Good news. The John Howard Society has granted three inmates portions of the Ed Griffin bursary. The money goes to educational institutions, not to the individuals.

  •  One man is working toward a college degree. He has a long sentence for a serious crime, but prison officials, teachers and the chaplain all agree that he’s a changed man.
  •  Education is a big part of his plan for reform, but the prison system doesn’t pay for any classes beyond grade twelve.
  •  The second man wants to take his first university course. He’s almost finished getting his Dogwood diploma (Highest high school diploma)
  •  The third man is working toward a PhD in education. He’s on parole now with another year to go before he’s finished his sentence. Working toward a doctorate in any subject is a challenge in a prison setting or in a parole setting.

I’m very happy that something I did has helped these three men. Where I have failed is in raising money. I sort of know what has to be done, but I haven’t done it. My job is to explain all this to the general public. To explain that education is the proven way out of crime. That the prison system only provides education up to and including grade twelve.

More than that, I have to put this in front of the public. We hear about heart problems, cancer, etc. etc. We’re asked to help children in the third world. But how can I help people see that education is the way out of crime? I have to try harder, to be bolder than I am now.

P.S. For an interesting view of private prisons in the States, http://blog.arrestrecords.com/infographic-privatization-of-the-us-prison-system/.

I received a letter from an inmate I know. He had this to say:

When visitors came to our prison, they found three washrooms that were provided for them. They could change a baby in one of them.

A few weeks ago we got a notice from the deputy warden:

“Access to the visitor washrooms which are located inside the Recreation Building will not long be available for use during Family Events. Any visitors requiring use of a washroom will be escorted to the Principle Entrance. Visitors with infant/toddler children will no long be permitted to change diapers of their children in the Recreation building. They will be escorted to the Principle Entrance. Visitors will be re-processed by the Principle Entrance Staff prior to being permitted back into the Gym area. “

So if a visitor wanted to use a washroom, they had to be escorted back to the principal entrance. After they were finished with the bathroom, they would be inspected again, their purse, their pockets etc. etc. For people with compromised bladders and for parents with a small baby who needs to be changed, these rules make a visit to see their inmate very difficult.

Family support is vital for an inmate. The prison system says they believe this and support it, but then they show by their actions that families are just a big pain.

All right, so somebody obviously broke a rule, perhaps brought in something illegal. Will every visitor from now on be punished for that infraction?

A small point – as a teacher of writing I would hold up the deputy warden’s memo as an example of how NOT to write. There are at least a dozen mistakes.

He sat on a low bench and waited for me every Friday morning. A big man, the strong and silent type, he was doing a four year bit. The other inmates were inside the room, laughing and having a good time. But Jon sat quietly. Outside the room was outside the building, and it was often cold. But Jon sat there, smoking and thinking. I often asked him what he was thinking about, but he never answered me.

My school principal was putting together a book called Prison Voices. He interviewed men and women from across Canada, but he wanted some strong selections from his own area, Vancouver. He pleaded with me to get some creative writing from my class.

“Hey, Jon, how about giving me some stuff for the book?”

“Not me, Ed, I ain’t no writer.”

“I think you’re playing with me, Jon. I know you can do it.”

“No, not me.”

“How about just a little something next week?”

“Okay, Ed. Just a little something.”

This is what he turned in the next week. It’s one of the strongest things I have ever read. It caused some consternation among the funding sources for the book, but the principal fought to keep it in the book. This is exactly the way he wrote it.

 

grape jelly

 

i’m through trying to emulate words

that have been coddled and sheltered from the world

by authors with silver egos and slicker tongues.

 

i want to swallow my pens and

vomit images upon the page;

to spank words

and send them red-bottomed from the room;

 

to forget the dry syntax,

the politically correct anal froth

that sounds more nazi than reform.

 

i want to abuse the english language

like finnigan’s wake did the irish;

like gutter quebecois did the french

 

i want words that smell sweet

as a half-naked thirty-something

in the back seat of a buick regal;

 

words that are wet with fear

smuggled in sweat soaked blue-jeans

torn at the knees after a hard nights thieving

 

words that suffocate in their cellophane wrappers

given away free in the candy stores of amerika,

breeding rebellion and inspiring the masses

of illiterate beggars who march through city streets

looking for scraps of food under padlocked dumpsters;

 

i want seventy-five dollar pens that write seventeen cent poems,

to be thrown away when the ink has bled dry.

 

i want words that offend;

words that rape priests

and send cheers through crowds of frightened children.

 

i want words that question;

words that linger in the backs of throats

like half-dissolved aspirin.

 

words that will duel anything ever written

at any time,

by anyone

and won’t even break a sweat.

 

i want words that run salivating tongues along warm panty lines

in the bedrooms of lovers entangled in wet sheets

strangled in skin and salty sweat;

 

that embrace lovers with indecision and guilt

as they make that horrifically long walk to the altar

or that longer stretch back home

to their waiting spouse’s tapping foot

and wounded-dog cries

 

words that sound like cherry bombs

exploding in a pranksters hand;

like gas shells over hamilton,

i want to be the fallout in my own city,

my country and preferably washington, dc.

 

i want words that betray liars

while i lie paralysed on the beaches of france

or the deserts of morocco

crippled by scotch and heroin

cursing the sand

plagued by the piercing pitches of demons i’ve loosed

upon the eardrums of the world

 

i want to be the laugh in the poetics of robbins,

the innocence of lerner’s switchblade;

bathe the black indifference of vonnegut jr

with a voice and insolence all my own…

 

i want my words to bleed grape jelly.

i want real emotion.

 

What do you think of this poem?

P.S. Watch for my most popular book, Once a Priest to be 99 cents next Sunday

I’m not a very good poet. It is only when I feel very strong about something that I try to write a few lines of free verse. It’s easy, however, to quote from a famous poet. They say things so well with an economy of words. What do you think of these few lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.

This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair
For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Take any verse and think of today. Could this poem have been written about today’s prisons?

see note about writing classes under WritersWriteDaily

I’m not very good at raising money. It’s kind of embarrassing from me to ask for money for any cause. But on the other hand, people ask me what they can do to help people in prison. It isn’t practical for them to become official volunteers in prison, but they’d still like to do something.

An educational bursary is a perfect idea.

The Ed Griffin Educational Bursary

A man in a Fraser Valley prison struggles to complete his degree. It’s part of his correctional plan that he finish, but there’s no money in the system to pay for courses. A female inmate wants to become a drug and alcohol counselor to help others avoid the pitfalls that led her to jail. She just needs a few college courses, but the little money she earns in prison ($6.90 a day) goes for phone calls to stay close to her family. She can’t afford tuition.

Through the John Howard Society, a humanitarian organization (http://www.johnhowardbc.ca/), Ed Griffin has set up a bursary to help BC inmates with the expenses of higher education. Those who seek education are trying to better themselves. They know that education is the proven way out of crime. You will receive a tax receipt from the John Howard Society, who will in turn present money to the educational institution that the winning inmate has chosen. To donate, simply follow the directions below.

To donate by cheque: 
Mail to:
John Howard Society of BC,
Attention the Ed Griffin Bursary Committee
763 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC
V5V 3C2

To donate by credit card or interac:
Go to http://www.canadahelps.org/CharityProfilePage.aspx?CharityID=s5877
On the second page, Donation Details, be sure to mention “For the Ed Griffin bursary account.”

The John Howard Society of BC is a registered Canadian non-profit charity created to work within the criminal justice system promoting safe and peaceful communities.

The John Howard Society of BC and the Ed Griffin Family have established a program to promote, encourage and sponsor the continuing education of individuals who have been incarcerated in the Canadian Correctional System.  To be eligible, the applicant must have participated in educational programs within the Correctional Service of Canada or the British Columbia Provincial Correctional System.  The applicant must be enrolled in a registered educational institution.  Studies may be part- time or full-time. Studies should be directed toward the specific goals of enhancing the individual’s literacy and employment skills, and to assist the individual with reintegrating into society as a contributing citizen.

Applicants to the Ed Griffin Bursary must:

  • Be a Canadian Citizen or Landed Immigrant
  • Be enrolled as a full-time or part-time student in the next academic school year, at a recognized university, community college, technical institute or other post-secondary institution for advanced learning
  • Must have participated in educational programs within the Correctional Service of Canada or British Columbia Provincial Correctional System
  • Write a letter as your application and you may submit an essay specifying the reasons why they should be considered for the bursary. This bursary has a special, but not exclusive, interest in creative writing.

I am interested in prison reform. This is a direct result of teaching writing in prison for twenty years. It’s an indirect result of my education and service as a Roman Catholic priest for five and a half years. I heard the message of the gospel that we were to care for the “least of the brethren.” In my opinion, there wasn’t anybody more least in our society than a federal inmate.

I left the priesthood a few years after marching in Selma with Doctor Martin Luther King. That’s another story, relayed in my non-fiction book, Once A Priest.

I’ve written a lot about prison reform. My first novel, Prisoners of the Williwaw, is a story about Frank Villa, who convinces the US Government to put 300 hardened convicts on an island with their families and let them rule themselves. The federal government has finally realized that they can’t keep paying for prisons. Right now it costs $100 a day to keep a man in prison. So they let Frank Villa have an abandoned Naval base on the island of Adak in the Aleutians. No guards will be on the island, but the US Coast Guard will patrol the waters around Adak, and they will shoot to kill.

Half way to Russia and caught between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, it rains and snows 85% of the time on Adak. In addition, a fierce wind called a Williwaw builds up behind the mountains and smashes down on houses, equipment and even children. In World War II, the weather killed more soldiers than the enemy did.

Frank also faces a convict who plans to use this situation to his own advantage. He knows that each convict leaves prison with $200. He’s eager to help them spend it.

Can convicts rule themselves? This is an issue the novel looks into.

My second book about prison is non-fiction. It’s called Dystopia. An inmate in my writing class joined me in telling the story of prison. We each wrote our stories, not in lesson form, but by relaying the stories of the men we met there.

I told why I came to teach in prison, despite my wife’s worry. Then I started with my first scary day and told about all the people I met in my class.

One of the most amazing people I met was Mike Oulton. He’d been arrested in Mexico for trying to smuggle cocaine into the United States. His sentence was ten years, two of which he spent in a Mexican prison and eight of which he spent in a Canadian prison. Mike also tells stories of the men and the staff he met in all those years, and he hints at which prison system he liked better. Mike’s been out now for seven years and he’s doing well. He works as an MC and as a master of ceremonies for weddings. This is right in line with Mike’s whole life, but now he’s found legitimate ways to express his exuberant personality.

The third book about prison reform is my latest novel, Delaney’s Hope. Delaney is a prison official who put his feet up for twenty years. He tried at the beginning to make changes, but his superiors stepped on him, and so, he did nothing. But then his missionary brother died for standing up to the oil people who wanted to take his parishioners’ land. Delaney feels guilty about wasting all those years, and he tries to repent by setting up a prison that really works. He convinces the government to let him use an abandoned minimum security prison in Wisconsin.

At the beginning he will only have five prisoners and three staff, counting himself. The criminal history of each inmate is given, as well as a picture of the staff.

Delaney tries to break down the ‘us and them’ that exist in every prison. He tries to show the inmates that we are all weak human beings and no one, including the staff, is perfect.

His inmates include a drug smuggler who tries to sabotage everything Delaney tries to do. Another man killed his wife in front of their son. A third inmate ran a commercial greenhouse and cheated on the rules. That might have been okay, but then he knocked an old man out of tree, a neighbor who opposed his plans. The old man died. A sheriff who wanted this land to build a big maximum security prison convinced a sex offender to come to the prison, where he presented Delaney with a lot of problems.

Another thing Delaney tries to deal with is the sexism of prisons. Yes, what we now mean by a male prison is not a place for women, but Delaney points out that almost all of society is mixed male and female. If he can create a calm atmosphere, there is no reason why male and female inmates can’t be integrated at least as far as programs are concerned.

The prison starts and Delaney faces problem after problem after problem. Will it work? Can a prison work that’s not like what we have today?

Prison reform is not a popular subject, but we need to face it. When we hear that California spends more money on prisons than it does on education, we begin to ask questions. When we hear that the United States is one of the countries with the most prisoners, it’s time to look at prison reform. And Canada now with its conservative government tries to win votes on the backs of inmates. Right-minded people do not agree.

I hope my two novels and one non-fiction book about prison reform will have an impact. When I started to write, I promised myself I would never bore the reader; I would show, not tell; I would not let one word of opinion enter the story. I hope I have succeeded.

What can we do to bring prison reform to the top of the government’s agenda?

Great quotations about crime and prisons embellish our history and our culture. Here are a few:

  • The law is like a serpent. It bites the feet which have no shoes on. Bishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in El Salvador in 1980.
  • While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. Eugene V[ictor] Debs 1855-1926
  • The level of civilization in a society can be measured by entering its prisons. Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clerel de Tocqueville.
  • Poverty is the mother of crime Marcus Aurelius 121-180
  • All crime is a kind of disease and should be treated as such.  Mahatma Gandhi
  • Distrust everyone in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900
  • A quote from Oscar Wilde 1854-1900
  •                        The vilest deeds like poison weeds
  •                        Bloom well in prison air:
  •                         It is only what is good in man
  •                        That wastes and withers there
  • There should be no jails.  They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish.  If you would wipe them out there would be no more criminals than now.  They are a blot upon any civilization.  Clarence Darrow, 1857-1938
  • I was in prison, and ye came unto me. The Gospel According to St. Matthew 25:36

Which is your favorite quote? Why?

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FYI, here is an excellent webpage about racism in criminal justice in the USA. http://blog.arrestrecords.com/infographic-racism-in-the-criminal-justice-system/  Problems exist in Canada as well with the percentage of first nation peoples in Canadian prisons. However, I’m not aware of a well-documented chart such as this one for the USA.