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:

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.

 

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

Canada

On another issue, Amiya Fernando sent me a link to her page. http://www.topcriminaljusticedegrees.org/war/

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