Archive for July, 2013


For four years I worked every week in a remand center, a place where men and women waited for trial. Sometimes called PreTrial or Remand or simply jail, it’s always maximum security.

I remember my first day there.

Every door – I mean every door – in PreTrial was opened by someone in a control room on the first floor. To get to the library from the entrance, I had to stop at three doors, press a button, wait for a response, state who I was and then wait for the door to buzz open.

Class was to be held in the library. Across from the library was a bathroom labeled Staff. I asked for a key – bathrooms are important for men in their sixties. Nothing doing. No key to the executive washroom for me. To use the toilet, I had to buzz through three doors and go to the staff room.

Control monitored every hallway with a camera. This place was indeed maximum security.

The residents or inmates lived on units. Each unit had some individual cells and some two-person cells, plus a small common living area. A unit held from twelve to thirty people. The prison didn’t allow any mixing of units because co-accused might get together and agree on their story. The authorities strictly enforced this separation.

Some were there because their crimes were so serious, other, because they couldn’t afford bail.

The door to the library – as all doors there – were heavy steel with a double window of unbreakable glass. A few minutes after the buzzer sounded, seven men in red suits stood at the door.

I began to sweat. Why? I’d worked in a maximum security prisons before. What was so scary about these guys?

Maybe all the steel doors had me spooked, maybe it was that they all wore red suits. I don’t know.

The door buzzed open and in they came, excited, man-sweat smell. They all looked pale – not enough sun. Lots of handshaking and “My name is Tom,” and “We got a school here – finally. Shaun’s the name.” And so forth.

I made coffee for the men and gave them pens and pencils. Other prisons pay men a nominal amount to attend class, but there was nothing like an incentive here, so I determined to at least save them the canteen cost for pens, pencils and paper.

We talked about the GED as a high school equivalent. I told them I was a writer and we talked about that. Then I registered them one by one.

Tom had been in PreTrial for six years.

“Six years?” I couldn’t believe it. As a kid in school I remember learning that Americans had a right to a speedy trial. Maybe Canada was different.

“It’s an immigration thing. Another country wants me.”

Shaun didn’t tell me anything about his crime. “I only made it to Grade 8. I’m 35 now and I’m getting too old for this crime game. I want out.”

A perfect person for school.

David had a clean-cut look about him. If I had seen him on the street, I would have assumed he was in college. “I’ve got a high school education and a year of college,” he said. “I just came down here to look around the library.”

“Can’t you come down to the library when you want?”

He gave me a cynical snark, as if I had just asked him if he’d like to go with me for a drink at an area pub.

“This place is the pits,” he said. “There’s nothing to do. Thank God you’ve started this school. We have AA once a week and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and nothing else. Twenty-three hours a day we’re on the unit, one hour in a cement courtyard surrounded by concrete walls.”

“You mean you spend the whole day on your unit?”

“Yeah. And for a lot of that time, we’re locked up. Staff break. Staff dinner. Count. We’re in our cells.”

What could I say? I had no nostrum to give.

Shaun got up. “Anyway, thanks for coming. I’m going to look around the library now.”

The next guy was Spencer. Maybe in his forties. A couple of fingers missing. “I want school,” he said. “My son is in Grade 4 and my daughter is in Grade 6. I want to be able to help them.”

And then Jack. Age twenty-one. “Listen, teach,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my life in jail. Juvie and provincial jail. Man, I’m sick of it. I want to get my school, but I screw up as soon as I get out. Drugs. They put me in a halfway house and then they start laying religion on me. I walk out the door, steal a car and get some dope.”

I was to hear that over and over in the coming months.

I registered the other two. Similar stories. I’ve changed the names and the stories slightly, but these were the men in PreTrial.

I gave them an assignment to write about: a safe place they knew as a kid, and the program was off the ground.

On the next Thursday I was surprised to get some stories back. “I had a fort in some thick bushes and when my old man got liquored, he start whaling on me and, I’d go to those bushes and hide.”  “We had some woods at the end of our street and me and my buddies made a club house from some lumber we stole. That’s where we went when we skipped school. But one guy’s dad found the shack and told the other parents and they tore it down.”

Lots of stories, but common to many of them was parental drinking and abuse. The old rule was proving true – bad parents, bad kids.

Week after week I went back, every Thursday night. The numbers increased. I had less and less time with each student, but slowly I learned about PreTrial, the true and the false, the good and the bad.

PreTrial, Remand and Jail are all the same thing

PreTrial is a short-term place where people are held while they wait for trial. Tell that to Tom who’s been there for six years. Canadian justice moves slowly, a good thing, I think. Fewer mistakes. But six years?

PreTrial is not a place to be sick. First of all it’s hard for the men to get to medical care. Unit staff, guards, are the first problem. “You’re just faking,” and comments like that. The next problem is the nurses. Some are good and competent, others less so. Working in a jail is not a prestigious item on your resume and the pay is less than adequate.  Often the nurses have limited English or have not updated their medical knowledge. After I had been there awhile, I was amazed to have people come to the library and ask for information on the drugs they were given. “This stuff is addictive? I didn’t know that.” I heard that more than once. And, “I’ve got enough trouble with drugs without taking on a new one.”

The jail pharmacist did not give out an information page on prescribed drugs. When I go to my neighborhood pharmacy, I always get an information page on a new drug.

People can die under this care – and they have. One doctor, however, is the exception. Everyone says he is a good and caring man.

I learned a lot about the guards who worked there. Since I was teaching the GED, one guard asked me how a friend of his could get his GED out in the community. Just talking to the guard, I knew this was really for him. A few weeks later, he gave me his opinion of the men in PreTrial. “They’re all scumbags. They can’t learn a thing and you’re wasting your time here.”

One night I buzzed control and said, “Five men to return to Hotel unit.” I had given them supplies, a cup of coffee and I had checked up on their study progress. I couldn’t do much more, because I had to see six units in one evening.

Control answered. “You mean five inmates.”

No, I didn’t mean five inmates. First of all these men were not convicted. They were all awaiting trial. They were not convicts. But more important, I hate that word with a passion. “Inmate Jones, report to health care.” Day in, day out, men hear their names called out in this fashion. Not Mr. Jones, but Inmate Jones. What other institution does that? What is the long-term effect of reminding someone over and over that they are an inmate?

I repeated myself. “Five men to return to Hotel unit.”

Control’s tone rose. “Five INMATES.”

I said nothing. The door did not buzz open.

Time passed. A minute. I was involved in a war of wills – one I was going to lose. If I wanted to get the next unit down for school, I had to give in. But I thought up a compromise. “I have five to return to Hotel unit,” I said.

There was a long silence and then the door buzzed open.

Despite the negativity of most guards, I met a few with souls. One man was always cheerful to me and polite to the men. He called me aside one night. “You know, if I were running this place,” he said, “no one would ever leave here without a high school diploma and full job training.”

And one supervisor showed great understanding that this jail thing wasn’t working. He apologized for some of the more stupid regulations as he shrugged and said, “What are you gonna do?”

In general supervisors seemed wiser and more humane than the guards.

No universal statements apply to PreTrial. There are good guards and bad guards, good health care workers and bad health care workers, good residents and bad ones, too.

What is true of PreTrial, as is true of all prisons, is that there is an Us and a Them. This is a poisonous atmosphere. No true help can ever be accomplished in such a setting.

Jail is a place to dry out or to come down from terrible addictions. One man opposed my negative comments about jail. “Thank God for this place,” he said. “Without it, I’d be dead.” I tried to make distinctions, but he wasn’t having any.

Jail is a place to meet old friends. Time and again the conversation drifted off to who knew who, who did time with whom in juvie. For some of these guys, jail wasn’t a punishment – it was old home week.

Jail is a place to get hit in the head with a coffeepot by another guy who didn’t know how to control his anger. Time and again the public address system would call out “Code yellow.” The guards would run to whatever unit the code yellow was and quell the disturbance. Then the PA system would call out, “Stand down, code yellow,” like some pretend military camp. Sometimes people who were just minding their own business got caught in the middle of a fight. Actually, I’m surprised there weren’t more fights. Put twenty to thirty men on unit, men who had very little control over their emotions, keep them on the unit for twenty-three hours a day, lock them up for long periods, treat them like animals, make it hard for them to contact their families, have them endure the tension of long hours in a trial and you are going to have fights.

What was the institution’s response to fights – counseling? take the pressure off? play some music? No. Their response was to put the instigators in segregation. No TV. In the cell twenty-three hours. No phone. No school. No privileges. No contact with others.

Jail was a place to watch some good TV, the universal baby sitter of prisoners. I sympathized with men who enjoyed TV shows, but in another way it made me angry. The authorities were encouraging a generation of couch potatoes.

Jail was a place to return to over and over, until one day the person woke up and said, “Enough.” But time and again I saw a man leave, his buddies would give him high fives and two weeks later he’d be back. One man told me that he and his buddies made bets on how long someone would be out and when they would come back. It was a sub-cultural ritual.

We all know of cases in the news where people are in jail and, frankly, we’re glad. Can this PreTrial time be made better?

Minor Surgery, Major Impact

Posted: July 21, 2013 by Ed Griffin in Uncategorized

What was billed as minor surgery for me last Monday, turned out to have a major effect on my ability to do anything this past week. My apologies. I promise to be up and running by next Sunday.

classroomYears ago I taught creative writing in a maximum security prison in the States. One day I found out what was really important in prison. On this particular Friday, the director told me I had to shorten my class by half an hour. “There’s a group from the state government in Madison coming to inspect the school and it has to be cleared of all inmates. (I wondered why a school should be cleared of its students for an inspection, but I kept my mouth shut.) Instead of two hours, I would only have an hour and a half.

I accepted this change without complaint. At least I had a class that day. Sometimes I drove up to the prison only to find that the place was locked down. The men were confined to their cells and there would be no class. I got the class started quickly and launched into our plan for the day.  After forty-five minutes a young security guard opened the door of the classroom, walked in and, without even a nod to me, interrupted what I was saying and told the men to get out.

I have spent a lot of my life in school.  From the nuns at St. Ann’s to the professors at the University of Wisconsin, everyone held the classroom as inviolate. No one could barge in on a class as this guard had just done. Besides – we had forty-five minutes left.

“There must be some misunderstanding,” I said

The guard looked at me for a second and then faced the men. His face tightened and his voice rose. “I said OUT.”

“We have another forty-five minutes,” Walter said. powerless

“The State Inspection Team is due at 10:30,” Brian added.

Jim looked worried and began to fidget.

“The director of education…” I began.

The guard cut me off. His whole body tensed. “You men get out of this classroom or you go on repor

Nobody moved. “You got no right,” Walter muttered.

“Listen,” I said, trying to find a reasonable answer, “why don’t you check with the director. He’s in his office.”

The young guard’s face flamed red with anger.  “This is your last warning, you men. Get out.”

I saw from Walter’s face that a confrontation was coming. A prison riot could start in the school.   I tried to calm things down.  “Men, I’m going to take this thing right to the top.  Not only is this against what the director said, but it’s an invasion of the classroom.  In my opinion the classroom is sacred.  I’m as angry as you, but for now I suggest you comply.”

Amid angry mutterings, everyone left. I went to the director immediately. When I explained what had happened, he shrugged.  “That’s one of the things about teaching in prison.  You have to learn that security is top.  Just forget it.”

But I didn’t.  On the way out of prison, I stopped at the office and asked to see the head of security.  Surprisingly, he admitted me.  After I explained the situation again, he said, “That’s young Burns, the guy who came into your classroom.”


“His dad worked here until last year.  Had a heart attack.”

“Do you think it’s right to just barge into a classroom?”

“You come up here all the way from Milwaukee?”


“The director of education tells me you volunteer.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  Can I get clear the rules for the classroom?”

“You have to understand this is a prison.  But what we need are more volunteers like you.”

The man was dodging me, not very artfully. “I’m very upset about what happened.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are.  The Department of  Corrections needs good people like you.”

“What about the classroom? Can a guard just barge in like that?”

“This is a prison.”

What could I say?  I had no threat to deliver.  If I said I was walking out and would never teach again, his response would have been indifference.  After fifteen minutes of listening to him give me public relations, I left, defeated.  Security was king.

powerlessI was powerless. Funny. That’s the word convicts use to describe their situation – powerless.

Are convicts powerless? Why do many of then think they are? Why do so many staff think this?

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At a prison I taught at, there was an old man, call him Mr. Carter. Every morning as I came into the prison he pushed a broom along the walkway. The way he walked I knew he was older – I should know, I’m a month short of 77.

One day I got talking with him. He told me he was nearing the end of a ten year bit, and they transferred him to a minimum prison. His only daughter called him and told him she was about to have a very serious operation the next day. Mr. Carter walked out of the prison the next morning and walked to the nearest city where he could catch a bus. But as he walked, he realized he’d made a mistake, so he turned around and walked back to the prison.

Did they thank him for returning? Did they take him to the hospital to see his daughter? Did they warn him not to do it again? None of those things. They added time to his sentence for escaping.

I think Mr. Carter could have made a case that he was worried and confused and should receive no punishment.

aging in prison    I’m wandering off the subject I want to talk about – the aging in prison. I think about myself – dependent on my family doctor and on prostate cancer specialists. Old people need doctors, but medical care in prisons is very second rate. Another inmate I know has to wait months to see a specialist. This is health care build on cost and on the availability of guards to take an inmate to a doctor.

I received an excellent website from a group in the States. It’s called Aging Behind Aging in PrisonBars. I wanted to bring some of their data over to my website, but my technology failed me. Please take a look at their website. If clicking it doesn’t work, paste it into your browser.


I don’t know what I can do about this problem. Any suggestions?

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