Archive for September, 2013

A friend of mine applied for a job as a Social Program worker. She was anxious to work with inmates to help them adopt pro-social attitudes and she came to the job with considerable experience working with people.

“What do I do on my shift?’

“When the inmates go back to their cells, you collect the basketballs and so forth. You count everything and check for damage.”

“What do I do when the inmates are in free time? Can I help them form reading clubs and things like that?”

“No. No. No. You stay in the office during that time. Watch TV, read a book, sleep, whatever. You have no contact with inmates.”

“But…isn’t that the job, social program officer?”

“Not here.”

She stayed on the job only one day.

When I asked another official for something, he would talk and talk, especially about how busy he was. These discussions took ten to twenty minutes. I knew that in business less than a minute could resolve the question.

In my twenty years volunteering in prison, I saw two men doing the job of one, I saw groups of guards chit-chatting in the bubble, and vacation spots and computer games replacing work on their computers.

These are correctional institutions and the staff must be trained to do the ‘correcting.’ Right now the public is getting ripped off.Do Nothing

Images courtesy of:

For years we held weekend writing workshops in the programs building of the prison. 15 outside writers joined 15 inside writers to spend the weekend talking about writing and about prison. We ate together, but the outsiders went home at night. Everyone who attended these workshops loved them. The insiders forgot they were in jail and realized there was a world out there that might just accept them. The outsiders found out that inmates were not snarling killers, but people who had made a mistake in life. One year the director of education said that the workshops had to be moved to the visiting area. Here there was no way to break down into smaller groups, and it was very uncomfortable for the inmates. A camera spied down from above while a microphone picked up every conversation on every table.

Over and over I suggested we return to the programs building. Answer no. Reason given – none. Finally someone told me the truth. Administration did want outsiders into the “deepest part of the prison.” I argued that it had worked fine for years. Why was it changed? No answer.

My friend Mike Oulton told me about life in Mexican prisons. Yes, they were poorer, but families often came in and ate meals in the cells.

Why are the public in general kept out of Canadian and American prisons?

One of the saddest things I’ve done is go to the library, to the criminology section. Really, it’s as sad as seeing a group of guys locked up for years. The covers on criminology books are new, undamaged, unread. Politicians make decisions without visiting the library, the supposedly-educated media have never been there, and educators don’t know what restorative justice is. And in today’s world most of this information is available online.

Are the media responsible for negative images in the minds of the public?

Are wardens accountable for recidivism, for half the inmates returning to prison?

Why do ridiculous criminal justice laws pass the legislature? Is it that we citizens do not speak up? Here in Canada the Prime Minister, Mr. Harper, passed Bill C-10 with little opposition.

The slogan for the New Year might be: Take your politician to the library.

I have a subscription to a great little magazine that comes four times a year. It’s Out of Bounds, prison magazine. It comes from William Head minimum security prison on Vancouver Island.

Prison cartoons sprinkle the current issue, as well as workout suggestions, poetry, articles about things in the news, and comments about prison management. The magazine seems free of management supervision, as that other famous prison magazine, the Angolite, from Louisiana’s prison in Angola.

This issue of Out of Bounds has an article about the Ashley Smith Inquest, an article on prison culture, legal news, fiction and poetry. The staff welcomes contributions from inmates and outsiders no matter where they live.

It costs $18.00 for one year and $32.00 for two years. Write to:

Out of Bounds Magazine

6000 William Head Rd.

Victoria, BC

V9C 0B5


On another issue, Amiya Fernando sent me a link to her page.

Wouldn’t it be great to have information about prison presented in a similar fashion?

Recently I made a teaching decision which led to some controversy. I’ve been a volunteer teacher of creative writing in prison for twenty years.

I had a student who was doing very well in the class. I felt he needed something more, so I brought in the draft of my own novel for him to edit and critique. As a teacher, I felt I had every right to do this. In fact, I never gave it a thought.

My draft novel is called Delaney’s Hope. It’s the story of a man who feels guilty after getting a good salary from the prison system for years without doing very much. He decides to set up a prison that really works, that changes men and women instead of just warehousing them. After much effort, he gets his chance. The government gives him a minimum prison with only five inmates and three staff for one year. One inmate is a master drug dealer, another defrauds an insurance company and shoots a company executive. Two of the inmates are violent offenders and the last is a sex offender, who has killed a 14 year old girl in an attempt to rape her.

I tried to portray each of these offenders as best I could. The challenge for this experimental prison was to see what would happen.

Somehow prison management got hold of the novel and decided that it was sexually oriented material involving children. Yes, I portrayed the sex offender as best I could, so that I could show the efforts to cure him. I wasn’t writing a how to manual, nor an endorsement of the man’s action.

The deputy warden called me a few days after my class and said I was out, not allowed to volunteer in the prison system anymore. I had no idea why at first, and when I found out, I appealed this decision.

Something else was going on here. The book I wrote is not pornography, rather it sickens the reader at such an action. Compared to the Bible where Lot offers his daughters to strangers, it’s mild. I wondered why the prison authorities ignored the drug dealer and the other criminals

At the appeal, the discussion reviewed these facts, and then the acting warden said, “And, you know, you write a blog every week called Prison Uncensored.”

“Wait,” I said, “I hope that’s not part of this discussion, is it?”

The warden replied, “We want all our employees to portray a positive image of the prison.”

“Don’t I have a right to free speech?”

“We’ll let you know our decision by mail in a few days.”

Of course the decision was negative. There was a further appeal available at the national level, but my daughter helped me think this through.

She said, “Fight if your heart tells you to, but I’m glad.”


“Yes, I know you like teaching, but focus on teaching in the community and on your own writing. Forget people who do not appreciate you.

What is your opinion? Did I do wrong? Should I appeal further?