Posts Tagged ‘identity’

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

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 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

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

prisonCall him Alexander. He came from a non-English speaking country and met some Canadian guys in a bar. They sort of adopted him and when they did crime, they blamed a lot of it on him. A fellow teacher told me that Alexander’s problem was not crime, but English. The fellow teacher said he didn’t know what the crime was, but he suspected Alexander didn’t have a big part. But he got a big part of the sentence.

Alexander came to my class to improve his English writing skills. He and I hit it off right away. He had this subtle sense of humor  — he would say something and an hour later it would hit me. And he was a fast learner, his writing advanced from “See Spot run” to good English sentences.

psychiatristThe prison system determined that Alexander had mental problems. They strongly suggested that he agree to be moved to the Regional Psychiatric Centre where they could help him.  I didn’t say anything, but I suspect he picked up my attitude. I knew a person who was a psychiatrist in one of our prisons. This person had very little control over their own person and life. If anyone needed help, that psychiatrist did. I’m not saying all prison psychiatric staff are like that, but the prison system does hire people who can’t get jobs elsewhere.

“I’m going to the Psych Centre next week,” Alexander said.

He looked at me and I know we had a conversation without either of us saying a word.

He finally shrugged his shoulders and said, “What are you gonna do?”

He spent a year in the Psychiatric Centre and he wrote to me often. His letters were a real joy prison shrinkto read. Everything was fine on the surface, but below it all, the message was something like I have to be nuts enough for them to feel they’re helping me, but sane enough so I can get out of here.

Today Alexander is out, in a loving relationship and works very hard in a full time job. He and I meet for coffee and we have spoken and unspoken conversations. I know that for Alexander, prison worked. It was so terrible, he’d never want to go back. Especially the part about psychiatric staff helping him.

Images courtesy of:

  • attorneybusinesscard.net
  • safecom.org.au

You are Somebody

Prison works to destroy a man or woman’s self esteem. Few prison programs do anything to resolve this problem. At least twice a year, I took time out to remind the men that, “You are somebody.”

Check out this interview with Ed Griffin about his inspiration for  “You are Somebody”