Posts Tagged ‘Us and Them’

The theory is that prison will teach a man (or woman) how to live in society. It doesn’t work. It’s the farthest thing from what actually happens.

The man gets up at a certain time, marches to the mess hall, and sits with the same three fellows he’s sat with for years. Never does a staff member ask if he could join them. This is an Us and Them world.

The day goes on, the man can only move from one place to another at specified times. He used to have freedom of movement during a good portion of the day, but no more. The staff discovered that it’s easier on them if they put in a military type regime.

This is training to live on the outside?

Then there are programs to take, Cog Skills, Anger Management etc. It doesn’t matter so much whether a man needs a program, the important thing is to keep the classes full. The man has no say in what programs he would like to take. This, of course, guarantees that poor teachers can retain their jobs.

Programs are made conditions of parole. I had a learning experience in this area. I had worked with an inmate for seven years. I knew him thoroughly – he was ready for freedom or at least for a halfway house. I was asked to be interviewed about this man and I agreed. The interviewer was a private individual who prepared reports on inmates. He and I had good conversations, but as we talked, I began to realize that no matter what I said this man was going to report that the inmate wasn’t ready yet. I further suspected that this is what the man always said – this is why the prison system kept him around – he kept filling the prisons, guaranteeing further work for the staff.

“There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out and there would be no more criminals than now. They are a blot upon any civilization.”

Clarence Darrow, 1857-1938

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.

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?

“We will decide what programs you need. Take the programs, work at them, and you will get out sooner.”  (Case Worker).

“Don’t become friends with these inmates. Don’t talk about your personal life. Besides they will use that information to threaten you or hurt you. If they reach out to you, tell them to see the shrink. (Supervisor of programs)

“Theatre, no, we can’t do that here. It’s not therapeutic. Music, painting, and writing, the same. We’re here to do some serious rehab work on you.” (Program facilitator.)

“Your day will be regulated here. Everything is on the clock. We’re preparing you for life on the outside.” (Top director of guards.)

“Do what you’re told. Respect the staff. They’re trying to help you. Don’t talk back, you will just be reported.” (Assistant warden)

  •  Is this an atmosphere for rehabilitation?

Any writer worth their salt has a beta reader, a knowledgeable writVB Coverer who will give an honest critique. Here’s what mine said.

“I like it, Ed. I really got into the heads of some of these criminals, but who’s this Delaney?”

“What?” I replied. “He’s the hero of the novel.”

“Look,” the reader said, “you start with the day the prison opens and then you jump right into the stories of your criminals. I liked those stories, one after the other, but I never got to know Delaney.”

I was upset. I had a clear picture of Delaney in my head, the guy who pulled this new prison idea off. Why couldn’t my reader see it?

But as I calmed down, I thought about his comment. I did begin with what is now chapter five, Opening Day. Right away I portrayed the criminals one after the other, but there really was no explanation of Delaney.

So I started over. How did Delaney come up with this idea? What was the key event that put him on the path of making a change? How did people take to his idea?

I wrote the first four chapters and then added a lot more about Delaney as the story went on.

I believe with Delaney that there are a lot better ideas for prison than what we have now.

The E-book version of Delaney’s Hope is available for $2.99 at B00GFGEBMG/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1384110394&sr=8-3&keywords=Delaney%27s+Hope

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:


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


I have a subscription to a great little magazine that comes four times a year. It’s Out of Bounds, prison magazine. It comes from William Head minimum security prison on Vancouver Island.

Prison cartoons sprinkle the current issue, as well as workout suggestions, poetry, articles about things in the news, and comments about prison management. The magazine seems free of management supervision, as that other famous prison magazine, the Angolite, from Louisiana’s prison in Angola.

This issue of Out of Bounds has an article about the Ashley Smith Inquest, an article on prison culture, legal news, fiction and poetry. The staff welcomes contributions from inmates and outsiders no matter where they live.

It costs $18.00 for one year and $32.00 for two years. Write to:

Out of Bounds Magazine

6000 William Head Rd.

Victoria, BC

V9C 0B5


On another issue, Amiya Fernando sent me a link to her page.

Wouldn’t it be great to have information about prison presented in a similar fashion?


For four years I worked every week in a remand center, a place where men and women waited for trial. Sometimes called PreTrial or Remand or simply jail, it’s always maximum security.

I remember my first day there.

Every door – I mean every door – in PreTrial was opened by someone in a control room on the first floor. To get to the library from the entrance, I had to stop at three doors, press a button, wait for a response, state who I was and then wait for the door to buzz open.

Class was to be held in the library. Across from the library was a bathroom labeled Staff. I asked for a key – bathrooms are important for men in their sixties. Nothing doing. No key to the executive washroom for me. To use the toilet, I had to buzz through three doors and go to the staff room.

Control monitored every hallway with a camera. This place was indeed maximum security.

The residents or inmates lived on units. Each unit had some individual cells and some two-person cells, plus a small common living area. A unit held from twelve to thirty people. The prison didn’t allow any mixing of units because co-accused might get together and agree on their story. The authorities strictly enforced this separation.

Some were there because their crimes were so serious, other, because they couldn’t afford bail.

The door to the library – as all doors there – were heavy steel with a double window of unbreakable glass. A few minutes after the buzzer sounded, seven men in red suits stood at the door.

I began to sweat. Why? I’d worked in a maximum security prisons before. What was so scary about these guys?

Maybe all the steel doors had me spooked, maybe it was that they all wore red suits. I don’t know.

The door buzzed open and in they came, excited, man-sweat smell. They all looked pale – not enough sun. Lots of handshaking and “My name is Tom,” and “We got a school here – finally. Shaun’s the name.” And so forth.

I made coffee for the men and gave them pens and pencils. Other prisons pay men a nominal amount to attend class, but there was nothing like an incentive here, so I determined to at least save them the canteen cost for pens, pencils and paper.

We talked about the GED as a high school equivalent. I told them I was a writer and we talked about that. Then I registered them one by one.

Tom had been in PreTrial for six years.

“Six years?” I couldn’t believe it. As a kid in school I remember learning that Americans had a right to a speedy trial. Maybe Canada was different.

“It’s an immigration thing. Another country wants me.”

Shaun didn’t tell me anything about his crime. “I only made it to Grade 8. I’m 35 now and I’m getting too old for this crime game. I want out.”

A perfect person for school.

David had a clean-cut look about him. If I had seen him on the street, I would have assumed he was in college. “I’ve got a high school education and a year of college,” he said. “I just came down here to look around the library.”

“Can’t you come down to the library when you want?”

He gave me a cynical snark, as if I had just asked him if he’d like to go with me for a drink at an area pub.

“This place is the pits,” he said. “There’s nothing to do. Thank God you’ve started this school. We have AA once a week and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and nothing else. Twenty-three hours a day we’re on the unit, one hour in a cement courtyard surrounded by concrete walls.”

“You mean you spend the whole day on your unit?”

“Yeah. And for a lot of that time, we’re locked up. Staff break. Staff dinner. Count. We’re in our cells.”

What could I say? I had no nostrum to give.

Shaun got up. “Anyway, thanks for coming. I’m going to look around the library now.”

The next guy was Spencer. Maybe in his forties. A couple of fingers missing. “I want school,” he said. “My son is in Grade 4 and my daughter is in Grade 6. I want to be able to help them.”

And then Jack. Age twenty-one. “Listen, teach,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my life in jail. Juvie and provincial jail. Man, I’m sick of it. I want to get my school, but I screw up as soon as I get out. Drugs. They put me in a halfway house and then they start laying religion on me. I walk out the door, steal a car and get some dope.”

I was to hear that over and over in the coming months.

I registered the other two. Similar stories. I’ve changed the names and the stories slightly, but these were the men in PreTrial.

I gave them an assignment to write about: a safe place they knew as a kid, and the program was off the ground.

On the next Thursday I was surprised to get some stories back. “I had a fort in some thick bushes and when my old man got liquored, he start whaling on me and, I’d go to those bushes and hide.”  “We had some woods at the end of our street and me and my buddies made a club house from some lumber we stole. That’s where we went when we skipped school. But one guy’s dad found the shack and told the other parents and they tore it down.”

Lots of stories, but common to many of them was parental drinking and abuse. The old rule was proving true – bad parents, bad kids.

Week after week I went back, every Thursday night. The numbers increased. I had less and less time with each student, but slowly I learned about PreTrial, the true and the false, the good and the bad.

PreTrial, Remand and Jail are all the same thing

PreTrial is a short-term place where people are held while they wait for trial. Tell that to Tom who’s been there for six years. Canadian justice moves slowly, a good thing, I think. Fewer mistakes. But six years?

PreTrial is not a place to be sick. First of all it’s hard for the men to get to medical care. Unit staff, guards, are the first problem. “You’re just faking,” and comments like that. The next problem is the nurses. Some are good and competent, others less so. Working in a jail is not a prestigious item on your resume and the pay is less than adequate.  Often the nurses have limited English or have not updated their medical knowledge. After I had been there awhile, I was amazed to have people come to the library and ask for information on the drugs they were given. “This stuff is addictive? I didn’t know that.” I heard that more than once. And, “I’ve got enough trouble with drugs without taking on a new one.”

The jail pharmacist did not give out an information page on prescribed drugs. When I go to my neighborhood pharmacy, I always get an information page on a new drug.

People can die under this care – and they have. One doctor, however, is the exception. Everyone says he is a good and caring man.

I learned a lot about the guards who worked there. Since I was teaching the GED, one guard asked me how a friend of his could get his GED out in the community. Just talking to the guard, I knew this was really for him. A few weeks later, he gave me his opinion of the men in PreTrial. “They’re all scumbags. They can’t learn a thing and you’re wasting your time here.”

One night I buzzed control and said, “Five men to return to Hotel unit.” I had given them supplies, a cup of coffee and I had checked up on their study progress. I couldn’t do much more, because I had to see six units in one evening.

Control answered. “You mean five inmates.”

No, I didn’t mean five inmates. First of all these men were not convicted. They were all awaiting trial. They were not convicts. But more important, I hate that word with a passion. “Inmate Jones, report to health care.” Day in, day out, men hear their names called out in this fashion. Not Mr. Jones, but Inmate Jones. What other institution does that? What is the long-term effect of reminding someone over and over that they are an inmate?

I repeated myself. “Five men to return to Hotel unit.”

Control’s tone rose. “Five INMATES.”

I said nothing. The door did not buzz open.

Time passed. A minute. I was involved in a war of wills – one I was going to lose. If I wanted to get the next unit down for school, I had to give in. But I thought up a compromise. “I have five to return to Hotel unit,” I said.

There was a long silence and then the door buzzed open.

Despite the negativity of most guards, I met a few with souls. One man was always cheerful to me and polite to the men. He called me aside one night. “You know, if I were running this place,” he said, “no one would ever leave here without a high school diploma and full job training.”

And one supervisor showed great understanding that this jail thing wasn’t working. He apologized for some of the more stupid regulations as he shrugged and said, “What are you gonna do?”

In general supervisors seemed wiser and more humane than the guards.

No universal statements apply to PreTrial. There are good guards and bad guards, good health care workers and bad health care workers, good residents and bad ones, too.

What is true of PreTrial, as is true of all prisons, is that there is an Us and a Them. This is a poisonous atmosphere. No true help can ever be accomplished in such a setting.

Jail is a place to dry out or to come down from terrible addictions. One man opposed my negative comments about jail. “Thank God for this place,” he said. “Without it, I’d be dead.” I tried to make distinctions, but he wasn’t having any.

Jail is a place to meet old friends. Time and again the conversation drifted off to who knew who, who did time with whom in juvie. For some of these guys, jail wasn’t a punishment – it was old home week.

Jail is a place to get hit in the head with a coffeepot by another guy who didn’t know how to control his anger. Time and again the public address system would call out “Code yellow.” The guards would run to whatever unit the code yellow was and quell the disturbance. Then the PA system would call out, “Stand down, code yellow,” like some pretend military camp. Sometimes people who were just minding their own business got caught in the middle of a fight. Actually, I’m surprised there weren’t more fights. Put twenty to thirty men on unit, men who had very little control over their emotions, keep them on the unit for twenty-three hours a day, lock them up for long periods, treat them like animals, make it hard for them to contact their families, have them endure the tension of long hours in a trial and you are going to have fights.

What was the institution’s response to fights – counseling? take the pressure off? play some music? No. Their response was to put the instigators in segregation. No TV. In the cell twenty-three hours. No phone. No school. No privileges. No contact with others.

Jail was a place to watch some good TV, the universal baby sitter of prisoners. I sympathized with men who enjoyed TV shows, but in another way it made me angry. The authorities were encouraging a generation of couch potatoes.

Jail was a place to return to over and over, until one day the person woke up and said, “Enough.” But time and again I saw a man leave, his buddies would give him high fives and two weeks later he’d be back. One man told me that he and his buddies made bets on how long someone would be out and when they would come back. It was a sub-cultural ritual.

We all know of cases in the news where people are in jail and, frankly, we’re glad. Can this PreTrial time be made better?

Ashley SmithI was very upset this week with the story of Ashley Smith and the absolutely gruesome pictures of what the staff did to her. The young woman’s crime? Throwing crabapples at a postal worker. Prison officials kept adding on to her short sentence for misconduct. She was moved from prison to prison seventeen times.

I worry that the problem is more widespread than just those few officers and the warden and deputy warden who were fired over this incident.

Most would admit that there is a clear US and THEM in prison. How can one group help another change when there is almost us/thema war going on between them? Are prison staff required to learn psychology?  Are they given sensitivity training? When a parole officer spends an hour telling a newly-released inmate that he’s going to fail, what is that? When the officer brings up every bad thing the inmate’s ever done and no mention of his abilities, is that a form of abuse? If a psychologist in prison ignores an inmate’s greeting and walks right by him, what is that? When guards openly imitate a hearing/speaking challenged man behind his back, is that abuse? And when an inmate tries to report this, he is told to forget it for his own health.

What’s going on in our prisons? Those who resist change cry that people will lose their jobs. No, they won’t, not if they’re willing to take courses, to take on sensitivity training. It’s up to the staff to change first.

For those not from Canada, the articles and videos are here:

Images courtesy of:

This week I’m happy to present another blog by our Fraser Valley inmate.

jailA note on this man. He was one of the very first winners of the money from my bursary and he plans to use the money for environmental studies. The funds will go directly to the university of his choice. However, for him it will only be a start. $250 is only a beginning to university studies. (This is a plug to see more donations to this bursary which the John Howard Society administers — ). Education is the proven way out of crime.

In his letter to me this inmate told me some sad news. Sometimes the judge sends a man to prison for some charges, while other charges are still pending. This inmate just received news that seven years has been added to his sentence. I don’t know his crime, but I’ve been thinking about those seven years. Seven years of what?

  • Seven years of a dynamic program to deal with his crime? No. Just a few cookie-cutter programs to take.
  • Seven years of advanced education so that he can make a living when he gets out? No. He’s already got a high school diploma, that’s all the system pays for.
  • Seven years of apprenticeship in a trade. No.
  • Seven years of mentored individual study leading to a degree? No. The system does not pay for any post secondary education.
  • Seven years of boredom, seven years of being warehoused, seven years more of crime yesschool, seven years of wearing a mask, as described below — YES


Players on Stage

It was Shakespeare who said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his stagelife plays many parts.”

The prison system is its own little world where the words of Shakespeare ring true every day.

Our prison system is a stage where a tragic comedy plays out on a daily basis. Both sides of the equation playing their parts according to scripts that have been written over time with little, and I mean very little, room for improvisation.

Among inmates there is the expectation that one will live by the ‘inmate code,’ however ridiculous it may be at times. For instance, even if I know that an inmate is in the wrong about something involving staff or administration, the expectation is that I take his side no matter how wrong he may be. This does, of course, lead to support for some pretty paranoid and paranoidsuspicious views that to any rational person would be bordering on mental disorder. This is the game we play because too many of us don’t want to hear the truth or accept that “the man” many sometimes have a point.

On the other side there are the same types of behaviour playing out. Among guards there is an expectation of unity, lest they show weakness in front of the inmate population. It is not very often you will see a guard contradict or go against what another guard has done even if they are in the wrong. POs (parole officers) rarely will go out and say that something that a previous PO has done regarding an inmate’s file is wrong. They merely pretend that no mistakes have been made, and that the

outside box

Think outside the box, end up inside one.

system is infallible. The system doesn’t encourage original thought, and eventually it grinds down idealists and original thinkers under the weight of apathy.

It’s sad that we have to play the game like this with too many of us having to become players on this scripted stage that leaves little room for creativity or original thought. We all wear our masks and play the roles that we believe are expected of us and go through the motions every day. It’s time to play a different role; it’s time to change the script.

Images courtesy of: