Archive for October, 2012

wrongly convictedAre there innocent people in our prisons? Yes, there are. And there are a lot of guilty people, who do not hesitate to tell you that they are guilty.

But an innocent man doing time for a crime he didn’t commit – that bothers me. Here in British Columbia, Canada, there is a man in prison for murder who has served nine years of a life sentence, while always maintaining his innocence. Two DNA experts have analyzed blood from the crime scene and have excluded this man. Videotape from an area camera confirmed that the man was an hour’s drive away when the crime was committed.

How can this happen in our society? The man has appealed his conviction to the different levels of courts and the same verdict comes back, guilty.

Impossible, you say. Our justice system works. But sometimes it doesn’t, as several famous cases have shown.

Affirming that you are innocent is a hard thing to do in prison. Prison officials like a man who humbly admits his guilt and willingly takes all the programs the officials line up for him. But if a man says, “I didn’t do it,” how can the instructors claim success?

When a crime is committed, society puts pressure on the police. “Solve this problem. We don’t want any killers running free in our city.” Most times the police and the prosecutors are fair, but sometimes they give in to pressure and send an innocent man to prison. It’s happened before.

Another problem is that the legal profession is a network of judges and lawyers. No one likes to overturn the work of a colleague. As the saying goes, it’s a good old boy network. Does that mean that a man must suffer imprisonment so as not to disturb the network?justice

What can the average person do? Certainly I can’t sit back and say, “Oh, well. That’s life.” But what can I do? I don’t know. Do you?

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FreeThis week, on Wednesday and Thursday, I’m giving away E-book copies of Dystopia. This is a book about prison, about my journey into prison to teach creative writing, and about Mike Oulton’s journey thru prison starting from his arrest in Mexico for smuggling drugs. Mike spent two years in Mexican prisons and eight years in Canadian prisons. You will be surprised to find out which system he liked better.

This book is not a treatise on prison reform – it’s full of stories of the people both of us met in prison. You will see clearly what an American maximum-security prison is like, what happens in a poverty-stricken Mexican prison, and how staff treat inmates in Canadian prisons.Dystopia

A few quotes from Ed and Mike:

“Let no one say I’m soft on crime. I call for a system that demands of criminals real change. Right now convicts don’t have to alter their behavior, they just have to do their time. Boring, but easy. I call for wardens to devise correctional facilities that really correct, that demand socially acceptable behavior and the personality structure to support it.” Ed Griffin

“There’s no such thing as a halfway crook.” Mike Oulton

“I came to prison to cause a revolution and what I found was a friend.”  Ed Griffin

“Writing changed my life and melted the bars around my soul.” Mike Oulton

Even if you don’t have an E-book, you can download this book to your computer and read it there. Here’s the link:

Kindle for PC: Read eBooks on Your Computer – No Kindle Device Required

The Kindle for PC app lets you read eBooks and e-textbooks on your PC. Download the app today to start reading.

P.S.  I had a very enjoyable weekend at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. There was a time in my life when I figured I could stop going to conferences, stop reading books about writing and stop listening to experts talk about writing. I guess I figured I knew it all. How foolish. We all have a lot to learn and learning never stops.


Vic ToewsCan things get worse in our federal prison system? Of course they can – Vic Toews is in charge. He’s done two things recently to make things worse.

He laid off all part-time chaplains, thus eliminating all non-Christian chaplains from the prison system. The full-time chaplains represent Catholic and Protestant denominations. What about rabbis? What about the spiritual leaders of first nations people? What about the Wicca religion?

Toews claims that volunteers can do that.

I hope someone takes him to court over this. Does it make any sense to eliminate men and women inmates prison chaplainconfide in? The prison system needs MORE chaplains, not fewer and in some cases, BETTER chaplains. My experience of chaplains is limited, but I’ve only met one man who knew what he was doing.

The other thing he’s done is stop federal inmates from ordering in food for special special mealoccasions. Currently there are strict limits on how much money they can spend on food orders and these activities have to be linked to increasing pro-social activity.  This means that they need to eat in a communal setting to increase positive social interaction.  It is meant to reduce isolation and break down “toughness” barriers that might exist.

My good friend Joanne, a frequent commentator on this blog, wrote to Mr. Toews about this issue:

Mr. Toews,

 I am writing in response to stories in today’s news regarding the ability of federal inmates to order in food for specific special occasions.  I believe  there  are better ways to score political points than to announce that you wish to take away even very minor rays of hope for prisoners, such as being able to order out for food with their own money once in a blue moon.

Let me explain my position, based on knowledge I have gained over the years through extensive education and experience.  First, punishment does not work over the long term—for anyone.  Period.  Second, when you tell someone that they are a “scumbag”, “dirt”, “worthless”, all you are doing is telling them that you expect them to go on behaving in ways inconsistent with societal standards.  By treating people like animals, you are sending the same message.  “You don’t deserve to be part of society, we don’t want you back, and we expect you to fail.”  These messages, not surprisingly, often lead to failure.  Some people see them as permission to give up and lead a marginal lifestyle.  They begin to believe they can do no better.  Alternatively, the messages spark anger and a thirst for retribution, in others.  Either way, society loses.

What we need, instead, is to send offenders an invitation to rejoin society as whole, contributing human beings.  We need to send the message, “You are one of us and we want you back but when you do come back, we have a number of expectations that you need to follow, as we all do.  What is more, we know you are capable of following them”.  People serving time need opportunities to prove to themselves, and to others, that they are indeed capable of the behavioural expectations that society lays out for us all.  This is truly what personal responsibility is about.  We all need to be responsible for our own behaviour.

Currently, our criminal justice system takes away personal responsibility instead of stressing its importance.  If we gave it back, we would also be making things better for the victims of crime.  They are largely ignored in the current way we deal with offenders.  Some ways that offenders can demonstrate personal responsibility is by being given opportunities for restitution.  They will not be able to bring anyone back to life, but they can do things that will make life better for many people who are experiencing difficulties in their lives.  They can become examples for all others of how to live harmoniously in society.

Some ideas of how offenders can give back include allowing volunteer work that can be performed within prisons (e.g., making things that can be used by others in need), fundraising drives in which offenders solicit each other, staff members, family, etc. in exchange for something they do (e.g., run, sports tournament, matching donations, etc.), having special community groups attend to learn special skills (e.g., art, trades) from offenders, or providing entertainment for community members.  Such programs allow offenders to feel useful and worthwhile and teach them that they can continue to contribute to society in meaningful ways upon release.  Offenders need to learn the intrinsic value of giving to others.  Stop treating them as invalids, who can do no right and allow them the opportunity to show all of us what they are capable of.  We may all benefit hugely both over the short and long term.

Consider this an opportunity to look beyond your current views and see other possibilities you may have missed.  Consider this an opportunity to take personal responsibility to search for policies that will actually create positive change, rather than perpetuate the status quo.  At the same time you would silence the voices of many detractors who say that the Conservative Party agenda is to create and maintain employment opportunities on the backs of offenders.

I thank-you for taking the time to read this.


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