Archive for April, 2012

Where’s the Music?

Posted: April 29, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison, Reform
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musicFamous quotes, university courses, the example of business all tell us that the arts are therapeutic. At the cancer centre that I go to, there’s soft music in the background. A volunteer wanders the various floors with her shih-tzu dog for people to pat and admire. Art made by cancer patients fills every floor, in addition to beautiful and expressive paintings by professional artists.

In prison – nothing. No music in the halls, no music in the elevators (actually, no elevators), no inmate art on the walls, no drama programs, no art classes, no theatre, no band, no woodworking, no pets, no anything. And most of all no music.

Yes we’ve managed to keep a few writing programs going in three federal prisons in our area, but nothing in two of the biggest prisons. And the system does little to help.

Prison officials believe in programs, angry management, substance abuse etc. These programs have value, but they are not the whole picture. The arts are the way into some people’s souls. Programs are forced on the inmates – they do not participate in deciding what programs they need, so from the beginning their attitude is not the best. And there’s some ass-covering going on for the prison system. “Well, right here in the notes on April something, Instructor X told Mr. Y not to commit break and enter, so if he ever does it when he’s released, don’t blame the prison system.”

prisonPut the arts back in prison. I’ve seen men find themselves through writing. Music works, the arts work.

How can we ordinary citizens help?


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prison“I just don’t think I can make it on the outside,” the forty-four year old man said. “Except for a few years in my teens, I’ve been in prison all my life. I got out once in my twenties, but two months later I was back in.”

Try to picture who would say these words – a mass murderer, a hardened identity thief or a conscience-less drug dealer?

No, a gentle person, gets along with everyone, loves to read, and struggles with gaining weight.

Remember the old man in Shawshank Redemption who got out of prison after many years, couldn’t adapt, and hung himself?

While people going back to prison is in the self-interest of prison staff, it’s not in the self-interest of taxpayers. A conservative figure is $100 a day to keep a man in prison.

De-institutionalization is not even one of the goals of the prison system.

In my experience the first weeks out of prison are the roughest for a man. For years his life has been on a rigid schedule. He doesn’t have to think for himself, he just has to follow orders.

Much could be done, for example day visits along with a guard in civies. As the man nears getting out, he could have weekends with his family. Another idea is a special, month-long exit program taught by experts in de-institutionalization, social workers, community parole officers and ordinary citizens.

If more people from the community were involved with prisons, it would help a lot. Right now few community people are welcome in prisons

When a man or woman enters prison, officials teach them how to live in prison. They should teach them as well how not to live in prison.


Posted: April 20, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison, Reform
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A guest post by an area inmate. This man, who’s posted before, is a prison leader.

otherAs I walk these dim corridors, I hear the same thing over and over. Guys complaining about guards, their Internal Parole Officers (like a caseworker) and the institution in general. There is a negative attitude that is nurtured by other inmates without a thought.

This pervasive sense of otherness is perpetuated by the very environment that has been constructed for our rehabilitation. This otherness is built up over time and becomes a serious barrier to rehabilitation for some inmates.

In older prisons like the one I’m in, prisoners live on cellblocks with barriers at the ends to keep the cellblocks separated. Guards have their offices outside of the cellblock end and do not have much contact with inmates except during counts and rounds. This strengthens a feeling of otherness between guards and inmates. It is not just inmates that nurture this attitude, but guards also who prefer to see us just as inmates and not as people. This doesn’t lend itself to a respectful relationship between people.

This not to say that all inmates are haters of guards and that all guards are haters of inmates, but rather that the environment nurtures that kind of separateness. An inmate can’t be seen to be too friendly with the guards lest he be ostracized by his peers. While I can’t say for sure – I’m not a guard – I suspect there is probably the same type of attitude on the guard’s side.

What is the solution? This is difficult and requires a shift in attitude from people on both sides of the fence. For an inmate it is much harder to accomplish for we are a ‘captive’ audience, and have to consider out choices more carefully in the environment that we live in.

otherI like to think that there is a solution and that we can all just get along, but maybe I’m just a dreamer, in the words of John Lennon’s Imagine. Imagine a prison system that rehabilitated rather than punished.



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Helping inmates is not like other causes such as helping flood victims or cancer sufferers. I don’t know of a single Hollywood star or singer who signs up to help inmates. This is especially surprising since some of them were inmates. I’m thinking of a well-known comedian who did time.

John HowardSo who helps inmates? The John Howard Society for one. They help men in prison and especially when they get out of prison, a very critical time for an inmate. In my community they run a half way house that’s a model for others. Management of the house works to keep the neighbors informed and supportive. The John Howard Society takes care of the bursary that I established to help inmates with further education. (If you’d like to donate, here’s the link The bursary is for men or women in prison.

John Howard was a great prison reformer who lived from 1726 to 1790 in England.

The organization that helps female inmates in Canada is called the Elizabeth Fry Society. Elizabeth Fry Society   They operate a very quiet and successful halfway house for women in my immediate neighborhood.

Both organizations struggle for funds, but it’s in the self-interest of the community to support them. They’re just trying to make things safe for us.

out of the joint


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Restorative JusticeI’m not a legal student, but I often wonder if something isn’t wrong with our system of law, which we inherited from the British. Our criminal trials are often lengthy discussions of the law and arguments about the facts. What we don’t consider is the harm to the victim or getting the offender on the right path or restoring confidence to the general public.

I know, I know we pay lip service to these things, but what real help do we give the family whose home has been invaded and trashed? “The insurance will take care of it,” we say. That’s nonsense. Do we provide counseling services for as long as they’re needed to the family of someone murdered? Do we provide for a widow’s future?

And the offender. The British system says, “Put him in a cage for twenty years.” That helps nobody. Our prisons are crime schools and warehouses.

We in the public have the right to live in peace. We shouldn’t have to fear for our safety or that our homes are going to be broken into. The judicial process should also be about restoring the community to good health.

Restorative justice has it right: Restore the victim, the offender and the community.restorative justice


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Last night an inmate called me from this area’s Protective Custody prison. I worked with this man in PreTrial, talking to him two or three times a week. He long ago reformed of his crime (in my opinion), but he still has a few more years of his sentence to go.

I don’t call him, he calls me and he has to pay for the call. He works as a tutor in the institution and makes a few dollars a day. I don’t know how much he paid for the phone call, but he talked to me for 45 minutes.

He told of his struggle with depression, a battle he’s been fighting as long as I’ve known him. I suggested he talk to a counselor there, one on one.

“There isn’t anybody here like that.”

person attention

Personal Attention = Success

“What? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“No, there just isn’t anyone here like that. I talk to one of the religion volunteers and a woman who helps me with my studies and you.”

“Come on. There’s 4-500 guys there. Many of them need help, I’m sure.”

“There’s no one.”

one on one

One on one

I was amazed. Many things help rehabilitate a man, but there has to be personal involvement. We understand that in a school environment – counselors help students from elementary school to post graduate. In the medical area, scientists are at the verge of a new age of individualized medicines.

It seems to me that a critical part of effective help is individual attention.


Isn’t that right? What’s wrong with the prison system?

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  •  // personal Attn.
  •  // one on one

By: A Guest Blogger, a thoughtful inmate in a Fraser Valley institution.

CommunityCrime is a community problem that requires solutions that involve the community. As it stands right now, the community has very little involvement in the rehabilitation of offenders but instead entrusts this duty to the Correctional Service of Canada and blindly hopes they are doing the job of rehabilitating offenders and preparing them for re-entry into society.

The problem with corrections is that the Correctional Service of Canada is expected to rehabilitate people in the absence of meaningful community involvement. In our institutions, inmates are locked away and offered programming that is only marginally effective in the hope that when they are released to the community,


It takes a Village

they will be better citizens.

Many inmates do not feel themselves connected to the community, at least to the regular community at large, and it is this disconnection that makes it easier to commit crime. In fact many inmates, and criminals in general, feel themselves part of a different community, a criminal community or a jail community.

There is some community contact in prisons but not nearly enough. There are volunteers that come in for various activities and programs within the institution but for the most part inmates are locked away with only other inmates for company.

I like to think that if communities were more involved in the rehabilitation of offenders rather than leaving the entire job to the Correctional Service, there might be more successes. Eventually most offenders are released from prison and they are going to communities. Those communities should want to be involved in the rehabilitation of offenders for their own peace of mind.

Prisons could use restorative justice programs that connect offenders with victims or with representatives from the community so that there may be a dialogue that could lead to a sense of connection. Building a connection to the community, in this writer’s opinion, might be one of the most important steps in the rehabilitation of criminals.Community

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Writing Has Changed My Life

Posted: April 6, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
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A headline in a Vancouver newspaper read Writing Has Changed My Life. It was the story of I.M GreNada, (his pen newspapername), one of my students. The paper was initiating a weekly series of columns by this inmate. I was very proud.

He had come to me the year before and said, “Ed, make me a writer. I want you to critique me and don’t pull any punches.”

red pencilI sharpened my red pencil. A week later he gave me his first column. Even though I mixed my suggestions with praise, I did what I. M. had asked and let him have it. The column had more red pencil than black ink.

“What’s the idea?” he asked. “That’s a good column.”

“Yes, it is, but it could be a lot better.”

A week later he resubmitted the column, much improved. This went on for a year. He was one of the best students I ever had.

He made a rule that he would not mention real names nor prison locations, and then he sent his columns to the paper. They bought them. We were very happy.

Two days later I was called into an administration office. I had never met the woman before and was unsure of what her role was. When I asked, she dodged my question by grilling me about my class. “What do you teach your students? What attitudes do you foster?”

Where was she going with all this? Her tone was that of an agent from the CIA or CSIS (The Canadian version of the CIA). spyMy eye caught a copy of the newspaper on a chair, with the headline, Writing Has Changed My Life.

“Who wrote that?” she demanded following my glance to the paper.

“The inmate prefers to be anonymous, to keep his family from any repercussions.”

“Who wrote it? Which inmate?”

I repeated myself.

“We want to supervise what material goes out of here,” she said. In my mind, I replaced the word ‘supervise’ with the word ‘censor.’

My grilling went on for forty-five minutes. It felt like two hours. Over and over, “Who wrote this?”

I tried to call her attention to how wonderful it was that writing had changed his life. That was like selling dandelions to the weed-killer company.

Finally, I asked to leave, if she had no more questions.

“Who wrote that?” she asked and I stood up and left.

Why? Why didn’t she rejoice that writing had made a difference for a man? After all, she worked for Corrections.

See for yourself. Check his columns out.    Is he a positive influence or a negative one? Should I have given this authority figure his name?


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I had a real pleasure this morning. Jack (name changed) called me at 9:30 this morning.

“Hey, Buddy, you home?”

I heard excitement in his voice.

“Yeah, what’s happening?”

I’ve known Jack for eight years. I first met him in PreTrial. The first week he came down to writing class, he asked me for one copybook – the kind that we had in school to keep notes. The next week he asked for two books and every week thereafter. He let me read his writing. He wrote how he missed his girlfriend, how he worried that he hadn’t heard from his mother and how angry he was at a man who had mistreated her. He wrote about how he first got into crime and how he ended up with a reputation for stealing a thousand cars.

His sister called him. “Mom is missing. She hasn’t been in her apartment in over a week.”

The local paper ran a story, “Car thief’s mother missing.” Jack wrote an angry letter to the paper. The point was that a woman was missing, not who her son was.

When his trial came, he pleaded guilty to car theft and was sentenced to federal thief

A few months later he showed up in my prison writing class with more for me to read. His style was simple, but there was a poetry and drama to it. He wrote about his childhood, about his father leaving the family, about his mom’s drinking and his own trouble with the law in his teen years.

Then one day the news came – his mother’s body had been found. He swore that day that drugs or alcohol would never take another member of his family, a promise he’s kept despite the ready availability of drugs in prison.

changing diapers  When Jack finished his sentence, he was not allowed to drive or own a car for three years. He had a baby girl with a woman, who decided to leave him with the baby. He got a job as a painter so he had to get up at 5 AM, prepare the baby and take her by bus to the day care. Then the bus to work and the reverse at night. I will never forget the sight of this one thousand-car thief changing the baby’s diaper.

He often gave talks to young people about drugs and car theft

And so back to this morning. Jack drove to my house to show me his car, which he’d purchased with his own money. He got out and jumped up and down and then slapped me on the back. “I’m driving, old man, I’m driving again. And it’s all legal.”

I enjoy his playful “old man.” (Anyway, it’s true.)

I played a small part in his success. I don’t know if he’ll ever publish his life story, but I know writing it has taught him who he is.

Success story. I felt good all day.

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