An Inmate to Admire

Posted: July 1, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison, Reform
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.”


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


“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.

Images courtesy of:

  1. judith says:

    Thanks Ed. For those people like myself who do some small service inside prison, this is such a wonderful story. I thank you for the hopeful message, and as always for the humanity of the prisoner that you let the reader see with each blog.

  2. Heather says:

    While reading today’s blog, I got angry too. Really angry – that the system could put up with such small minded bullies with giant grudges against humanity. Conrad is obviously a better person, a more gracious one than I am. Thankfully, he reaches out to people.

  3. Joe Pineda says:

    This is a great story to tell. I like how it shows you that there is the possibility of change in the prison system, but first the individual must be willing to welcome it.

  4. Joe Pineda says:

    Reblogged this on The Bard of Steel and commented:
    PRISON UNCENSORED is one of those blogs that exists to change your perspective, in this case of the American prison system. The title of this particular post is self-explanatory, but it doesn’t make Ed Griffin’s story any less amazing. Not only do I recommend you read the post; I highly recommend you follow this blog. Enjoy this reblog.

  5. Joanne says:

    The thing that strikes me the most about this story was that members of the staff at the federal institution actually attended the writing class! Wow! What an initiative on “Conrad’s” part! More situations like this could begin to break down some barriers–barriers that allow some of the inhumane treatment to continue. I’d say “Conrad” is a really astute man.

  6. NC Coot says:

    This is quite extraordinary. When you’ve time, let me know what it is exactly that you do for a living, as it seems whatever it is, you are transforming lives.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thank you for your post, NC Coot. The inmate in the post you refer to has a job now helping a real estate agent in the Okanagan, Canada.
      I am retired now. In the 1960s I was a Catholic Priest in Cleveland, Ohio. Events happened that led me out of the priesthood, but I carried many things with me, as you have detected. This was the subject of my last book “Once a Priest”. In the 70s I ran for political office in Milwaukee, WI and won. In the late 70s and 80s my wife and I bought a commercial greenhouse. Here we sold garden plants and raised our two children. In Canada in the late 80s, 90s and up to today, I have taught creative writing in the community and in prison. Thank you

      • NC Coot says:

        How wonderful. I was raised in a very socially active Catholic Church this kind of activism was at the core of the Catholic mission. I used to play in the guitar mass from the age of 8 to the age of 21 and had attended Christian Brothers Academy where social in justice was part of the core curriculum.

        I saw a decided change in the goals of the church in my 30s and became rather disenchanted. It is the very work that you did I found most intriguing and true to origins of the See.

        Congratulations on your remarkable career and for this equally remarkable story.

      • Ed Griffin says:

        Thank you for your comment. Sadly, the current popes have moved away from the renewal the the Second Vatican Council envisaged. A more democratic church. A more caring one. I’ve left the organized church, but I haven’t left efforts to seek the transcendent.

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