Archive for July, 2012

wireWe used to run writers’ weekends in prison. Fifteen outside writers would come into the prison all day Saturday and most of Sunday. We would meet with about the same number of inside writers. The focus was on writing, not on prison, but of course, that subject came up. We ate with the men, even stood there with them while they were “counted.”

Everybody who ever attended one of these weekends thought they were great. Outsiders left with a whole new idea of what and who a convict was. Insiders felt that for those two days they were not in prison – they were meeting with other writers and working on the craft of writing. They made friends with those on the outside and they learned that many people in the community were willing to give them a chance.

For two short days we broke the terrible “us and them” that exists in prison.us/them

The goals of the weekend were exactly what the prison system calls for in its stated goals. The official documents state that the administration welcomes the participation and presence of the community in the prison and it recognizes the benefits of such participation.

These weekends were very hard to organize. Each participant had to be cleared, no police record. No one objected to this procedure, but one woman’s application was lost four times by the prison officials. And gradually the requirements became stricter – Instead of just a photocopy of a driver’s license, the applicant had to scan it, both sides.

Food was another problem. The prison system was very generous in feeding lunch and dinner on Saturday and lunch on Sunday. When the prison officials tried to make the outsiders pay for meals, the head of food services said no. “They are our guests,” he said.

For the first years of this program, location was no trouble. On the grounds there was a building that was used for programs. It had a large open space in the middle with several breakout rooms around. Inmates and outsiders stayed in the building for the whole event.

About the time Harper became PM, things started to break apart with these weekends. First of all, the location went. When I mentioned that there had never been any trouble in the building we were using, I was told that “It’s too far inside the prison.” I didn’t really understand that reason – we outsiders had paid for the whole place.

We were moved to a cold, acoustical nightmare of an auditorium with breakout rooms wherever we could find them. And then it became hard to pin down a date, but finally we got two weekends a year.

prison      From the auditorium we were moved to a parole hearing room, not inside the prison proper. When the guys left the weekend, they were strip-searched – as if we writers were smuggling drugs or something.

The end came when the administration blandly said that we could pick any two weekdays for this program.  Of course, most outsiders work during the week, effectively killing the program.

Those of us who participated in these weekends became ‘friends of the prison’ and were ready to help inmates when they got out. Sadly, this whole story confirms the view of cynics who say that prisons really don’t want outsiders.

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Carol looked up when the inmate entered the office. I was there getting my class list for the day from another secretary. Carol had what people of my ancient generation call ‘a motherly figure.’ She had a round, soft face that also was motherly.

“How can I help you, Sam?” she asked of the tough looking inmate, tattooed from head to the tip of his hands.

“I didn’t get the right pay last month,” he said. “This place screwed me again.”

The secretary who was dealing with my class list, shook her head, like this was an outrageous comment from an inmate.

But not Carol. “Let me look it up, Sam,” she said.

“Tsk, tsk,” my secretary said. She always put the word ‘Inmate’ before anyone’s last name. Like if Sam’s last name was Schmansky, she would have said, “I’ll check it, Inmate Schmansky.” No, more than likely, she would have said, “We don’t make mistakes here. File a complaint if you want.”

Carol looked up from her report, “No, Sam, it looks right.”

“What the hell. I got screwed.”

Carol stood up, walked over to Sam and showed him the report.

“Well, I guess so,” he said. “Thanks, Carol.” And he left.

The woman was amazing. She knew inmates’ names. She knew where everything was in that office. If the director of education came into the office and asked for a report from five years previous, Carol would zip open a file drawer and hand it to him.

As I observed her, I thought to myself, if I ever open a business and need a super efficient secretary who knows how to work with people, I’d hire her away from the prison system.

That was then, before what I call the ‘Harper’ people moved into the prison administration, just a few years after Mr. Harper became prime minister.

I was there again one day when the new director of education came into the office. “Where’s the report I wanted on my desk, Ms…?” She used Carol’s last name.

Carol handed her the report. She almost snatched it from her. “Next time on my desk. And I understand you don’t use the word, ‘Inmate’ when you are addressing these…people.”

Carol said nothing. I saw she was upset, almost on the verge of tears.

“Well, is that right?’

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“From now on it’s ‘Inmate.’ Is that clear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And what are you doing here, Mr.?” she turned her guns at me. “Are you a program instructor?”

“No. I’m a volunteer who teaches creative writing once a week. I’m turning in my attendance list for today.”

“A volunteer, huh?” It was almost a snarl. I could just hear the unspoken words, “If you volunteer to help these scumbags, you must be one yourself.”

The director got back on her high horse and rode over to her own office. I heard from others that she hammered Carol daily, why I don’t know.

Two months later, I heard that Carol had taken a leave of absence, and a month after that she resigned.

Why are good, caring people being driven from the prison system? Carol’s case is not isolated. In one prison I know of three others with similar stories.

freeThis coming weekend you can put some adventure reading on your computer or E-reader. From 12:01 Friday morning to midnight Sunday night, go to Prisoners of the Williwaw  Amazon.com to get your free copy.

What would happen if three hundred hardened convicts petitioned the United States Government for an abandoned island where, accompanied by their families, they would be set free to earn their own way?
Overwhelmed by prison budgets and prison riots, the government agrees and sets the prisoners free on windswept, treeless Adak in the Aleutians, the site of a former ‘hard duty’ Navy station.
Prisoners Of The Williwaw is the story of the power struggle between the idealistic leader of Prisoners of the Williwawthis expedition, convict Frank Villa, and a smooth prison boss, James T. Gilmore. Frank Villa opens a school, arranges jobs for people in a small assembly factory and calls for free elections. ‘Boss’ Gilmore opens a house of prostitution, sells booze, drugs, and guns, and schemes to take over the island one way or another.
Frank’s struggle is internal as well as external. He strives to overcome the effects of prison on his psyche. A convict must be passive; a man in charge of a community must take command. A convict must build a wall inside himself against any relationship with a woman; a free man has to leave himself open to love.
The strife between Villa and Gilmore accelerates when their wives arrive and unexpected complications develop.
AdakThese conflicts play out against a backdrop of constant rain, vicious windstorms (williwaws), escape attempts, and a coup by a new group of prisoners from the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the worst of the worst.

It helps me if new people see my writing. I’d appreciate it if you would tell your friends about this book. Go to the site Amazon.com and download the book. It will be free.

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prisonCall him Alexander. He came from a non-English speaking country and met some Canadian guys in a bar. They sort of adopted him and when they did crime, they blamed a lot of it on him. A fellow teacher told me that Alexander’s problem was not crime, but English. The fellow teacher said he didn’t know what the crime was, but he suspected Alexander didn’t have a big part. But he got a big part of the sentence.

Alexander came to my class to improve his English writing skills. He and I hit it off right away. He had this subtle sense of humor  — he would say something and an hour later it would hit me. And he was a fast learner, his writing advanced from “See Spot run” to good English sentences.

psychiatristThe prison system determined that Alexander had mental problems. They strongly suggested that he agree to be moved to the Regional Psychiatric Centre where they could help him.  I didn’t say anything, but I suspect he picked up my attitude. I knew a person who was a psychiatrist in one of our prisons. This person had very little control over their own person and life. If anyone needed help, that psychiatrist did. I’m not saying all prison psychiatric staff are like that, but the prison system does hire people who can’t get jobs elsewhere.

“I’m going to the Psych Centre next week,” Alexander said.

He looked at me and I know we had a conversation without either of us saying a word.

He finally shrugged his shoulders and said, “What are you gonna do?”

He spent a year in the Psychiatric Centre and he wrote to me often. His letters were a real joy prison shrinkto read. Everything was fine on the surface, but below it all, the message was something like I have to be nuts enough for them to feel they’re helping me, but sane enough so I can get out of here.

Today Alexander is out, in a loving relationship and works very hard in a full time job. He and I meet for coffee and we have spoken and unspoken conversations. I know that for Alexander, prison worked. It was so terrible, he’d never want to go back. Especially the part about psychiatric staff helping him.

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a statisticOur inmate blogger writes today.

“What’s your FPS number?” asks the guard.

“I don’t know,” responds the inmate.

“Well, you better figure it out, because you need to know it for everything around here,” says the guard.

“My name is…,” says the inmate, becoming frustrated with the attitude.

“I don’t care what your name is. All I need to know is your FPS number, so have a look at your ID card and give me the number.” The guard is now becoming agitated as this is taking longer than is should, and he has no desire to debate the issue.

“987654X,” responds the inmate.

“All right. You can go through.”

To someone on the outside this may seem like a ridiculous exchange, but the reality makesnumber perfect sense to any one who has served time in the penitentiary.

Especially prone to this type of argument are new inmates. An inmate in the pen has to repeat this number more times than he can count during the course of even a short sentence.

When you are an inmate in a penitentiary, you lose your name and become a number. Every inmate in a federal institution is identified by their FPS. Your FPS becomes who you are. Ask any inmate their FPS number, and it will take them about two seconds to recite it, that is how ingrained in your mind it becomes after just a few days.

It doesn’t matter that to your family you are Johnny, Billy or Steven, because your name is stripped from you when you enter the pen. Even your last name is not good enough to stand on its own, because there could be more than one person with the same last name. Just look up Smith or Jones in the phone book to bring this point home.

take a numberBeing identified as only a number is the first step in a process that depersonalizes you and dehumanizes you.

This is a two way process as inmates refer to guards by various names or titles. Depending on the inmate or their mood, you will hear them called ‘Boss,’ ‘CO,’ (Correctional Officer) or just ‘Officer.’ Of course behind their backs, you will hear them referred to by other less polite names. The point is that inmates choose to depersonalize and dehumanize guards in much the same way that most guards do to inmates. If we don’t have names, it is easier to keep a comfortable distance from someone, rather than identify with them and have empathy in our concrete and steel worlds.

People out in the public don’t think of themselves as numbers as we do, although they are attached quite firmly to various numbers they are identified by. People out in the public don’t identify themselves with their SIN or driver’s license, but the government identifies them by these numbers.

A name is a very important thing.just a number

Signed FPS 987654X

What happens to someone who is referred to with a number? What is your opinion?

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Call him Conrad. When a man is sentenced to more than two years, the next place he goes is to an assessment centre. When Conrad got here, he told the officials he wanted to go to a high security place where he heard there was a writing program.

“But your security rating is better than that. You go to an easier prison.”

words“No,” Conrad said, “I want to learn how to write.”

So one day in August, 2008 Conrad showed up in my creative writing class. The guy was amazing, one of those students that you explain a few things to and off they go. They develop their own style and glory in it. Conrad wrote about his first nation’s culture and then moved down the map to the swamps of Louisiana and wrote about swamp people in their dialect. I have no idea how he learned that dialect in a prison where the Internet is denied.

Everyone in the class liked his work. I knew he had a future in writing if he pursued it.

A problem arose. He had some outstanding charges that he had to face so he asked to be transferred to a remand centre so he could make appearances in court.

First he went to a local remand centre, where I tried to visit him in a private area.

“Are you his lawyer or minister?”

“No, I’m his creative writing teacher.”

“Line up with everybody else.”

So we visited through a hard plastic window, with a small space below where a metal screen let sound through. Each visitor had such a window with only a small divider separating us. I often had to almost yell to be heard.

But Conrad was doing fine. He played a mean game of handball and had read most of the Aztec books.

His trial on the outstanding charges was to be in the interior of the province, so he was transferred to another remand closer to his trial. There he waited for well over a year. But Conrad didn’t just sit and wait. He organized a writing class for the men, similar to the one I had established. He discovered that there was no release plan for prisoners, no discussion of that all important question – “What are you going to do on the day you get out of jail?”

Many men left remand, sometimes even after years there. Maybe the crown decided not to prosecute because a key witness had died. There were many reasons, but the system had no plan in place to help a man on that first day out.

Conrad developed one for the men, independent of staff, with the exception of the chaplain.

Finally, in early 2010 he came to trial. His charges were serious, so I tried to get some letters of support for him. The chaplain in the remand had emailed me praising Conrad for his work, his attitude and his realization of how his crime had hurt people. The crime was drug dealingdrug dealing (not using). At the end, the chaplain mentioned that since he was an employee of the prison system, he couldn’t let the court know these things. So I incorporated his comments in my letter to the judge.

The trial revealed that he was NOT the big time drug dealer that the crown tried to imply, but rather a very small time dealer. The judge sentenced him – I think it was a few more years beyond the three he’d already spent in jail.

Then a most unusual thing happened. The police took him – not to a prison, but to a halfway house near his home. He couldn’t believe his luck. Over the next month he found a job, reestablished ties with his family and connected with an old girlfriend. The two of them decided they would marry.

The manager of the halfway house reported to the prison system that Conrad was doing great – not a single infraction of the rules. But the warden of a nearby prison got word of this unusual treatment and decided that Conrad belonged in prison. After all, another inmate always helped the prison’s numbers.

That night when Conrad returned from work, the manager of the halfway house was waiting for him. “I’m sorry, Conrad, you have to go back to prison.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. The warden didn’t tell me.”

“When?”

“Right now. The prison has sent two guards to pick you up. They should be here any moment.”

“Can I call my girlfriend and my mother?”

“Look. They’re here now.”

So at the end of his working day, after a month of a perfect record, Conrad was hauled back to prison.

The next day was my day to teach. The minute I walked in, the guys told me about Conrad. “Where is he?” I asked.

“In seg.” (segregation)

I went to the guard’s office and to a correctional manager and said he was supposed to be in class. A few papers shuffled and he was released to go with me to class. As we walked, he told me what happened. I was livid, angry, boiling mad at the warden and the whole system, but Conrad told me to calm down.

“We’ll work it out,” he said, and that was Conrad.

I went to a woman in the system that I thought would help. “He won’t be here long,” she told me. I assumed that meant a few weeks.

Conrad came to class every week. He proposed to me that we invite staff to come to a class. He didn’t like the “us and them” attitude among the guys, and he knew I had the same attitude. I was mad at what they had done to him in particular.

“Go ahead,” I said, “you can ask, but they won’t come.”

They came – at least five or six of them.

Conrad was as smooth as silk. He believed that the medicine went down better ‘with a spoonful of sugar.’ I admired the man for that.sugar

The next time Conrad got out of prison was a year and a half later. I contact him now and then and he’s doing well on the outside.

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