Archive for April, 2014

During the time I taught in prison, about ten men asked me to be their citizen representative at their parole hearing. I did it because nobody else would, but I wasn’t the right person. I didn’t have access to the files that the parole board had. I didn’t see the letters for and against an inmate.

What surprised me was how negative these hearings were. I never – repeat never – heard one positive thing about a man. And everyone I represented had tremendous talent. The parole hearing was not an adversarial discussion, like a trial. No one spoke for the inmate, except an uninformed citizen –me. The parole board members got a handsome per diem, the prison staff made a good salary. I didn’t make anything. If a man’s mother was in the audience, they might acknowledge her, but not give her a chance to speak.

One hearing stands out. My friend, call him Mike, asked me to speak for him. I’d worked a lot with Mike and I knew him well. I mentioned how he helped other inmates, he even stopped an attack on a neighbor. I told about his writing ability, about his plans for his release. He had everything going for him, family, friends, and the chaplain.

His social worker spoke up. “I do not recommend this man. The guards found a cell phone in his unit and I know he’s back in the drug trade.”

Mike spoke up. “The guards searched my unit in the prison and they found a cell phone in a sock. I just want to point out it wasn’t even my sock.”

Mike, of course, couldn’t say that the cell phone belonged to his roommate, but everyone in the hearing knew that. The roommate was the kind of man who didn’t own up to his own actions.

Another social worker came into the hearing. “I know this is unusual, but I must speak up about Mike. He is not in the drug trade. Yes, he did use the cell phone once to see how his buddy was doing in the hospital. But that’s it. He’s been clean and deserves parole.”

I admired her courage and her willingness to speak out, but Mike lost. The real owner of the cell phone got out a month later and Mike spent a year and a half more in prison, with a cost to the taxpayer of around $50,000.

No one, except the second social worker, spoke out for Mike. Of course, I did, too, but I was easy for the parole board to ignore. The parole hearing was a negative fest, everything that was bad about Mike was said and nothing of the good.

I wondered if his prison records were anything like this – all negative. When Mike was getting out of prison, he gave me his thick file to look at. It was amazing. Negative from day one. It seemed that comments repeated themselves. If someone made a comment when Mike was 15, it came up again when he was 19. And there was no mention of his personality, of his willingness to help other guys, of his sense of humor and so on.

Prison specializes in negativity. It’s time for reform.

Advertisements

Good news. The John Howard Society has granted three inmates portions of the Ed Griffin bursary. The money goes to educational institutions, not to the individuals.

  •  One man is working toward a college degree. He has a long sentence for a serious crime, but prison officials, teachers and the chaplain all agree that he’s a changed man.
  •  Education is a big part of his plan for reform, but the prison system doesn’t pay for any classes beyond grade twelve.
  •  The second man wants to take his first university course. He’s almost finished getting his Dogwood diploma (Highest high school diploma)
  •  The third man is working toward a PhD in education. He’s on parole now with another year to go before he’s finished his sentence. Working toward a doctorate in any subject is a challenge in a prison setting or in a parole setting.

I’m very happy that something I did has helped these three men. Where I have failed is in raising money. I sort of know what has to be done, but I haven’t done it. My job is to explain all this to the general public. To explain that education is the proven way out of crime. That the prison system only provides education up to and including grade twelve.

More than that, I have to put this in front of the public. We hear about heart problems, cancer, etc. etc. We’re asked to help children in the third world. But how can I help people see that education is the way out of crime? I have to try harder, to be bolder than I am now.

P.S. For an interesting view of private prisons in the States, http://blog.arrestrecords.com/infographic-privatization-of-the-us-prison-system/.

I received a letter from an inmate I know. He had this to say:

When visitors came to our prison, they found three washrooms that were provided for them. They could change a baby in one of them.

A few weeks ago we got a notice from the deputy warden:

“Access to the visitor washrooms which are located inside the Recreation Building will not long be available for use during Family Events. Any visitors requiring use of a washroom will be escorted to the Principle Entrance. Visitors with infant/toddler children will no long be permitted to change diapers of their children in the Recreation building. They will be escorted to the Principle Entrance. Visitors will be re-processed by the Principle Entrance Staff prior to being permitted back into the Gym area. “

So if a visitor wanted to use a washroom, they had to be escorted back to the principal entrance. After they were finished with the bathroom, they would be inspected again, their purse, their pockets etc. etc. For people with compromised bladders and for parents with a small baby who needs to be changed, these rules make a visit to see their inmate very difficult.

Family support is vital for an inmate. The prison system says they believe this and support it, but then they show by their actions that families are just a big pain.

All right, so somebody obviously broke a rule, perhaps brought in something illegal. Will every visitor from now on be punished for that infraction?

A small point – as a teacher of writing I would hold up the deputy warden’s memo as an example of how NOT to write. There are at least a dozen mistakes.

He sat on a low bench and waited for me every Friday morning. A big man, the strong and silent type, he was doing a four year bit. The other inmates were inside the room, laughing and having a good time. But Jon sat quietly. Outside the room was outside the building, and it was often cold. But Jon sat there, smoking and thinking. I often asked him what he was thinking about, but he never answered me.

My school principal was putting together a book called Prison Voices. He interviewed men and women from across Canada, but he wanted some strong selections from his own area, Vancouver. He pleaded with me to get some creative writing from my class.

“Hey, Jon, how about giving me some stuff for the book?”

“Not me, Ed, I ain’t no writer.”

“I think you’re playing with me, Jon. I know you can do it.”

“No, not me.”

“How about just a little something next week?”

“Okay, Ed. Just a little something.”

This is what he turned in the next week. It’s one of the strongest things I have ever read. It caused some consternation among the funding sources for the book, but the principal fought to keep it in the book. This is exactly the way he wrote it.

 

grape jelly

 

i’m through trying to emulate words

that have been coddled and sheltered from the world

by authors with silver egos and slicker tongues.

 

i want to swallow my pens and

vomit images upon the page;

to spank words

and send them red-bottomed from the room;

 

to forget the dry syntax,

the politically correct anal froth

that sounds more nazi than reform.

 

i want to abuse the english language

like finnigan’s wake did the irish;

like gutter quebecois did the french

 

i want words that smell sweet

as a half-naked thirty-something

in the back seat of a buick regal;

 

words that are wet with fear

smuggled in sweat soaked blue-jeans

torn at the knees after a hard nights thieving

 

words that suffocate in their cellophane wrappers

given away free in the candy stores of amerika,

breeding rebellion and inspiring the masses

of illiterate beggars who march through city streets

looking for scraps of food under padlocked dumpsters;

 

i want seventy-five dollar pens that write seventeen cent poems,

to be thrown away when the ink has bled dry.

 

i want words that offend;

words that rape priests

and send cheers through crowds of frightened children.

 

i want words that question;

words that linger in the backs of throats

like half-dissolved aspirin.

 

words that will duel anything ever written

at any time,

by anyone

and won’t even break a sweat.

 

i want words that run salivating tongues along warm panty lines

in the bedrooms of lovers entangled in wet sheets

strangled in skin and salty sweat;

 

that embrace lovers with indecision and guilt

as they make that horrifically long walk to the altar

or that longer stretch back home

to their waiting spouse’s tapping foot

and wounded-dog cries

 

words that sound like cherry bombs

exploding in a pranksters hand;

like gas shells over hamilton,

i want to be the fallout in my own city,

my country and preferably washington, dc.

 

i want words that betray liars

while i lie paralysed on the beaches of france

or the deserts of morocco

crippled by scotch and heroin

cursing the sand

plagued by the piercing pitches of demons i’ve loosed

upon the eardrums of the world

 

i want to be the laugh in the poetics of robbins,

the innocence of lerner’s switchblade;

bathe the black indifference of vonnegut jr

with a voice and insolence all my own…

 

i want my words to bleed grape jelly.

i want real emotion.

 

What do you think of this poem?

P.S. Watch for my most popular book, Once a Priest to be 99 cents next Sunday