It seems to me that I am always criticizing our prison system. But yesterday I had a very positive experience in a local pre-trial center.

I had the privilege of taking a famous writer to this facility. As you probably know, pretrial facilities separate people, so that those who were in a crime together cannot work on their stories. As a result there are many separate sections in pretrial, and they can’t be mixed.

The famous writer did not object to speaking to only two of the six or so units. She was her usual engaging, personal self. Nothing was a problem for her, having her picture taken with the men, moving through all the heavy metal doors, and repeating her talk three times, twice to the men and once to the staff.

Everyone was in a good mood. Was it her charm? Was it the fact of having a NYTimes best seller visit them? Was it that I only saw a small segment of the staff and of the inmates?

Whatever, the morning was filled with laughter and good cheer. There are staff who are human beings and inmates who know how to get along with staff.

It was a lesson for a critical person like me.

300 convicts and their families are shipped to a remote Alaskan island. An island with dangerous winds and no escape. Fighting against hardened criminals and the lethal menace of the wind, one man tries to build a society. Or at least survive…

Prison officials are experts at euphemism. Just a reminder as to what euphemism is:

The substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit, as in

Pre-owned for used or second-hand

Enhanced interrogation for torture

Wind for belch or fart

Convenience fee for surcharge

“Neutralize” for “kill”

 

Correctional Centers for prisons. Very few get ‘corrected.’

Convicted offenders are called ‘inmates,’ labeling them as institutionalized and powerless, instead of calling them ‘prisoners.’

‘Feeding Time” is for prisoners. ‘Meal Time’ is for staff.

Guards are just that, they keep prisoners from escaping.

They are not ‘correctional officers,’ living unit officers, classification officers etc.

For more on this, see the latest edition of Out of Bounds, from the prisoners at William Head Prison, page 23

I, for one, fail many times to avoid the euphemisms associated with prison. It’s something to work on.

Call him Irving, an amazing inmate and an amazing person. I first met him in my creative writing class. He was one of those rare students that I could give a few writing principles to and he would run with them. Soon he was turning in amazing stories, one about a man from a Louisiana bayou, environment and correct Cajun accent as well.

He loved his First Nations’ heritage and wrote a story which brought his tribe to life for me.

He and I talked about the prison’s lack of release planning, and he began to develop some ideas.

Soon he was moved to the Okanagan area where his original offense had occurred. While he was there, he developed a full release planning program and talked the admin into letting him run it. Guys about to be released signed up for his program and he put them thru it. Who will pick you up from Pretrial? Where will you go on your first day out? And so forth.

His prison record was perfect and I was surprised he was still in prison himself. Finally, he came in front of a judge, who took a look at his prison record and his letters of support (one of them was mine). The judge did not add any time, he just told him to finish his current sentence.

An amazing thing happened next. A police car picked him up, and he thought he was on his way back to prison, but instead the police took him to a half-way house in the Okanagan area. He was filled with joy and excitement – he could visit with his mother and his sister. Within a week he had two jobs and was following the rules of the half-way house to the letter.

A month went by. The warden of a large prison noticed the fact that this model prisoner was in a halfway house instead of a federal prison. Without delay he sent a squad car to the Okanagan to pick him up. Never mind that the warden already had 300 prisoners who needed lots of help they weren’t getting. Never mind that his record at the halfway house was perfect. Back to prison.

I met him the next morning. He was sad that he had to give up his two jobs, sad that he couldn’t see his sister or mother, and sad that he had to endure more prison. I told him to contact a new woman on the prison staff. I went to her myself and asked her to help Irving. She said she would. (but she didn’t)

He came back to my writing class. “You know, Ed, what we need is for the staff to see what happens in this class. We should invite them to come.”

“It’s okay by me, but you’ll never get them to come.”

I was wrong. He did get them to come.

A year later he was paroled. Here was a man who long ago got the message that crime didn’t pay. The prison system brought him back when he was doing fine and then dragged their heels to release him. Again, prison jobs were more important to staff than helping inmates.

Life often takes turns we don’t expect. Sometimes we take turns
others can’t handle. From a man announcing that he is going to
have a sex change, to a woman deciding to leave her love, these
eleven stories follow people whose lives will be forever changed
when life takes a turn.

An opinion from a former inmate of the federal prison system in the Fraser Valley.

What do we do?

I think something needs to be said about Raymond Caissie. As I’m sure everyone knows he is the man charged for murdering a young girl recently and is now the poster boy for why criminals shouldn’t be released from prison. I’m not trying to defend him; I only seek to point out that it is not for the press to convict him in the media already. If I’m not mistaken that is the job of the courts. I’m sure there will be some readers out there who may not agree with my opinion, but emotion needs to be set aside, so that the situation can be analyzed objectively.

We are talking about a man who served every day of his 22 year sentence and that to me represents a failure on the part of the system to prepare this man for his eventual reintegration. I heard that at one of his hearings he said that he was afraid of what he might do when released. This was a cry for help that went unanswered because the system as it is structured is not capable of dealing with certain types of offenders. Sure the prison staff will say that programs were offered and that there is no responsibility on their part. They are partially correct, inadequate programming was offered but they bear some responsibility just as the rest of us do. How is it our responsibility you might ask? Our elected government – that’s right I said elected – chooses to go with harsher sentences as a deterrent rather than trying a new direction. Caissie’s sentence was 22 years, a sentence he got as a young man, and it didn’t have any deterrent effect.

What could have been done differently? I don’t know anything about what was done to try and rehabilitate this man, the public isn’t privy to that information. If I had to guess by the nature of his previous offences, I would say that he served all his time in Mountain Institution which among inmates is known for housing a large population of sex offenders. Now I don’t know if he did programming or not during his time, but clearly there needed to be more done in the case of this man.

Through all his time in prison and 8 parole hearings, no progress was made. This is a man who had an eventual release date. I know that from public opinion there are those who would call for the suspension of civil rights for those convicted of violent crimes, but I’m here to say that is a very slippery slope. We as a society decide that we must arbitrarily keep some people locked up indefinitely despite the fact that a sentencing judge did not see it that way. Where does it end? In this case a tragedy occurred, and a young girl died. We need to seek solutions not knee-jerk reactions if we are to prevent future tragedies. Let’s call on the government for meaningful change and let’s call on the Correctional Service to lead the way towards creating a system that recognizes the need to change the way it does business. As a society we need to be involved in changing things, and not just count on the people that we have elected. Let us remember that they work for us.

In my area this week, a man who killed a young girl, was arrested. Newspapers reported that he’d just gotten out of prison after serving his full sentence of 22 years. His preliminary offense was one of sexual offense.

The media made much of the fact that the man had appeared many times before the parole board and had not reformed himself. It seemed that the man was a hopeless criminal.

Yes, maybe he is. However, I began to wonder what the man did in prison for 22 years. Did the staff not have meetings about this man? Were experts consulted? Were new methods tried? I know that some men are indeed unredeemable, but I’ve also seen how little effort prison staff put into helping men get over their crimes. They figure their job is to keep them locked up, not to help them.

Prison time should mean removal from society for a period of time, during which prison staff work to help the man change. Yes, the prison staff needs more training in the human sciences. Yes, tests should be given to applicants for prison jobs to discover their motivation. What motivates them — punishment or helping?