Archive for May, 2014

Inmates should form a union.

Say that line and all manner of objections will arise. “Criminals should not say how they will live their punishment.” “This is a terrible idea – Guards and staff are in charge of the prison, not a bunch of illiterate scum bags.” On and on.

Stop a minute. Think of the idea. Recall the famous line: “Everything that rises, must converge.” It’s the title of the book Flannery O’Connor was working on when she died. But it has a philosophical meaning also – people or a group of people who rise up will converge or meet with the very people who opposed them. If a group of convicts struggle to change the rules they live under, they may or may not succeed. But they will learn what the staff, the guards, are like and they will come to respect them, even if they don’t agree with them.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Here’s an example. Inmates are now told what programs they need before they can move on to a lower security or even be paroled.

But it would be better if the inmates themselves had some say in what programs they were to take. A man might object to taking Anger Management because he’s had the program before and it didn’t help. Or he knows that his real problem is getting along with people who pretend to be better than him. Or – the most common reason – the inmates know that Anger Management is presented by a former mean guard who attended a three month training program on Anger Management, which didn’t do anything about his meanness.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Let’s say a group of prisoners gets together and forms a union around the idea that they should have some say in what programs they are to take. Nobody chooses Anger Management.

Staff gets very upset and cancels the idea that inmates should have a say. The inmates respond by not going to any programs. They stay in their cells.

Time goes on. Administration approaches an inmate who wants to get to minimum, another who wants a PFV (private family visit) with his girlfriend and so forth. If these inmates break the boycott, they’ll be granted their requests. But if management can spy on the union, the union can spy on management. The union finds out which inmates are going to become scabs.

By the next morning, the scabs are in no shape to want anything. No different than any other strike, scabs are dealt with severely.

Though I’m opposed to this violence, I know it will happen. But in the long run, everything that rises, must converge. Union and management slowly see the humanness of the other side. A compromise is reached – the inmates will be asked what programs they want and why before any assignments are made.

Everything that rises, must converge.

For years people said that miners should not have a union, that fast-food workers should not unionize, that teachers should not form a union. I look forward to the day people will talk about inmates having a union.

I started teaching in a Canadian prison in the early nineties. I met a few inmates who had been in the prison’s college program in the eighties. All of them were changed people, men and women. Maybe there were some failures, but I never met any. These people had studied literature and science and math, all the usual programs of a university degree. The instructors came from a near-by university, Simon Fraser University. I never saw the program in action, but I learned about it from the students and from comments made by administration.

  •             Sarah seemed to know who she was after taking the program. She was no longer a failure, a drug addict, but she was a proud woman who was ready to write and to teach at a high school level. While she was in college, she stayed in the prison’s infirmary in this all-male prison.
  •             Tom learned about the environment and after his release, he became an environmental employee for the government.
  •             I don’t know where Luke ended up, but I could tell by talking to him that he was finished with the life of crime.

Why did the administration kill the program? I got a lot of different answers from people:

  • Because the average family had to pay for university education for their children and these evil convicts were getting it for nothing.
  • Because a degree was too much for the average convict. Never mind literature or science, these guys needed a good welding program.
  • Because graduates of the program began to question everything in the prison and in fact the whole institution.

Parents know that a high school diploma is not enough in today’s world. Their children need a college education, even a master’s degree, to succeed. Yet the prison system stops at grade twelve. If a student wants more, he has to pay for it himself or herself.

This is why I started a bursary with the John Howard Society. This group helps inmates in prison and out of prison. They give a tax-receipt for donations. Inmates apply for the grant and if they succeed, the John Howard Society sends money not to the individual but to the institution. This year three inmates split twelve hundred dollars, rather their universities did.

The only fund-raiser for this project is me. I’m not very good at that, but I want it to succeed. I really do believe that education is the way out of crime. I’m going to change the way I sell my 7 books – 25% of the sales will go to this bursary. That’s a little more advertising and a little more money.

I’d appreciate any suggestions about how to advertise this bursary.

P.S.  “Harsh Justice: Comparing Prisons Around the World” would be a great fit for your blog. Here’s the link: http://www.criminaljusticedegreehub.com/worldprisons/.

P.S. #2 “How Big Is the Drug Trade?”, that I think falls right in line with theme of your blog. Here’s the link: http://www.top-criminal-justice-schools.net/drug-trade

They called him Doctor, not because he was a medical man, not because he had a Ph.D, but because he was so smart and such a great orator. We’ll simply call him Doctor X.

If the prison system needed an inmate to stand up and speak for all inmates, they called on Doctor X. He knew how to walk the middle, keeping the guys happy and the system happy. In my writing class, he stood out, producing poems and essays that won him awards.

While he was in my class, he got a new trial, calling up the many details that had led to his previous conviction.

I followed the case closely. He and another man met each other in Seattle, and they decided to visit some women in Vancouver. They hired a taxi in downtown Vancouver which took them to the girl’s address. Outside the apartment, the police later discovered the taxi driver murdered, shot in the head.

The justice system wanted the other man to come to Canada for the retrial. He refused. As the trial went on, it became clear to me that it was the other man who had killed the taxi-driver. He was a much bigger man than Doctor X, and had all the characteristics of those who commit murder. While Doctor X had gone on with his studies and his efforts to help his fellow inmates, the other man ran into constant trouble with the law. His very refusal to come to the retrial indicated to me his guilt. This was the old story of not telling on another man, even if it meant your own imprisonment.

No matter who did it, the taxi drivers in our city wanted a conviction, so once again, Doctor X was found guilty.

After his release, he married a local woman, and they had three wonderful children. They worked hard to raise them as good citizens. When Doctor X finished his sentence and parole, he was shipped back to the United States. Without telling his employer of his past, he got an excellent job back East, which he held for almost ten years. He proved his ability in a very responsible job but then, as always seems to happen, somebody found out about his past and told his superiors. They fired him immediately. Many of his friends objected to this, but I knew it was inevitable. It’s a real problem for an ex-con: tell the truth and not get a good job, or don’t tell the truth and get caught years later.

I haven’t heard yet how Doctor X is supporting his family now.

An inmate should not protect another person, even if he fears for his life from that person. Being accused unjustly of murder seems to me to be a living death.

Another point is to tell the truth when you get a job. There are people who will hire you, if you show that you are stronger than what’s been said about you. Yes, many people will automatically refuse you, but it’s much worse to devote ten years of your life to a company and then be fired in one day.

How do we help ex-cons get a job? Many of them want to prove themselves. They want out of the life of crime. I’ve often thought of a company called EX-CONS, a bonded company, construction, cleaning, what have you. Any ideas?

A few years ago, when I taught in prison, I came home one time and wrote down my feelings. I’m not sure my ideas of how to deal with crows are correct. What do you think?

Crows

by Ed Griffin

800 words

I teach a course in creative writing at Matsqui prison. Week after week I drive forty-five minutes into the country to the prison. As I walk to the gate, I notice several crows flying back and forth across the two, razor-wired fences. The crows screech at me as they perch on the fences. What are they trying to tell me? Then suddenly they fly deeper into the prison grounds.

I go into the guard house and chat with the guards. Most of them are good human beings and we talk about the weather or we laugh at my cheap briefcase which I have to pound so it will open for inspection. Occasionally I meet someone with an attitude, but mostly they’re just ordinary people. They’re not eagles or hummingbirds or blue-jays. They’re just crows, like the rest of us, ordinary birds trying to live.

I can’t understand why the men in prison hate them so.

As I wait for the big gates to slide open, the crows fly over my head and scream at me again. I think how strange it is that we call a pack of crows a murder of crows. Why are they flying back and forth? Maybe there’s a murder of crows living in the prison and one outside and they’re just changing shifts.

I go into my class. Jack and Brian and Dennis and….. Not their real names, but just ordinary guys. Guys trying to write. Trying to figure out their lives with pen and paper and keyboard. Jack was beat up regularly by his father, so he figured violence was the way you dealt with society. Now he’s writing about his early years — and his father. Brian, 32, the article writer, sees a lot wrong with the world and especially a lot wrong with his world. He’s trying to write down his anger instead of acting it out. And Dennis, 41, is finding an outlet for his creative energy in fiction rather than in a line of cocaine.

They’re not representative of society as a whole. With few exceptions, they’re poor people. People without resources. A disproportionate number of minorities and natives. They, too, remind me of crows, not eagles or hummingbirds or blue-jays. Crows.

I teach my class. We have a lot of laughs. Occasionally I meet a con with an attitude, but mostly they’re just writers. I can’t understand why the guards hate them so.

Maybe writers are different from the general prison population. But I care about these guys. I read in the paper every day how we should lock these guys up and throw the key away or we should just hang them all. No, not Jack and Brian and Dennis. Don’t.

I finish my class and I walk to the gate to leave. What have I accomplished? A Band-Aid. I haven’t solved the problem of crime. I haven’t faced the agony of a woman who’s lost her daughter to rape and murder. I haven’t broken the cycle of abuse to kids who later turn to abuse. I’ve gone to prison and passed out Band-Aids. It’s very frustrating.

When I go home, my friends will ask me about prison. “It’s a big warehouse,” I’ll say. “What kind of society puts a human being in a cage?” Then my friends will demand my alternatives. I won’t be able to say anything.

The crows laugh at me as the gate slides open. They’re so loud and obnoxious. Caw. Caw. He doesn’t have any answers.

I get back in my car and drive to the city. Questions peck at me. Why do we try to solve crime out in the country, instead of where it happened? Why is Canada locking up more and more people, yet crime seems worse? Why did the government cut funds to educate prisoners? Why are all the criminology books in the library clean and unread, while the public rants on? Why does society give these guys three squares a day and not demand they change their souls?

I’m going mad with questions. I jam a tape in the player, something soothing. Simon and Garfunkle. On the side of the freeway a murder of crows works a farmer’s field for some left-over corn.

I go home and check my bird book on crows. Very intelligent, gregarious. Crows gather together to mob owls and other predators, but may, in turn, be mobbed by other birds. In agricultural areas, crows are considered great pests.

The crows fly back and forth over the prison walls If the crows inside the fences are just like the crows outside the fences, what is to be done with those inside? Put them all in cages? Kill them? No. What do you do about crows? You study them, you learn how to help them, and you put up scarecrows where you have to.

 

Be sure to visit Writers Write Daily on WordPress for a 99 cents deal on my new books, Life Takes a Turn and Delaney’s Hope

Check out an interesting graphic, the Criminal States of America

http://www.criminaljusticedegreehub.com/states/