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.

  1. Vanessa Collins says:

    What a shame. In more ways than one.

  2. Heidi Greco says:

    The editor in me wants to add another ending to your final sentence (no pun intended):

    Sadly, this whole story confirms the view of . . . those who conclude that the Harper government sees prisons as places to mete out vengeful punishment.

    As the obstacles in your story illustrate, Old Testament thinking now seems to dictate a regimen of no meaningful programs, no realistic rehabilitation, no normal socialization — all elements which would enhance the reintegration of prisoners as contributing citizens when they are released.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      You are so right, Heidi. Vengeful punishment. Despite all the pious talk of the Harper government, I find so many things they do are mean spirited, from denying health care to certain people, to running ads against the NDP and their leader when there is no election, to punishing inmates in the name of overcoming crime. What a joke.

  3. I agree, Ed, prison authorities don’t want outsiders in or around their prisons. The ‘us and them’ mentality is so ingrained in people who actually work in the system for a living (and, more importantly, own the system), that all they want is for no one to rock this very remunerative boat.

  4. Joanne says:

    What a beautiful program you had there! It is truly too bad that it was squeezed out of existence. Prisoners need time “away” from prison. It is so good for them to have their heads out of it even for a short time. Hopefully, somehow, some way this program can restart again in the future.

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