Posts Tagged ‘Crime Schools’

One day when I was working at Surrey Pretrial, six Chinese women came down to class. Normally we worked with people on getting their GED, but these women did not know a word of English. My colleague and I guessed that these women had been abandoned by their coyote. The coyote was a person or persons who promised the women “a good life in Canada,” by bringing them here, probably as prostitutes.

We guessed that the women were in their late teens or early twenties. They laughed among themselves and it was hard to see any of them as criminals. We guessed they were the innocent victims of crime.

Since we didn’t know what was ahead for these women (and nobody bothered to tell us) we taught them as many legal terms as we could, lawyer, represent, appeal and so forth.

The women worked hard on any assignment we gave them, but they still continued to have fun together.

They came to us suddenly and left just as suddenly, that is all but one of them. This last woman had no one to talk to. When she came down to class, she cried the whole time she was there. We wrote to our superiors and explained that this woman had no one to talk to. We didn’t know why she was kept behind, but it almost seemed like solitary confinement for her.

Lawyers kept information from us, higher ups kept information from ordinary workers and everyone kept information from the general public. What a strange world.

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.

I am interested in prison reform. This is a direct result of teaching writing in prison for twenty years. It’s an indirect result of my education and service as a Roman Catholic priest for five and a half years. I heard the message of the gospel that we were to care for the “least of the brethren.” In my opinion, there wasn’t anybody more least in our society than a federal inmate.

I left the priesthood a few years after marching in Selma with Doctor Martin Luther King. That’s another story, relayed in my non-fiction book, Once A Priest.

I’ve written a lot about prison reform. My first novel, Prisoners of the Williwaw, is a story about Frank Villa, who convinces the US Government to put 300 hardened convicts on an island with their families and let them rule themselves. The federal government has finally realized that they can’t keep paying for prisons. Right now it costs $100 a day to keep a man in prison. So they let Frank Villa have an abandoned Naval base on the island of Adak in the Aleutians. No guards will be on the island, but the US Coast Guard will patrol the waters around Adak, and they will shoot to kill.

Half way to Russia and caught between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, it rains and snows 85% of the time on Adak. In addition, a fierce wind called a Williwaw builds up behind the mountains and smashes down on houses, equipment and even children. In World War II, the weather killed more soldiers than the enemy did.

Frank also faces a convict who plans to use this situation to his own advantage. He knows that each convict leaves prison with $200. He’s eager to help them spend it.

Can convicts rule themselves? This is an issue the novel looks into.

My second book about prison is non-fiction. It’s called Dystopia. An inmate in my writing class joined me in telling the story of prison. We each wrote our stories, not in lesson form, but by relaying the stories of the men we met there.

I told why I came to teach in prison, despite my wife’s worry. Then I started with my first scary day and told about all the people I met in my class.

One of the most amazing people I met was Mike Oulton. He’d been arrested in Mexico for trying to smuggle cocaine into the United States. His sentence was ten years, two of which he spent in a Mexican prison and eight of which he spent in a Canadian prison. Mike also tells stories of the men and the staff he met in all those years, and he hints at which prison system he liked better. Mike’s been out now for seven years and he’s doing well. He works as an MC and as a master of ceremonies for weddings. This is right in line with Mike’s whole life, but now he’s found legitimate ways to express his exuberant personality.

The third book about prison reform is my latest novel, Delaney’s Hope. Delaney is a prison official who put his feet up for twenty years. He tried at the beginning to make changes, but his superiors stepped on him, and so, he did nothing. But then his missionary brother died for standing up to the oil people who wanted to take his parishioners’ land. Delaney feels guilty about wasting all those years, and he tries to repent by setting up a prison that really works. He convinces the government to let him use an abandoned minimum security prison in Wisconsin.

At the beginning he will only have five prisoners and three staff, counting himself. The criminal history of each inmate is given, as well as a picture of the staff.

Delaney tries to break down the ‘us and them’ that exist in every prison. He tries to show the inmates that we are all weak human beings and no one, including the staff, is perfect.

His inmates include a drug smuggler who tries to sabotage everything Delaney tries to do. Another man killed his wife in front of their son. A third inmate ran a commercial greenhouse and cheated on the rules. That might have been okay, but then he knocked an old man out of tree, a neighbor who opposed his plans. The old man died. A sheriff who wanted this land to build a big maximum security prison convinced a sex offender to come to the prison, where he presented Delaney with a lot of problems.

Another thing Delaney tries to deal with is the sexism of prisons. Yes, what we now mean by a male prison is not a place for women, but Delaney points out that almost all of society is mixed male and female. If he can create a calm atmosphere, there is no reason why male and female inmates can’t be integrated at least as far as programs are concerned.

The prison starts and Delaney faces problem after problem after problem. Will it work? Can a prison work that’s not like what we have today?

Prison reform is not a popular subject, but we need to face it. When we hear that California spends more money on prisons than it does on education, we begin to ask questions. When we hear that the United States is one of the countries with the most prisoners, it’s time to look at prison reform. And Canada now with its conservative government tries to win votes on the backs of inmates. Right-minded people do not agree.

I hope my two novels and one non-fiction book about prison reform will have an impact. When I started to write, I promised myself I would never bore the reader; I would show, not tell; I would not let one word of opinion enter the story. I hope I have succeeded.

What can we do to bring prison reform to the top of the government’s agenda?

Each of my students in prison affected me in a certain way. I called one man, My Mirror Image.

Davi was about my age, 58 back then. We were similar in artificial ways, about the same weight, the same height etc. But one day he mentioned a word that caught my attention, “Selma.”  He too had been in Selma, marching for the rights of black Americans.

I was a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, he was an American who had entered Canada in a very wrong way. The FBI and the drug squad were literally on his heels, so he took over a rural border crossing with a gun.

As we talked, we discovered that we shared a lot of beliefs, from picketing for the grape boycott to what America should look like.

There were also many differences between us. I went home at night and he didn’t. He was raised by a series of foster homes and I was raised by a loving Irish Catholic family. I did not believe in violence and apparently he did. But the more I talked to him, I knew he could change. It would take time and long discussions about change and freedom and respect. I also knew that nothing in prison was going to help him.

He was an excellent poet, who could put so much in a few lines of poetry, ideas that would take me an essay each to convey.

Canada turned him over to the US, who offered him a deal – give them a list of all his drug connections and he’d get a lighter sentence. He refused and he’s now in his seventies in a federal prison in Oregon. If he’s anything like me in his seventies, doing crime does not seem like a good idea. The cops are not his enemies anymore, type 2 diabetes is.

Crime is individual and prison should be also.

What is your opinion? Should he have given the authorities a list of his drug connections? Could a prison help him?

One of my former students from prison sent me this:

A true story – a lifer in one of the Kingston area camps feeds the squirrels.  He was called into the IPSO’s office (prison police) and an explanation was demanded.  He was accused of, “Training the squirrels to run under the fence and bring back packages of drugs.”squirrel
This is now a part of his official record.  So, the next time he goes for a Parole hearing, he may be interrogated about his new “Organized Crime Syndicate.”

These paranoid prison staffers have grave psychological issues.

That story needs no comment from me.

VB Cover“Our prisons aren’t working,” says Surrey author Ed Griffin. “They’re crime schools and warehouses for people. The prison industrial complex doesn’t want to see any reduction in them.”

In his latest novel, Delaney’s Hope, Griffin writes about a prison official who regrets his years of collecting a good salary from the system, but helping few. He convinces the American government to let him set up an experimental prison, where inmates do not get out when their time is up – they get out when they don’t do crime anymore.

This explosive book was banned in prison because prison authorities found it challenged the current system and portrayed too well the criminality of a sex offender.

Fellow writer Robert W. Mackay says: Ed Griffin, educator and author, has written a terrific book. Delaney’s Hope is a novel, telling the story of a handful of inmates and a prison reformer who challenges the system. Protagonist Delaney, in that sense, reflects Griffin’s own battle to bring reason and a pragmatic approach to incarceration. For reasons that elude this reviewer, the book has been banned by a prison bureaucracy. Their loss is the reader’s gain. Highly recommended.

The E-book is available now on Amazon for $2.99:

B00GFGEBMG/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1384110394&sr=8-3&keywords=Delaney%27s+Hope

I have printed copies($15.00) and shortly Chapters in Surrey will carry them.

 

Music often tells us about our world. Witness two songs from our era:

San Quentin, by Johnny Cash. A few significant lines from the song are:

San Quentin, I hate every inch of you…

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell

May all the world regret you did no good

And the Prison Trilogy Lyrics from Joan Baez:

And we’re gonna raze, raze the prisons
To the ground
Help us raze, raze the prisons
To the ground

I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer. How about you?