canada’s elite, while checking incoming mail at the country’s only super-max prison, noticed that Cliffy was up to his old tricks. This time he was slaying Canada’s social safety net one chump-change cheque at a time. It takes little imagination to guess how Officer Vigilant reacted. He would have done what any conscientious Canadian public service employee would have in the face of a life-or-death threat to public safety.
Call their union rep.
On this day, the phone would have rung at the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers; the only Canadian union to receive a no-questions-asked, across-the-board pay hike under the current Conservative government. According to insiders, theirs is also the only union in Canada with a hotline to the PMO — a hotline that doesn’t need to ring twice…
“Hey. Is that you? It’s me.”
Silence. “It’s Sunday. You know this is Bible day.”
“Sorry. It’s important. I knew you’d want to me to call. What are you reading?”
“Not reading. Writing. I’m changing this stupid “as-we-have-forgiven-our-debtors” clause. It’s distracting to my base. What do you want?”
“Oh. What’s he want now?”
“Old Age Pension.”
“SHUT. UP! What are you guys doing over there, coaching him?”
“Hey, even we couldn’t script this stuff. I knew you’d want to know right away.”
“Well, the man does have impeccable timing, doesn’t he? He’ll be missed.”
“We’ve always got the pig farmer.”
“O.K., I’ll call Lang and have her leak it to O’Leary. Then I’ll make sure Lady Di is wearing something indignant for Question Period in the morning. Maybe one of those Church Lady things she wears to the Senate beer-pong parities. Plus I’ll get the Baird to bark about it every eight minutes until the 4:30 vote for my new bill.”
“Yeah. I call it ‘C- 666 – A Bill to Strengthen the Lord’s Prayer So That Anyone Who Could Possibly Screw Up My Beloved Economy — Especially Inner-City Indians —Burns In Hell For a Mandatory Minimum of Two Years.’”
“That’s why they call me the Architect, doggy.”
I have four magic words for you: High. Security. Adult. Diapers. Tell your broker it’s an emerging market. Tell him you got an inside tip.
Christmas in prison – you’d be surprised at how similar it is to the world beyond the fence. The only thing missing is the rum… and the eggnog… and the crackling fireplace… and the cinnamon-scented snow-bunny cooing select bars of Let It Snow in my ear. O.K., so it’s a little different. But on a week when all of capitalism is stuffing its boxes with fantasies-on-credit, I’m remembering some other gift wrapped containers littering the annals of Big House infamy — like the one used in an escape from maximum-security a dozen spring times ago.
I’ve always wondered what the officer running the admission and discharge desk at Kent Institution was thinking that day. It was a Wednesday and, according to rumour, the con that showed up at the desk that morning was the only one being released for the week. Maximum security is the original “Roach Motel” — many check in, few leave. The guy had only been in for a couple of years, so he couldn’t have had much in the way of personnel property; a portable TV maybe, some personal clothing, a few salacious snapshots of girls gone by.
And an oversized, heavy-gauge cardboard box, smothered in clear packing tape.
“What’s in the big box?” the officer guarding the desk must have asked.
“Oh, just hobby stuff,” said the poker-faced con. As the story goes, he then wove an elaborate tale of some off-shift hobbies officer that had bundled up the table-sized parcel the previous evening. Apparently, the soon-to-be-ex con even had the right forms — meticulously completed and signed.
Less work for me, the guard must have thought. Or maybe his frontal lobe was filled with daydreams of double-overtime paycheques. Regardless, this was the fork in the road where due process and due diligence parted company. Big mistake. Prison may not be the first place you’d go looking for a MENSA meeting, but it is a place with no shortage of balls.
“So how did he get the guy out the door?” I asked an old regular working my block the next evening. It had taken staff almost four hours — until the following count — to figure out their one con shortage. The discovery had put us into a lock down search that lasted the rest of the day.
“Can you believe it?” the officer answered. “First, the guy at the discharge desk calls a taxi for them. Then, when it comes, he helps load the box onto a cart and pushes it to the front gate. He even helped get the thing into the back of the taxi. But that’s not the worst of it.”
“Yeah?” I prompted.
“Yeah. When he asked the con what his hobby was, and why it was so heavy, he tells him it’s a rock collection. Rock collection! Where the hell are you going to get a rock — never mind a boxful of them — in maximum-security? Flippin’ rock collection. Can you believe it?”
Barely, but one of the first things you learn as a prisoner is that what you believe means little. What Officer “Suspended-with-pay” believed when he bought their bet-the-farm bluff was all that mattered – especially for a couple of jailbirds with a bad case of spring fever.
I can’t figure out the big attraction to all those dumb criminal reality shows that play on cable TV. Pairing the words “dumb” and “criminal” feels redundant. The ones about great prison escapes are even worse. I mean, in what universe does a crime that leaves police with the full name, most recent photo, and home address of the culprit qualify as “great”? Maybe the next reality TV hit will be about predicting Vancouver weather. They could call it Sometimes it rains.
“Did you see those two idiots in the paper?” Dan the Fish asked me, two days after the big bust-out.
“Did they catch them?”
“They didn’t have to,” my young neighbour said in disgust. “They were in the bar at one of those hotels on East Hastings. They were so drunk they couldn’t walk, so somebody called the cops. The thing is, a crew was filming for one of those reality cop show, Blue Line — Blue Shield — Blue something. They got the whole thing on tape. Idiots.”
“Ouch. They won’t like the next box they land in,” I said, thinking back to the vomit smeared stench of the drunk-tank at the Main and Hastings police depot.
“Are you kidding? They’re already back here — shaved and showered. They brought them in last night.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“They sent out a kite from segregation with the breakfast trays. They’ve got dope and they want somebody to come down with canteen. Some kid from downstairs just hit me up for all my chocolate. He went to C-unit looking for cookies and Tang, and then he’s going to throw a cup of piss at the screw.”
See? Cookies and Tang. I told you the place is just like Christmas.
A long time ago, in a land far, far away (O.K., so it was Vancouver’s Chinatown — the corner of Columbia and Pender), some philosopher king carved his manifesto in wet cement. “TRUST YOUR GUT,” it announced. The sidewalk it was scribed into rolled right up to the shiny front doors of a Toronto Dominion bank that was a regular distraction for me. Nah — too close to the cop shop. They’d be here before you could get out of the vault, the devil on one shoulder would whisper. Yeah, but think of all the restaurant cash these guys get, his twin would crow from the other. Then my eyes would fall to the omen in stone. I wonder if there were others like me, who took a pass on that bank because of some vandal’s spur of the moment whimsy. If so, then I may have discovered an elixir for the most entrenched problem in Canadian penitentiaries today.
“Hey man, you know somebody I can talk to for chronic?”
I shook my head at the six-foot-two, two-hundred-fifty pound Burundian. “Not my trip, bro. I quit smokin’ the stuff seventeen years ago. A life sentence is chronic enough for me.”
“Awe yah, you doin’ life too, man?”
The kid and I first met on the flight from hell last December, when we came across Canada on Con Air. We parted company at the Montreal airport, but last week he arrived here from the max. Mine was the first face he recognized. In prison, that’s what doubles as a lifelong friendship.
“Yeah. How much you got in on yours?” I asked.
“Five? How old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” he said without a blink.
I did the math. “Wow. A homerun first time up to bat, eh?” The kid looked away. I don’t know what brought him here — the pen was “don’t ask, don’t tell” long before the American army ever was. But for a flicker in time, I felt empathy for a little boy stuck in great big shoes.
“Well, you’ve landed in a good joint,” I said. “They’re set up here to help guys. There’s a pretty good library, and you can buy your own books there too. Plus, they have shops. You can learn a trade, and even get your first year’s hours if you go to work in CORCAN. You can do university courses too, if you have the money.”
“Awe yah?” He looked about as interested as a twelve year old at a tax seminar. “Well, I see you round man. If you hear about some weed, you let me know, awe right?” I offered a plastic smile and went back to my keyboard. Empathy 101 — class dismissed.
If there is one obsession that unifies the keepers and the kept in this place, it’s dope. The former spend millions trying to keep it out, the latter devote their every waking — and more than a few sleeping — moments to getting it in. This is not news. The US (with Canada in hot pursuit) has built entire kingdoms in tribute to drug abuse. They call them Super Prisons. For those walled up in those death depots, drugs aren’t a problem. They’re the solution.
“Expanding drug use is a warning sign of the weaknesses and faults in our society,” British author Ben Whittaker wrote at the end of the last century. “Besides loneliness and despair why would a significant number of talented and privileged people prefer drugs to the reality of our day?” While I’m no expert on talent or privilege, I think I have a good feel for why prisoners prefer the trip instead of life on the farm.
Prison equals pain — which according to a majority of Canadian voters, is a good thing. And like any human in pain, those who sleep behind bars will do almost anything to make it go away. It’s that simple. In my own case, the quill is how I get out of my head. But trading rolling papers for writing paper took me nearly fifteen years — and friends who finally convinced me that the hot Jell-O between my ears was good for more than memorizing the order of AC-DC albums. Many around me aren’t there yet. For them, dulling the lash’s sting is a full time adventure in creative chemistry.
“I see they hauled that new black kid away to the hospital,” Mac said to me.
“You mean the one from Burundi? What happened?”
“Some guy working in the kitchen stole a pound of nutmeg. Apparently, he heard that if you drink enough of it, it’s like taking acid. The big dummy drank half the bag and got food poisoning. The bull on my block said he was puking blood.”
Somewhere from the far ago reaches of my mind, a communique carved in concrete whispered its timeless caution. At least the young African will live long enough to laugh about his near-death audition for the Spice Girls. What won’t be so easy to live down is the new nickname: Cookie.
In Canada, the cost for criminal conduct is measured with a calendar, not a yardstick. While it’s true that those in the Big House bunk in six-by-nine concrete coffins, it’s the length of their stay that most concerns the court. I guess the judge figures that a minimum of two years and an average of five gives you lots of time to think. If so, then I don’t know why more of us — in all of Canada’s fifty-eight federal institutions — haven’t figured out the recipe: Prison is a place in time, not a place on the map.
“The only way out, is through,” says author Shannon Maroney. Her new book Through the Glass describes her experience of falling in love with, and marrying a life-sentenced prisoner on parole. A month after “Oh yes,” came a crushing, “Oh no!” The new hubby was back behind bars — for the kidnap and rape of two women in Peterborough, Ont. The fact that Canada has the western world’s lowest rate of criminal reoffending for lifers on parole was of no consolation. According to Maroney, her former husband (she has since remarried) wasn’t the only one who started doing time that day.
“I wished I could trade places with [him] — that I could have 24 hours a day in solitude, a place to think and three meals a day delivered to me — instead of having to mop up the disaster he had left behind,” she say. Part of that mop-up included the invasive questioning of family, friends and colleagues. “Why did he do it?” was the most common.
“I would love to know the answer,” the thoughtful and articulate author wrote in a recent Globe and Mail piece. “But in the absence of any psychiatric evaluation or treatment inside prison, the time [he] is serving is just that: time. It’s time that he could spend as a study subject so doctors could learn how to treat, cure and prevent sexual deviance disorders, or working to pay restitution to his victims.”
Readers who have been paying attention realize that the bizzaro world I write from is one that houses some of Canada’s most unbalanced actors. While the names Olson, Bernardo, and Picton sell newspapers, they are barely visible sand grains in the bottom of a well. There are nearly thirteen thousand federal prisoners in Canada. Thousands of them have engaged in multiple acts of violence — including sexual violence. What happens to them after they arrive here has been the topic of a year’s worth of columns. We climb light poles. We pick up empty pop cans. We collect certificates, clean army trucks for Afghanistan, and assemble overpriced furniture for government offices. We drink a lot of Pepsi. As Maroney has discovered for herself, mostly we do nothing — frozen in time until that magical day that the freezer door opens.
I recently asked a lifer named Kenny how he was getting along since his transfer to medium security. Kenny has spent the previous twenty-four years in max and super-max, molded into one of the most feared — and hated — prisoners in the country. The bold blue tattoo splashed across the center of his face barely distracts from a soul-deep hatred that scars him like a burn.
“I don’t know what to think any more,” he replied. “Lately, when I look in the mirror, I don’t know who that is. Most days I feel like I’m waking up from a nightmare, into another nightmare. It’s like I lost my F…ing mind when I was nineteen years old, and now I’m forty-three and can’t remember how I got here. Sometimes I really think I should just kill myself. The problem is: I’m too exhausted to even do that.”
The first time I met Kenny was almost twenty years ago. He and I were neighbours in an infamous west coast pen built on Cemetery Rd. in the Fraser Valley. I hadn’t even unpacked my coffee mug before he invited me over for a cupful of casual sex. Talk about the welcome wagon. When I graciously declined, he said, “Oh, O.K. What about your celly? You think he might be horny?” all of it asked with a complete nonchalance. When I told him I didn’t even know who my cellmate was yet, he gave me a look that felt like pity. “Well, if you need anything, just give a bang on the wall.” And as quickly as he had come, he was gone. Sitting on the bed that day, I had no clue what the years before me held. Yet one thought rang clarion clear: Whatever you do kid, don’t ever touch that wall.
Not touching walls — and not letting them touch us — is how most prisoners survive life in the deep freeze. “Jails might prevent criminals — especially violent criminals — from committing further crimes while they are incarcerated, but they also give prisoners a place to hide. They don’t have to face the people they’ve hurt,” observes Maroney. In her own case, visiting her former husband in prison after his arrest allowed her to get some answers. Answers that have helped her cast off the mantle of victimhood, while helping others to do the same. Answers that reveal why turning up the heat on crime will require much more than billion dollar expenditures. Answers that Canadians need to know — on the eve of its most colossal cross-country freezer building project ever.
I blinked twice to make sure — but there it was. The phonetically spelled printing on the envelope was a cold giveaway. Only one guy on my planet writes like that; Konabeard. Over a year ago, while the world was giving thirty-three Chileans their lives back, I had stood on the sidewalk across from our segregation unit, searching its steel-grated windows for movement. Nothing. One of the souls entombed there was Dylan, a sixty-eight-year-old lifer with a beard two decades long. The four-foot hair rope hanging from his Adam’s apple looks more a behemoth B.C. bud than anything human; thus the weird moniker. Like many prisoner suffering from mental illness, Dylan’s stint in the house of detention has not been kind.
The first time I saw Konabeard, his health issues stood out as plainly as his sideshow whiskers. He was wandering the yard haphazardly, picking up pop cans and plastic water bottles like some misplaced bagperson. He was also holding what looked to be a heated debate — with himself.
“Great. Just what the place needed. More nuts,” said one young con passing by.
“Hey,” I smiled, “at least this one recycles.”
“Great. Al-luminum Gore. Looks like he’s been eating those cans, not recycling them.”
I slowed down and let the youngster trek ahead of me on the walking track. For me, the big yard is a one man show — with no room for twenty-year-old comics in training.
Later on that day I tried to explain the strange new creature I had seen to my neighbour, the Eagle. He added the detail that Konabeard must have arrived with a large shipment of prisoners from Vancouver Island. The pen out there — William Head — had been reclassified from medium to a minimum-security, and about fifty cons didn’t make the cut. According to the Eagle, some of them were suffering from serious culture shock.
“At least a dozen have checked in already,” he said with a cynical glee. “They didn’t even last twenty-four hours.” ‘Checking in’ is what happens when a prisoner runs to the guards and asks for protective custody — twenty-three-hour voluntary segregation. “Seems a few of these lads have some skeletons in their closet.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe this is their first real jail.” William Head is notorious across Canada for being a soft place to do time. Built on an old military base on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it’s the kind of joint where they often send prisoners who can’t — or shouldn’t — do time somewhere else. Sex offenders, cops, judges, politicians, and informants litter the human landfill — in a setting straight out of a Parks Canada brochure. Joining that mix are some who are not mentally ill enough to be hospitalized, but too unwell for a real prison. For fifteen years, “The Head” had been Konabeard’s world.
“You know that guy has a degree in electrical engineering?” Penthouse Perry said to me a few months later. No, I didn’t. “Yeah, he used to teach at one of the colleges. Then he just snapped.”
“Let me guess. Killed his wife and kids because dinner was cold? No, wait — is he one of those who went postal with a .303 in the staff room?”
“Nope,” said Perry. “Close though — it was the Laundromat. Apparently the old fella would go in at five in the morning to do his clothes, when nobody was around. Some local bonehead kept coming in and slapping him out, stealing his coin. So one day, Rip Van Winkle slides a shotgun into the bag along with the Tide. Bye-bye bonehead — hello life-twenty-five.”
It made me wonder how many other fascinating fruitcakes I was passing by on a daily basis, judging them by the shell they wore for survival. I decided to find out. By the end of that week, I was fishing for stray cans on the big yard with my quirky new friend; it’s a friendship that has lasted.
Greetingz frum thu nuthows, his note began. I smiled at the former professor’s rebellious assault on Webster’s spelling doctrine. Dylan’s bizarre orthography doesn’t sprout from a lack of knowing better — just a lack of trust in those who claim to.
Wer shud I start? As I read on, a delight rose inside me like the one from a year ago, when we witnessed the resurrection of those faraway miners. Line after cryptic line, Konabeard described how — a half year after the world’s brightest minds brought thirty-three men up seven-hundred feet through a two-foot round hole — Canadian prison administrators had finally imagined their way past the ego-driven stalemate keeping a mentally ill senior-citizen buried in solitary confinement. Their solution was a transfer to a hospital prison where Dylan could get treatment. It’s tough to put a price tag on that sort of brilliance.
Itz betur heer then thu hoel, but I thingk thay ar pooteng ekspairamental drugze en mi fud. And tha woent lit me colekt canz or noozpapurz ovur heer. Wut abowt yu? Du thay resikel in yur nu prizun?
For old Konabeard, the only Phoenix he’ll be riding back to the world will be a sterile rubber bag. But at least the thirty-fourth miner won’t be dying alone in a concrete coffin. Yeah, I’m smiling.
The relationship between keepers and kept is a complicated one in the clink. In theory, it should be easy. On one side are the scumbag convicts that must never be trusted for a moment, on the other, tyrannical Nazi pigs that every convict hates to the death. But reality and propaganda don’t always agree on these standards, and that makes for some quixotic moments in Her Majesty’s penitentiary.
Nick works in the paralegal office with his partner, Tony. I guess the inmate employment board felt that their background — sorry, alleged background — in organized crime makes them a good fit for conflict resolution. Nick had flagged me in the courtyard the day before and asked me to stop by for a little shoptalk.
“I got this friend,” he began.
“Don’t we all?” I interjected. The Greek mobster’s hazel eyes flashed like a gunshot.
“Hey — I’m talkin’ here,” he barked.
“Hey — I’m listenin’ here,” I parroted. I met his fire-glazed stare with my own, and held it just long enough for us both to break into grins. When you’re pissing with the big dogs, you can’t afford to blink.
“Good,” he said, grabbing the last word like a scepter.
“So… this friend of mine, he’s in a bit of a jam, and I thought — you know — ’cause you been around — you know — you might have an idea of how to handle this… thing.”
Nick spent the next half hour luridly detailing how his friend — a different good-looking, ‘connected’ convict — was nose deep in a relationship with a female guard.
“At first, it was great. The crazy broad would come to the library twice a week and — you know — do her thing. She even brought in smokes. But my friend, he’s had — you know — enough already. Now this broad wants to do it every time she’s on shift. My friend, he’s starting to feel like — you know — like a piece of meat.”
“Hmn. Complicated,” I said. I thought of a few young stallions from my cell block that would trade a pinkie finger for such complications.
“Complicated? You have no idea. This Malacca has access to everything on the computer. Criminal file information, family information, phone numbers, addresses — everything. The other day, she told my friend she saw his son on Facebook. Facebook! How did she find out his name? He’s not on my visiting list, he has a different last name — he doesn’t even live in the province. How the F… did this psycho bitch even know I had a son?” Nick shrieked, too angry to notice the Freudian slip.
I had nothing to say. In my two decades behind bars the relationship between the guards and me has been defined by one formula: they’re the furniture. They come and they go — faceless, sexless, and usually nameless. The majority come here for the same reason prisoners do: the free lunch. But like any other office job on the planet, those employed in the Big House sometimes arrive here hungry for more than just a pay stub.
One morning early in my sentence, I was working in the kitchen as a pot scrubber when I heard the staff stewards on the main cook floor roaring in laughter. I came out of the hundred-degree pot room to find out what was so funny.
“You know that guard, Johanssen, from C unit?” one of them piped.
“Yeah,” I said. He was one I knew by name because he was responsible for writing up my progress reports every month. In his expert opinion, I was a scheming sociopath who should never be released from maximum-security for as long as I could still walk.
“Last night, him and his gal pal from H unit were in the dining room, having a little party on one of the tables. Brain surgeon forgot that they put cameras in both corners after the kitchen chief got punched out by that con last year. Preventive Security got the whole thing on tape.”
We stood there together, snorting like a gang of Beavis and Buttheads — the line between guards and prisoner blurred by the grade school glee of the moment.
“I wonder what they’ll do with them?” I pondered out loud.
“They’re fired. As soon as the Warden heard about it, he had Johanssen escorted off the property. They can’t even come back to clean out their lockers. The union rep has to do it.”
“Really?” I said. “Seems pretty heavy for a romp in the con’s dining room. I’ve seen guards get away with a lot worse than that.”
“It wasn’t the con’s dining room,” the head steward said with an over-his-spectacles look. “It was the staff dining room.”
“Still…” I said.
“And it was the Warden’s table.”
I’ve always wondered about the look on Johanssen’s face the day he faced the Warden — and his in-office VCR. Maybe there’s a solution for Nick’s ‘friend’ in all that. After a summer of fondling book racks, busing tables in the staff lounge might just get him off the best seller’s list.