Posts Tagged ‘Human Rights’

Another example of the prison system’s inability to stand up for what is right involves sterile needles used for tattoos.

Prisoners use all manner of tools to do tattoos, none of them sterile. The result of this was infection with hepatitis and/or other diseases. The prison staff knew that in the long run sterile needles would lead to big savings of money and lives. So they allowed the men to set up sort of a tattoo parlor in the basement of Matsqui prison. The needles used were sterile and nobody got sick.

Someone in the community got the word that those convicts were getting free tattoos in the basement of Matsqui prison.

As they always seem to do, the prison staff caved in. The tattoo parlor was closed. Apparently it didn’t matter if men got Hepatitis A, B, or C. What was important was the image of the prison.

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Dennis Haines has written articles for us in the past.

I’m back with my continuing adventures in the real world. The irony is that I have noticed that “real world squares” are not that much different from cons in the joint in some ways. In the month and a half that I have been out I have been observing people and how much the same we are. And to think that I used to feel like I didn’t fit in with normal people and now I find out that we aren’t that different after all.

Case in point, I take the same bus to work every day Monday to Friday at roughly 6:30 am and there are a group of regulars who are taking the same bus. I find that I always sit in the same spot and that everyone else tries to as well. The funny part is that if someone is sitting in someone else’s regular spot, you can actually see the annoyance on their faces at the interruption in their routine. It brings me to mind of people’s spots in the dining room in the institution, except it doesn’t end in violence.

That’s not the only place I notice the same type of behavior. In the lunch room where I work everyone has staked a claim to their chairs and although I don’t believe they would get violent over it, they will tell you if you are sitting in their spot.

So what I’m getting at is that I find it strangely comforting that regular people exhibit the same behaviors that I’m used to from the institutions. I was concerned with my level of institutionalization, but I’m finding that observing the world and putting it in perspective is really helping me along. As people we are all the same, and we all have our little comfort zones. Sometimes these zones are challenged, but it’s our reactions that set us apart.

I write these types of thoughts as a little bit of therapy for myself but also in the hope that maybe someone else who is just getting out will read them as well and maybe be comforted. I hope that I can send a message of hope to someone else who just got out and may or may not be struggling. I hope to let them know that every day out in the community is an adventure just waiting to be undertaken. For me it’s my time to take life by the horns and live it in the best way I can and, if I’m lucky, I can help someone else out along the way.

Dennis Haines has told me specifically that he wants his name and email revealed. He would appreciate any comments you have. You can send them directly to him if you want. dhaines429@gmail.com

People in our society often talk about a positive self-image. They say this is most important for mental health. In prison, however, everything militates against a positive self-identity, and I mean everything. Twice a year I dedicated a portion of every class to read  this essay out loud. Sadly, I’m no longer allowed in prison to do that. The essay:

You are Somebody

Let’s get something straight: You are somebody.

Everything in your present life militates against you believing that you are somebody. From the moment of your arrest to the moment of your final release, the system tells you that you are less than a human being.

You hands are cuffed and you are put in a cage to ride to the police station. You will overhear officers referring to you as ‘scum bag,’ ‘ass hole’ and worse. Your possessions and your clothes will be taken from you and you will be given a number. From now on the passive voice will be used to refer to you. You will no longer initiate action on your own. “He was arrested, he was sentenced, he was moved, he was given prison clothes.”

You are given an institutional personage and clothing to match. You are told the rules. You must comply. You must fit in. You must become an institutional man. Your daily schedule will be determined by the authorities, when you eat, when you sleep, even when you piss.

Slowly you lose your identity, the things that make you an individual. You become a case, someone to be treated by prison social workers and shrinks. You will be defined as a sociopath. You’re sick. You will be told to be caring in an institution that doesn’t care for you. You will be taught alternatives to violence by people who have used high levels of violence to keep you there. You will learn a new rule, that your keepers are always right and you are always wrong. You will be expected to bottle up all your normal sexual desires. Most likely your wife will divorce you and your kids will disown you. The quicker you lose your identity and become a slave of the state, the sooner you will get out of prison.

Whenever I go into prison to teach my class, I hear the public address system call for Inmate Jones to go to the infirmary, or Inmate Smith to report to the social worker. In what other institution are people referred to like that? Do we say Student Jones or Patient Jones?

You read the report the caseworker does on you. You don’t even recognize the person on the paper. He’s some evil dude. He’s not you. But the report stays there and the same old tired things keep being said about you, as if there were no hope for change.

Study the walls around you. Put your hand on them. What do they tell you about who you are? You are an animal that must be caged.

No doubt you will be raped. Many inmates are. You will lose this last bit of control over your body.

Study your function in society. You exist so I will feel better about me. Let’s say I have a real nothing of a job. My boss yells at me, my wife and my kids don’t respect me, but one thing I can say – I’m better than those bums in prison.

And you are entertainment. We get to hear the racy details of your crime every night on the TV and then we see you pleading with the judge and then – what a show – you are dragged off to prison. We feel safe knowing that you’re locked up. Alleluia. Evil is in jail.

Television programs like Oz contribute to the negative image of prisoners. You are portrayed as animals who have no morals. These programs like to say ‘they tell it like it is.’ But that’s exactly what they don’t do. They show only the evil side of people and seldom the good.

Prison, which is supposed to make you into a new and better person, has destroyed you. Perhaps Oscar Wilde says it best:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds

Bloom well in prison air:

It is only what is good in man

That wastes and withers there[1]

I call for a revolution and this revolution starts in the human heart. Make no mistake, all change starts in the human heart. Don’t say, “They should do this or they should do that to reform the system.” Don’t say, “It’s the system or the warden or the guards.” It’s you. You have to re-educate yourself.

You are somebody, to quote Jesse Jackson. Let’s look at it from several angles. Who are you? It sounds corny, but maybe you should sit down and write one affirming sentence about yourself every day, e.g. I am somebody.

From an evolutionary point of view, you are another example of the greatest thing going. You are a human being. You are the results of thousands of years of evolution. You have a fantastically complex brain. Given half a chance, you can master complex sciences or paint a new Mona Lisa or write a great novel.

Say it to yourself: I am somebody. Write it on a piece of paper: I am somebody.

People love you. You are an object of love. People care what happens to you. You ARE lovable. You have certain characteristics that are great, things we all strive for. Make a list of those characteristics. Really. Sit down and write out your good points. Your list should have at least 25 items on it. While some may laugh at this technique as self-help inanity, I believe it is necessary, because the prison system has so thoroughly brainwashed convicts the other way.

I am able to think my way through problems

I have a good sense of humor. People laugh at my jokes.

I have loved a woman. Love is always a good thing.

I am interested in …. Being interested in something is great.

And so forth

Read the universal declaration of human rights from the UN. Read each article carefully and then rewrite the article putting your own name in the article. Here are a few of the articles:

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Write: I am a human being. I was born free. I am equal to all others in dignity and rights. I have been endowed with reason and conscience. I should act towards others in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Write: I have the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Write: I should not be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Article 20.

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Write: I have a right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Every organized system of belief teaches that you are special. Christianity says that God sent his only son to save you, you the filthy criminal that people said should rot in hell. Jesus said that what people did to the least of the brethren, they did to him. In the view of our society there is nobody more least than you.

Protestants, Catholics and Jews believe that human beings are children of God. God is our loving father/mother. All people are brothers and sisters. My own discipline, the Catholic Church, says that insults to human dignity “… poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.”[2]

Respect for human dignity is at the core of Christianity. Read the Gospel and the Epistles of John.

You were made in the image and likeness of God. Stand up and stand up tall. Did you get that? The image and likeness of God? You, prisoner number 108392.

Of course our society doesn’t believe this. If we did, we wouldn’t treat prisoners the way we do. But as they say, Christianity is a great religion, except that it’s never really been tried.

Islam says that Allah created all that is on Earth and in the Heavens for man. Man sits high above all. For his sake Allah sent prophets and messengers, preachers, carriers of glad tidings to lead people to the truth. Allah says: “Indeed, We have honored the children of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favors, above a great part of Our Creation.” (Al-Isra’ 17:70)

Eastern religions talk about the spark of divinity in all of us. Do you really believe that there is a spark of divinity in you? Call God the Great Spirit or Yahweh or Allah or God, there is a spark of him/her in each of us.

Those who construct systems of philosophy all respect human dignity, from Aristotle to Teilhard de Chardin. Just one example would be Wilhelm von Humboldt who had the deepest respect for human nature and who believed that freedom was the proper environment for this human dignity.

Michel Foucault, the French social critic, has interesting observations on the nature of those in prison. He begins his ideas on prison by wondering why prisons are still around, since they are clearly so unsuccessful at preventing crime. “But perhaps one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison.”[3]

Foucault claims that the ruling class uses criminality as a way of preventing revolution. His theory is that the dynamic groups of the lower social class are the ones who commit crimes. The establishment fears these people – they are willing to break the rules. The power elites then brand these people and continue to brand them even after they have finished their sentences. The law-breakers become outcasts and therefore powerless. “..prison has succeeded extremely well…in producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal, but in fact centrally supervised milieu. (Prison has succeeded extremely well)… in producing the delinquent as a pathologized subject.[4]

Up close a particular prisoner might seem to be anything but a dynamic member of society, but stepping back, one sees the point of Foucault’s observations.

Victim talk must cease. You are not a victim. You are a proud man, competent, together. You’re in control of your life. You can do things. In the past things beyond your control may have happened to you, but that’s all over. You’re in charge now.

When you realize that you are somebody, that your life is important, that you have work to do while you are in prison, then drugs become less of a problem. Drugs are a way to pass time in prison. Drugs are a response to a terrible existence. Yes, addiction is one hell of a thing to get over, but you can do it. You are somebody.

With the realization that you are somebody, comes the responsibility of being somebody. Prison officials talk about responsibility only in terms of what you have done in the past. Yes, we are all responsible for our past and we have to do what we can to make amends. But often we are very limited in what we can actually do.

It seems to me that the big responsibility is to yourself and to those around you. As to yourself, use your time in prison to develop yourself, your education, your artistic ability, your ability to earn a living. (Here prisons fail you miserably. They won’t pay for good education for you and they train you for jobs that are already out of date.)

We are all responsible for those around us. No one exists in a vacuum. We influence the men around us and they influence us. You are responsible, like it or not, for men you may consider scum-bags. And even harder news is that you are responsible for the guards and the administration. Like it or not, you are where you are and you are part of the system you are in. Make no mistake – you will be no different when you are free. You don’t give a damn now about those around you – you won’t in the future either. So don’t get mad when the report on you uses the word, anti-social.

Prison is a horror movie. Zombies walk from morning work to count and then to lunch and from lunch to afternoon work and then to count. A human being walks the cement corridors. His head is down, his back bent, his spirit lifeless. He moves not with purpose, but to fill time. He’s doing time. He’s being stored in a human-being warehouse. No, it’s worse than that, his soul is being ripped out of him. He’s in dystopia, the opposite of utopia. He’s a modern day Frankenstein, awaiting the jolting message that he is someone.

You are someone. You are someone. You are someone.

[1] Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, pt 5, st 5

[2] Vatican II, The Church and the Modern World, #27

[3] Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Foucault, Michel, New York: Random House, 1979, page 272.

[4] Ibid, page 277

A convict faces several critical times, arrest, first time in jail, sentencing, first time in a penitentiary, parole hearings and release. I think this last is the worst. When I worked at Surrey PreTrial, I had the men and women write out what they were going to do on their first day out of jail. I asked them to be as specific as possible, i.e. who was going to pick them up from jail, which bus were they going to take to where, and what were they going to eat on their first meal out and with whom.

I think release back into the community is the hardest time of all. The man has no money and several good ways of getting some money occur to him. I worked with two very creative men in prison. When he got out, Mike decided he was finished with the crime game. However, several enticing, money-raising opportunities came to him. He turned them down and faced poverty. The other man, call him Roger, was used to the good life before his sentence. When he got out, he couldn’t see himself living below the poverty line. He went back into the drug game, not using drugs, but selling them.

One sad night in Vancouver, a rival gang discovered that he was throwing a big party to honor his engagement. Somebody reported the location to the rival gang and they showed up at the party, guns blazing. Roger died that night. What if someone had put him on the right path? I tried, but failed. What if the prison system sent him out the door, with a promise of money if he fulfilled certain conditions?

The parole system makes a convict visit their parole officer at least once a week. My experience of trying to work with parole officers was pretty negative. One felt that only he could help the inmate, so he shared no information with me. The other threatened Mike that he would be sent back to prison the first time he did anything wrong. This parole officer assumed everything Mike did was about selling drugs.

The John Howard Society (http://www.johnhoward.ca/about/) tries to help men at this critical point.

Some good news from a man who’s written for this blog several times.

It wasn’t so very long ago that I found myself sitting outside of the federal institution that I had just spent some quality time in.

Sitting out there waiting for my ride to come and drive me to the halfway house I had some time to reflect on the journey that had brought me to the bench just outside the prison on a sunny Monday morning in June. The bench was reminiscent of a bus stop and I was sitting there waiting for a ride because I didn’t want an escort from my former keepers and instead asked a community volunteer to give me a ride.

The view from outside was actually kind of weird, probably due to the nine years that I had spent inside of various provincial and federal institutions as part of my journey to that bench. I had the vague sense of foreboding, like the rover truck would come speeding up and stormtroopers from inside would come streaming out of the gate saying that the parole board had made a mistake and that I would be returning to my cell.

Since I had received the decision on Thursday of the week before I still didn’t really believe that it was going to happen. Seriously, why would they let me walk out the door.

What got me to that place in the sun was a lot of hard work and a final willingness to accept that I needed to do something different. I had spent years railing against the system to no avail and, in the end, it was my reaching out to community volunteers and asking for help that paved the road to happy destiny for me.

For me it was interacting with many volunteers that made me feel like I could be part of the community and for that I will be eternally grateful. It was also the hard work of an IPO (institutional parole officer) that made it all possible for me to be liberated from the confines of my surroundings.

I’m not saying that the system is perfect, it most definitely is not (especially under the conservative government), but I now understand that rehabilitation is an individual thing and that prisoners need to take responsibility for their past and for their future.

It would, of course, be easier if there were opportunities for vocational programming and if the CSC(the prison administration) or community parole took some initiative and worked with employers in the community to find employment opportunities for those who were honestly doing the work to better themselves.

The CSC has become more punitive in nature in recent years and as a result there is more resentment building up inside the institutions. I’m not looking for some utopian vision of the prison system, just something that would be more progressive for those who are looking to make a change and, perhaps, don’t know where to start or who to turn to.

All I can say is that I finally figured it out and if I can figure it out and get parole with my record maybe there is hope for our flawed system after all.

 

I’m honored to have one of my books banned, Delaney’s Hope. I join a prestigious group of people who have had their books banned. The Grapes of Wrath, Green Eggs and Ham, Brave New World, Lolita, etc. See the whole list here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_books_banned_by_governments

Two days after I taught a class in prison, I received a call from the prison authorities. “You’re out. Turn in your badge,” the deputy warden said in her harshest of tones. “Your book tells of the rape and murder of a young woman.”

Yes, it does, but nowhere does it approve of such an action. I pointed that out to the friendly deputy warden, but she wasn’t impressed. So I said, “I appeal this decision.”

At the appeal hearing, the acting warden quickly moved away from the initial complaint and said that I brought in things without clearing them with the administration. Yes, I did that, as any good teacher would, bring in materials that would help students understand. In this case I only gave it to one man to teach him how to edit someone else’s work.

The hearing continued and then the acting warden said, “Now about this blog you write every week, Prison Uncensored. You are often critical of the prison.”

“Warden,” I said, “I can’t believe this is part of our discussion today.”

“We expect our employees and volunteers to say positive things about the prison and the administration. You’re banned from entering any federal prison from now on. You can appeal this decision to Ottawa if you want.”

Despite my twenty years of volunteering to teach writing in prison, I was out. I knew Ottawa would back up their local man. My daughter said, “They don’t pay you, they don’t honor you, so just get out.”

A further comment is that Delaney’s Hope is  a warden who set up a prison that really worked i.e. it changed people.  I don’t editorialize in the book, but an existing warden might not like what he or she read.

So, I’m out, but my blog continues. Prison Uncensored Blog https://prisonuncensored.wordpress.com/. The back of Delaney’s Hope says the book was banned in prison.

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.