The Incarcerated InkWell

Federal Inmate in a Canadian Prison with a Life Sentence writes about prison life

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Nintendo U

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A few years back a twenty three-year-old waif named Bruce was transferred to the maximum-security prison I was in. His blemish free skin and curly, shoulder length locks made the first-time offender look like he was twelve. We took to calling him Blondie. Before coming to us, Blondie had spent a few months smoking dope and masturbating at medium security — habits he had evidently honed during a decade of squatting in the basement at his single, working-class mother’s house.

“So, what brings you to the pen?” I asked.

“I wanted to go to university.”

Though it’s not my habit to pry, Bruce’s response surely begged a few more questions. Didn’t you notice that the school bus had gun ports? was the first one that came to mind. But before I could query the queer lad, he offered up a salacious story that is really a tale for our times.

“I was kicking back at home, playing some vids and trying to figure out what to do. I had a couple of jobs after high school — you know, Tim Horton’s, Foot Locker, that kind of thing — but I never really made any money. So I started thinking that I should rob a jewellery store. That way, if I got away with it, I could use the money to go to university. And if I got caught, I’d just come here and take university.”

Sounded like a foolproof plan to me. Then again, I’m not exactly what you’d call balanced.

“The problem is, my cousin used to work there,” Bruce said. “Somebody recognized my voice. I got four years for it. Then I get to the reception center and find out that the university program in here was cancelled years ago. Man, I was pissed. After that, things really went downhill.”

While Bruce seemed moderately distressed that day, it didn’t take long for him to find his comfort zone. A month later, I dropped by his cell to see how he was holding up — and found him neurons deep in a new Nintedo-64 that his mom had dropped off during her weekly visit. Super Mario held his attention like a vice, and the ceramic sheen glazing his eyes said he probably wouldn’t be passing a piss test this week. Blondie may have missed the turnoff to the halls of higher learning, but at least he won the consolation prize. He was home.

I have some really bad news for those Canadians who think that making prison “tougher” will make the streets safer. Ninety-five percent of all criminals are idiots. And no, I don’t count myself out of that conservative estimate. As I often remind those quick to praise me, my best thinking put me here — a place where most of us couldn’t draw a straight line between cause-and-effect even if you held the crayon for us. Sorry. I know that comes as a great disappointment to the many folks out there who want to “teach them bastards a lesson they won’t forget.” But it gets even worse. According to writer Charles Murray, in his new book, one the biggest reasons that the bottom twenty percent of society (the permanent address of the North American criminal class) are only rowing with one oar is because so many of us actually are bastards.

According to Murray, in 1960, more than eighty-five percent of middle aged America was married — including white folks who worked at blue-collar and low-skilled employment. That same year, only two percent of all white births in the US were to unwed mothers. By 2008, the US marriage rate amongst those with no post-secondary education, and employed at low-skill jobs had plummeted to forty-eight percent — and single mother births in that same demographic rose to twenty times higher. “We have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions,” Murray commented recently in The Wall Street Journal. And he’s not referring to whether folks prefer pro-wrestling over Swan Lake. By culture he means the values you pass on to your kids, and defining what it means to be a man; jobs best not left to a videogame console — or a prison, no matter how “tough” it is.

Bruce came to mind this week because he recently showed up in my mail. I was surprised, as I hadn’t heard from him in more than five years. He wanted to let me know that he’s getting out of prison — again. This will be his third federal sentence since we first met. And even though he’s not a kid anymore, he still sounds youthfully buoyant. He quit using dope more than two years ago. Says he found God. Apparently he’s even made some friends that have families, work, and don’t smoke crack. His mom says he can stay with her until he gets on his feet. He’s going to freak when he sees the new PlayStation 3

 

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.

When Kenny Killed Barbie

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Mercedes sent me an article this week, about that famous inside-the-box building set, Lego. It seems that the ubiquitous toy maker has added a few non-linear blocks to the line up. Ladyfigs is their new series of femme figures – pretty things pressure-molded in complimentary colours (the pink-skinned lass gets blond hair with Paris Hilton bangs, the mocha-skinned one has tresses brown and wavy), and with all the right gender cues. Tight tops, tiny waists, and short skirts, it’s all there – just the way we Lego boys like them. One even has boobs. Which makes me wonder what my life would have been if that big box of plastic rectangles under my bed had sprouted a day spa instead of a life-sized Thompson machine gun.

But apparently I’m not the only weirdo who overthinks these things. Since the lovely polymer ladies strolled onto toy store shelves this year, they have attracted the sort of criticism usually reserved for Playboy magazine. Promoting gender stereotypes, limiting creativity, and forcing young girls to focus on appearance and the obsession of thinness are only a few of the complaints. I guess it’s that old ‘girls who play with Barbies end up with plastic boobies’ school of thought. And who know? Maybe one day they will find a correlation between those who played cops and robbers and those who vote Conservative. But I also know that the best thing about being human is our ability to decide for ourselves – no matter what Lady Gaga says. A great example of that was a con I knew named Kenny.

The first time I met Kenny was in Millhaven maximum security. He was like one of those stray dogs that are always hanging around your car after work – mangy and needy. But there was something about this one that grew on me. It could have been the way his tongue hung out like an overheated Labrador Retriever, or even the twenty inches of red clay afro that exploded vertically from his skull – like an electrical accident. Then again, it was probably the way that his lay-down-and-die eyes found a new reason to get up every time I came around. How do you kick a stray dog whose raison d’etre is that you just might throw him a bone?

And one day I did. It was more of an accident than anything. I was walking the big yard, when my Walkman batteries breathed their last. Kenny happened to be sitting there alone, on a half-flat soccer ball as weathered as he was.

“C’mon let’s do some laps,” I said. You would think that Madonna had just walked into in a Malawian orphanage. It was all I could do to keep the lost lunatic from licking me.

Kenny and I spent the rest of that summer dogging laps. I learned that he had been in and out of institutions most of his adult life. When he was twelve, a near drowning had left him with brain damage. He woke up in the hospital, and learned that his older brother hadn’t gotten off so easy – losing his life while trying to save Kenny’s. Sometimes the lines between cause and effect aren’t as hard to read as we think they are.

As the end of Kenny’s prison sentence came closer, I asked him about his plans.

“Oh, I’m just going to wash windows,” Kenny said.

“Wash… windows? You mean, like a squeegee kid?” I remember feeling something like a cross between disbelief and ire. Kenny and I had been yard dogs for the past eight months, and in that time I had given him a decent haircut and introduced daily showering. He was now wearing clean clothes, exercising regularly, and even reading books. The conversations had evolved from why all prison guards should be killed, to how a man might make the world a better place. Kenny had transformed form the local nut job to my friend, and my future plans for him were much bigger than cleaning car windows on the corner of Main and Hastings.

“No – no – no. Not cars. Houses. All I need is a good bucket, a few rags, and a squeegee. Everybody needs their windows washed.”

I had heard enough. “Listen up Kenny, and listen good. It’s a bloody snake pit out there these days, and you better start taking it seriously.” Now I was the barking dog. “You’re going to be an ex-con on parole, you idiot. You know what that means? It means you better start thinking seriously – or you’ll be back here faster than you can spell Windex. Wash windows. Give me a break.”

There are a hundred things I have done in this life, and one of which merit eternal damnation. But few stick with me as strongly as the day I called a childlike man who trusted me, an idiot. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. Thankfully, this yard dog didn’t come with the memory of an elephant, and was about to teach me a life lesson I’ve never forgotten – about not letting anyone squeeze you into their mold.

A few months after his release, a letter from Kenny appeared under my cell door. The return address was a transition house in Vernon, B.C. Like most prisoners, Kenny had been released with almost no money, but had found a place to lay his head, and in his stray dog way had even made friends with the house manager. The rest of the letter read like Snoopy on a spring day.

In his second morning on the street (after ten years behind bars) Kenny had offered his new patron a deal. In exchange for a four-foot ladder, a bottle of ammonia, and a squeegee, Kenny would clean all the shelter’s windows for the rest of the summer. When the fellow took him up on it, it set off a chain reaction that only Kenny could have dreamed up. After a week of cleaning neighbourhood windows, Kenny’s squeegee and four-foot ladder had sprouted a second-hand man-sized tricycle with a basket big enough to carry his gear. A spare piece of plywood and some paint filched out of the garbage even gave him a sign – “Silver Cloud Window Services” – that he tied to the back of his bike. Week three brought some business cards from a grocer’s vending machine, and a pager. By the time I got his letter he had an apartment, a phone, and had even taken a “good Christian girl” out to dinner. His new phone number was at the bottom of the page, with an invitation to call collect.

Though we spoke on the phone a few times after that, I never saw Kenny again. After a year of hard work, and turning his celebrated purple tricycle into a fully equipped truck and two men to run it, it was time for a well-deserved weekend away. They were headed for a bed and breakfast in southern B.C., he and the good Christian girl, when their car lost control and Kenny felt the wind in his hair one last time. Death. It’s the one stereotype that no one escapes – no matter how free your will. But I’ll always remember that Kenny loped into the darkness with his eyes wide open, proudly wearing the life he chose. I wish he was still with us. I would have sent him a set of Ladyfigs.

 

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.

Dead man whistling

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Of all the faux-pas in Canadian prison, whistling may be the most universal. Rumour is that the anathema against blowing a jolly jig in the clink dates back to those days when guards would work up a show tune in four-four time, while frog-marching the condemned to the noose. Apparently that old dwarf standard, Whistle while you work was their favourite — and seems much sunnier than the American version. Their baroque chant “dead man walking,” (detailed by Sister Helen Prejean in her book of the same name) would kill you from tedium before you even got to the needle. Who says Canadian prisons aren’t softer?

It’s been fifty years since the last Canuck dangled at the Don Jail, but the convict ban on whistling has stood curiously firm. At first I thought it might be in reverence for the good old days that never were, or even that prisoners are happiest when those around them aren’t. Then, when I asked Stamper about it this week, the joint’s septic sceptic offered a theory that holds as much poop as any other. He says it’s because they never stopped killing us.

“Look around,” he said.

I accepted the invitation. The spring bright courtyard was filled with a hundred hunched trolls, traipsing circles in lockstep while awaiting the stroke of the back-to-work bell. Despite the late March sun, most of them were packaged in prison-green parkas, collars up, gazes down. The only thing missing was a German gun-tower and the wrought-iron sign linking freedom and work.

“Tell me this crew isn’t dead from the neck up,” he said. “If you marched them off to the rendering plant, they’d leap into that glue vat like lemmings.” He smiled openly at the thought.

“Careful. There might be some Conservative senators around.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Look at them — who’d buy the glue made from this lot? They can’t even hold their lips together, never mind plywood.”

Stamper; when you need a little vinegar with your greens, no one serves it up better — or more bitter. That’s what twenty-nine years in the whine barrel buys you. But sometimes it’s the sourest grapes that emit the truest notes. In January I was talking to a friend who visits prisoners behind bars for the John Howard Society. A former convict himself, he helps prisoners to finish their “correctional treatment plans” while inside, and build release plans for the street. The problem is that a growing number of them are no longer interested.

“I’m getting more and more guys on my caseload,” he says, “who aren’t even interested in getting out. Especially the guys who’ve been in for a long time. They just go to their job, eat, and lay in their cell. They don’t exercise, go to visits, nothing. It’s like they’re already dead.”

If that’s true, the bullet that killed them could be the evening news. For Canadians who have been behind bars for more than a decade, the country they once knew is looking more like a rabid dog than a placid beaver. First we went from peacekeepers to warmongers. Then we bounced the cheque on the community of First Nations, and used the money to build post-secondary institutions for their kids; we call them prisons. We sell dime bags of death— Asbestos — to nations too poor to “just say no”, and a decade after Al Gore gave us the Inconvenient Truth, we still block, waylay, or disregard every major climate-change initiative ever proposed, while rolling out the magic carpet for some of the most environmentally destructive energy products on the planet. Maher Arar, gazillion dollar fighter jets, Attawapiskat, old age pensions, and government-sanctioned torture protocols — the checklist for a crueller Canada could eat up pages. So maybe the big bottom lips and zombie stares in here aren’t really from being locked in. Maybe it’s that there’s only a thin row of razor-wire keeping the rest of the world out.

“Ass a bunch a crap,” said one pruney con leaning up against the sun washed cell block.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“At crap ‘bout whistlin’. I was sentence to hang in 1966, an spend tree an a half years on debt row in Bordeaux prison be-foe day commute ma sentence. We use ah whistle down air all a time. Kep us from goin’ nuts. Now ease young punks wanna tell me at day know sumpin’ ‘bout sumpin’. Day don’t know sheeyit.”

“You been in since ‘66?” Camper asked the coffee-coloured con.

“Nope. Bin out foe time. Gist come back ‘gain lass week.”

The seventy-three-year-old lifer then spun a Dickensian tale that included homelessness, bad weather, loneliness and addiction. Finally, after getting his cheek split one night by a “bunch-a-punks,” the old fella dropped his last ten bucks on a generous hit of crack before turning himself in at the local precinct. “Lease in here I got a bed an clean close,” he said in summary.

Which leaves me thinking that maybe the new Canada isn’t such a joyless place after all. I mean, at least the Big House has a three-hots-and-a-cot. And with this new construction, even the homeless won’t need a reservation. All you need is to give us a whistle.

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.

 

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Panopticon.

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During the first couple of decades of the 19th century, British economist Jeremy Bentham gnawed with great vigor on the leg of the Queen’s purse holders. What he wanted was support for a model prison design. The structure, he told British MP’s, would guarantee “morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated and instruction diffused.” He christened his utopian beast the Panopticon.

In Benthem’s version, the Big House would allow for constant surveillance of both the kept and their keepers (Panopticon is Greek for “all seeing”). It would be a large, circular building of cast iron and glass, with cells around the outside edge. A dungeon master would sit in a tower at the center of the circle, with “speaking tubes” running from his office to each cell. It was to be a one-man continuous surveillance pod for every sight and sound in the complex – a sort of Godhead in the house of detention. But that wasn’t the best part.

Benthem, who considered himself a philosopher of sorts, believed the strongest feature of his Orwellian castle was that neither the prisoners nor guards would know if they were being watched (or listened to). But the assumption alone would weigh heavier on them than any warden’s whip, said Benthem. He even postulated that there was no need for an actual watcher, so long as there were regular public floggings – for offences imaginary or otherwise. Though Benthem never did find a benefactor for his hall of mirrors, it wasn’t because the House of Lords were squeamish on surveillance. Long before Moses went nose to nose with Pharaoh, those perched in the nests of power have coveted the all-reaching finger of God. But in an empire where the sun never sets, what the Home Office really needed was a Panopticon planet. Now, two centuries later, Britain’s new world spawn has finally figured out a way to build it.

According to a recent article by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone magazine, the United States military now has more than 19,000 unmanned aerial drones floating in the clouds. No one knows how many the CIA has. And at 6 billion dollars a year in sales, the market is growing – with more than 50 countries lined up to sit in the seat of the all-seeing-eye. One military model whose popularity is soaring is the “Solar Eagle” – a surveillance drone with a wingspan of 400 feet. Powered by the sun, it stays aloft for 5 years (at a fraction of the price it costs to launch a spy satellite). If all this seems like just a neato way to keep an eye on Middle Eastern terrorists and Iranian centrifuges, look again. In February of this year, the US Congress passed a law asking for the Federal Aviation Administration to “accelerate the integration of unmanned aerial systems” in US skies. Exactly where those US skies begin and end in the 21st century is a little foggy. Since Canada became a signatory to something called the North American Security Corridor in 2008, drones have liberally patrolled both sides of the forty-ninth parallel. And on America’s other border, unmanned US surveillance aircraft have been spotted far enough inside Mexican airspace that they just might be the poolside paparazzi at your next all-inclusive week in Mesoamerica. But maybe giving the US government a birds-eye view of your next white-sand romp with the wife is a price you‘re willing to pay to feel safe. If so, just remember that Photo Shop isn’t the software that drones like best. Their real supremacy is first-person shooters – like Mech Warrior 3 – where no one has a higher score than US President, Barack Obama.

In his first three years, Obama authorized 268 known drone strikes – more than five times that of George Bush during his two terms in office. The reported body count now exceeds 3000, including 800 civilian deaths. One of those innocents was Afghan human rights advocate, Zabet Amanullah. Apparently, the CIA had been tracking his cell phone for three months before a hellfire missile finally caught up with him turning him into “bug splatter” (US military jargon for a drone kill). Unfortunately for Mr. Amanullah, the omniscient CIA got the wrong phone. Or the wrong Amanullah. Or the wrong country. Splat.

According to Hastings’ article, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism has identified 174 of the dead killed by US drones in the past three years as children under the age of 18. So I guess there are worse things than the Pentagon taking pictures of your skinny-dipping daughter in Cancun. And who knew. Maybe just the idea that there’s always someone watching – listening, waiting to crack the whip – will help keep her top on. If that doesn’t work, you could always giver her cell phone number to the CIA.

 

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.

Taxiing for take-off

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“You want to know why this bogus war on drugs will never be won? Because it’s the same people on both sides. The CIA is one of the biggest players in the game.”

I nodded in lacklustre agreement — as I do with almost every global policy analyst who finds himself in my prison barber chair these days. I’ve learned from experience that arguing with nuts can really sap my energy — energy I’ll probably need later in the day, for my own deranged rant. Plus, it really winds up nuts. Trimming tresses with a pair of blunted Fisher-Price scissors is tough enough without the guy going all Linda Blair<src=”http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01797/exorcist_1797959i.jpg”> on you.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Russell asked me.

I looked at him in the mirror and smiled. Careful. His pupils were starting to widen. But the telltale mouth foam hadn’t started yet. I might still get out of this without calling a priest.

“Hey bro, it’s your dime. I’m listening.”

“I used to fly for them you know — for the company. I put a lot of product into Panama until ’89. Then they grabbed Noriega and it all went nuts. Escobar flipped out and the company had to move assets. That’s when they went into Afghanistan — and I started working for these guys up here.” He rubbed his finger across his nose in a telling gesture as he emphasized “these guys.”

Now usually, when you’re cutting a con’s hair and he starts straight-facing you about his days with the CIA, KGB, Mossad, or some other top-secret crew, this is the hint that you just might be in for a big tip. Not the normal tip of a cold Pepsi. No, not from a guy who once flew for Pablo. A guy like that could be good for a whole unit — a Pepsi, a Mars Bar and a pack of Salt & Vinegar chips. All I had to do was play it cool. I started to nod vigorously.

“Obviously I can’t say too much, but tomorrow the Journal (de Montréal) is coming to see me, and we’re doing a piece on my work for the Columbians. Plus I’m talking to some guys about a movie.” Now I was pumping my neck like a preening Cormorant. I even threw in one raised brow and an insider’s smile. I think that was the clincher, because later in the evening he came back with an Oh Henry bar and two Pepsi’s. As I sat there sipping, I made a mental note to add neck extensions to my morning stretch routine.

Prison is a house of lies. The whole place is built on them. There’s the lie that prisons make society safer, or even that they serve as a meaningful censure for bad conduct. Then there’s the lies that people tell themselves to end up here — lies like, “if I didn’t sell it to them, someone else would”, and “the bitch had it coming”, and “what do they care, it was insured?” But by far, the most entertaining are those lies that people tell to get out of here. While some can be painfully predictable (“I swear on my children’s eyes, I’m done with crime,” or “It’s me and Jesus now, sir”), more than a few of them are truly novel.

KauKauGhe wandered through the door of “Chez le Barbier” as I looked up from yesterday’s French newspaper. “You see Russell in there?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m having a tough time with some of these smaller French words though.” The big Ojibwa filled in the blanks for me. As he did, I realized that Russell had spilled the same story for the Quebec tabloid that he had in my chair two days previous. But this time there were names. Names with hazardous friends.

“Last night, some guy rolled in on Russell and punched his lights out. They’ve got him in protective custody over in the hole right now. We won’t be seeing him again.”

“What was the idiot thinking?” I said. “Did he really think he could mouth off about these guys and get away with it?” I looked back at the article. “I mean, these guys have friends everywhere.”

“Not everywhere.” My long-haired friend slapped me with a knowing look. “Let’s see. Russell has been trying to get to minimum security for eighteen years. He only has two years left on his bit<src=”http://theincarceratedinkwell.org/?page_id=65#bit___” title=”slang for a prison sentence”>, but they keep turning down his transfer applications. Now they can’t turn him down, can they? And where do you think they’ll try to hide a guy who just ratted on the mob?”

I laughed. Of course. Minimum security — the great hideout of all big league informants. I guess that’s why it was so important to the former pilot that I believe his Hollywood yarn. Heck, he even got to do his dry run in a mirror and watch my reactions. But now I can’t help but wonder if some of what he said wasn’t true. I mean, besides the CIA, who else crafts such a wily exit from the clink?

 

Who’s crazy now?

If there’s one guy in Ottawa who must be sitting in the corner playing his lips like a Jew’s harp these days, it would be Howard Sapers. Every year for the past four, Canada’s Correctional Investigator has sounded a clarion alarm over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in federal penitentiaries. His annual reports to Parliament read like a skipping record. Too many mentally ill Canadians being held in facilities without treatment. Too many mentally ill Canadians in segregation cells. Too many mentally ill Canadians being released from prison without community or mental health support. Not enough dedicated mental health services for mentally ill prisoners. The government’s response to these warnings have been as swift as they were predictable.

In March, the federal juggernaut ramrodded its omnibus “tough on crime” bill through parliament – despite the warnings of numerous provincial mental health agencies. These agencies expressed a unified concern that the legislation would put more mentally ill Canadians – including children as young as 14 – behind bars for longer periods than ever before. Their warnings were summarily dismissed as soft on crime.

Two weeks later, the government released its new budget, including $300 million in cuts to Corrections Canada. If Sapers wondered how those cuts might affect the most vulnerable segment of the prison population, it wouldn’t be long before he got an answer. In April, the government announced the closure of Ontario’s only penitentiary dedicated to mental health treatment. When questioned regarding its strategy for the future care of the hundreds of severely mentally ill prisoners housed there, a spokesperson for the Public Safety Minister said that they would “find room for them” somewhere. That’s language that Sapers is familiar with. According to his 2010/2011 report to Parliament, that ubiquitous “somewhere” may well include a double-bunked segregation cell with a serial killer. The response of the Public Safety Minister’s office to this criticism is that double-bunking is an acceptable standard, and that burying prisoners alive in segregation cells is how a conservative society holds them accountable for their actions. And as the well-documented suicide of 19-year-old Ashley Smith teaches, nothing says inmate accountability like self-asphyxiation.

Thankfully, some mentally ill prisoners still have family members, friends, or community contacts still willing to visit them or accept a phone call. Often these connections serve as a documented lifeline for those already living in that no man’s land between suicide and the will to live one more day. All of which turns the government’s latest strategy for mentally ill prisoners into a particularly cynical coup de grace.

This month, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced that his government will shave a third off of the .86¢ per hour stipend that inmates receive for their work in the prison industry shops, while simultaneously adding a $2 “surcharge” to every inmate phone call. Putting aside the fact that Canada’s inmate telephone system is already the most expensive form of telecommunications in the country, this latest development virtually guarantees that mentally ill prisoners will be completely severed from the land of the living.

But if there is one thing more likely to snap the Sapers’ last twig of sanity than any other, landing the Correctional Investigator in the same sort of Cuckoo’s nest he has so conscientiously advocated for others, it may be the release this month of the government’s national mental health care strategy.

“This is a side people don’t recognize in the Prime Minister, this human compassionate side,” says Conservative Senator Marjorie LeBreton in a recent Globe & Mail article. For instance, in 2010, Mr. Harper – a self-described hockey fanatic – met in private with former NHL player Luke Richardson and his wife Stephanie to express his condolences after the suicide of their 14-year-old daughter. Unfortunately for Canada’s leader, such private moments of humanity are often swallowed up by his government’s very public policies – such as the newly minted legislation that will see the same 14-year-old children tried and sentenced as adults.

“I’m in the cabinet, that’s where I work,” says federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt in the same Globe article. Eight years ago, after the birth of her second son, Raitt fell into a postpartum depression that affected her ability to work as a high-powered Toronto lawyer. On her drive to the office one day, she heard an Aril Lavigne song on the radio and couldn’t stop crying. “I knew there was a problem.”

These days Raitt speaks openly about her recovery and a health regime that once included medication and therapy. In the end, going back to work proved to be her refuge. “I weighed whether or not I would be stigmatized about talking about it. But my workplace has a culture that is open to a discussion of the matter. I don’t think a lot of people would expect that.” Even fuzzier is how open she and her cabinet colleagues are to discussion when that mental illness also brings on criminal charges.

“The head psychiatrist at the hospital in Nelson, B.C. told me that in a case like my daughter’s, her only future was jail or suicide. In the end, she accomplished both,” says Don Leach. His daughter, Linda, suffered from severe schizophrenia. At his blog theravensnest.ca, Leach describes, with an attention to detail that only an anguished parent could, the rolling tragedy that was his daughter’s life. “It was sick,” he says. “One time they threw her out of the hospital and into the street, where she laid in a hospital gown for days until the police came and arrested her.” After a decade of trench warfare, Ms. Leach finally lost the battle to her illness in 2010. She was 21-years-old. And while the certificate said suicide, it may just as well have said death by indifference. The life that Linda “Raven” Leach gave up was a life that nobody wanted. Her Dad wasn’t a hockey hero. She wasn’t a member of government. The only brightness in her story is that it didn’t end in a prison segregation cell. Because as Canadian taxpayers know, that could have really been pricey.

The ambassador in chains

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I don’t get out much. So while most employable Canadian males my age already have a passport tattooed with the symbols of their exotic travels, my exposure to international culture comes only one way: through a country’s visiting envoys — and their pending immigration removal orders.

“What’s your name?” I asked the twenty-something black man sitting in my barber chair.

“June-ya.”

“Where you from, Junior?”

“Jamaaaayca mon.”

Of course. In Canadian prison, every black kid is from Jamaica. Or Haiti. Or Burundi. Never mind that they haven’t been there since they were four months old — if ever. I guess it sounds cooler than Toronto’s Jane–Finch corridor, or Montréal-Nord.

“Nice island. I was there in ’89. Ocho Rios was my favorite. I really liked those falls.”

In the mirror I saw the kid’s face open up, his smile as true as the moon. The teeth were flawless. In his left ear a diamond stud caught all of the room’s light; it had to be a carat and a quarter.

“Ma grand-fawda, he live in da hills der mon. I use to clam da falls eeeeeevry time I go to see him der mon. Ya mon, Ochos. I know dat pless good, mon. I be goin’ back when ma tam is finished.”

The next forty minutes was an exercise in deciphering the exact style of haircut that June-ya from Jamaaaayca mon wanted. First he wanted something called waves. Then he wanted a palm tree carved in the back. Then he wanted the sides faded into the top — in sixteenth-of-an-inch increments. In the end I just shaved his head.

“O.K. Vonnnncoover. S’looking good, mon.” Junior leaned in close to the large barber’s mirror and inspected his denuded dome. He looked like he was going to cry. “Eyree mon. I come see you ‘gain — nex-time.” I doubted that even more than I doubted the bogus Caribbean accent. Maybe it’s because the first time I ever saw Jamaican Junior, he had been talking to a parole officer in the cell block next to mine. And on that day his Anglo-Saxon diction had been better than Tolkein’s.

Since that sad September of a decade ago — when visiting company busted some of America’s most valuable furniture — fortress North America has all but burned the Welcome Wagon. In Canada, that’s meant a striking change from immigration policies that were written in the days of Vietnam draft dodgers. Nowadays, those who want to become part of the Great White North can find themselves on double-secret probation for the first few years. And if they slip even once — especially a slip that puts them in the clink — they quickly learn that Air Canada international flights also leave daily.

Sometimes though, the timing of a convict’s deportation leaves me wondering who’s sitting in the pilot’s seat. A couple years back, when my inmate employment involved shaping legal arguments instead of hairdos, I was assigned to help a Guatemalan national named Hugo. Everyone called him Hannibal — as in the serial-killing psychiatrist. As a poor illegal immigrant convicted of murder, Hannibal had nothing to lose – and made sure everyone knew it. For the ten years it took to reach eligibility for a deportation parole, Hannibal did whatever, to whoever, whenever — none of it winsome. Getting this guy kicked out of prison — to the open sewers of South America — would hardly be a test of my legal training. Or so I thought.

“We encourage you to work more closely with your correctional team, and to better address the issues that have led you to reoffend while in custody.” The bottom of the decision sheet said “PAROLE DENIED.” I was stunned. Compared to Hannibal’s home community, life in the Big House was like jumping the evolutionary queue. If he had his way, he’d live in here forever. In ten years he had stabbed six prisoners, been busted for dope a dozen times, and spawned three new Canadian orphans with his girlfriend — a girlfriend serving her life sentence on the provincial welfare roles. In what universe did keeping this guy in the country — at $117,000 tax-payer dollars per year — qualify as a good idea? I guess that the only way to make sense out of prison is to ask those who make cents out of prison. Unfortunately, they never return my calls.

“You hear ‘bout Junior?” Cookie asked me.

“Which one?” I asked the young Edmontonian from Burundi.

“Junior from Jamaica. They was deporting him today and he never said nothin’. Last night he went to all the brothers and borrowed stuff to take pictures in — you know, nice clothes, sunglasses, stuff like that. He even borrowed Biggs’s gold chain — with that fat cross he got from his grams. Biggs go to see him this morning an his cell is empty. You believe it?”

After eighteen years in prison, people should never ask what I believe. But if Biggs really wants to find his granny’s religious relic, I say he’d have better luck looking in the Don Jail than he would at Dunn’s River Falls.

 

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.

What the Mayans Knew

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KauKauGhe has a big head. Literally. When my old Ojibwa yard dog was nine, his dad — a semi-pro hockey player — brought home the Encyclopaedia Britannica and put it in the boy’s room. So he read it. All of it. Repeatedly. The big man may not be the one you want teaching your kids life skills, but you would lose money betting against him on the minutia of the Hapsburg dynasty.

I thought of that today while reading about Maya. As a life-sentenced prisoner with an allergy to suicide, and no hope for a legal release in this lifetime, I’ve developed more than a passing interest in end-time prophecies. So I wanted to know more about this 2012 calendar of theirs and how they reached their conclusions.

A popular electronic reference work that begins with the letter E (that I am not paid to endorse) opened its article as follows: “Maya Civilization, an ancient Native American culture that represented one of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans. The Maya built massive stone pyramids, temples, sculpture and accomplished complex achievements in mathematics and astronomy.” Culture, art, advanced math. So far, so good.

Then, after a dozen pages of agriculture, architecture, and astronomy, you get to this: “A Maya nobleman wore… an elaborate feather headdress that was sometimes as large as himself. His head had been fashionably elongated by being pressed between boards when he was a few days old, and his eyes had purposely been crossed in childhood by having objects dangled before them. His nose was built up with putty to give it an admired beak shape, and his ears and teeth were inlaid with jade. A noblewoman’s head was also elongated, and she filed her teeth to points.”

I had to read it three times. I mean, everybody has seen Mesoamerican art somewhere in their life. Pre-Dali abstracts, right? Who would have thought we were looking at family portraits? So how did a squashed skull nation of crazy-eyes figure out a 365-day calendar? The same way the rest of us figure out stuff; trial and error.

By watching the sun, instead of the moon (the same way Gregorian monks an ocean away did), the Maya found the solstices and the equinoxes. From there it was as simple as two-times-two equals four. And because they had spent a thousand years carefully tracking the movement of Venus — a god for them — they also knew about the 584-day Venetian year. Once you have that down, the rest is just statistics; measure, record, multiply — it’s the sort of think pointy-heads have always excelled at. But is it really possible that the multiplication tables Canadian kids learned in grade three can tell us something that the Weather Channel can’t? Well, this is where it gets a little weird, folks– as in Jim Jones weird.

According to the afore-mentioned reference work, “the Mayas believed that the universe had been, and would continue to be, created and destroyed multiple times, and that each such cycle lasted somewhat longer than 5000 years. By their estimate, the current universe had begun in the equivalent of the year 3114 BC and would be destroyed in the equivalent of the year AD 2012.” And upon what solid scientific method did “one of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere” base their analysis? That great liberator of human consciousness: manmade religion.

The Mayas believed that earth was actually the exposed back of a giant caiman, flat and four-cornered, floating in a pool. Each corner represented the cardinal points of the compass, and above the earth was a heaven with 7 steps up and 6 down (a remarkable semblance to the European Union, I thought). The universe was linked by a tree that stood at the center of the world, its branches in the heavens and its roots in the underworld. But here’s where it gets really good.

“The ruler of the Maya city-state [who was also the principal religious leader] could be seen as an embodiment of this tree,” says the encyclopaedia, “and thus a physical link between the earth and the supernatural world. One of the ruler’s principal duties was to determine proper courses of action by communicating with their ancestors and the gods in visionary trances.”

2012 — another bastard lovechild of the religion and politics orgy. Why am I surprised? After all, the 21st century has already proved itself to be more like the dark ages than anything that Star Trek ever promised. Inquisitions, crusades, human sacrifice to Venus (that ancient God of war); the past eleven years have served it all up — on a steaming bed of holy books. In a world where rulers now craft their environmental, social, and foreign policies on what God revealed to them at last Sunday’s sermon (or last Friday’s Juma prayers), it only makes sense that a seventh of the educated world thinks it at least possible that the world will end in December, 2012. I’m just glad that Mayan plastic surgery didn’t catch on.

 

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.

Why Puritans Love Porn

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It’s been a month since Canadian senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu made his public proposal that convicted first-degree murderers be given a rope in their cell, so that they could “decide for themselves” the fastest way to an early release. One assumes that he was not advising a quick climb over the fence with it. But now that Senator Trump Card has been shuffled out of the camera’s eye and back into the quiet shadows of the Conservative think tank, it’s probably safe to talk amongst ourselves — without raising a national referendum on the death penalty. After all, I did recently promise to not raise the topic again.

What is fair topic though is fallout — and the whirlwind of incensed anger in here the day after the good senator stuffed his size ten halfway down his maw.

“Hey — you hear that idiot on the TV yesterday?” Nick the Greek asked me. He hadn’t been the first one that morning, so I just assumed that the subject was Boisvenu’s shot across the bow. But with Nick, it was his brow, not the bow that caught my attention — and specifically the furrows carved into it. His look that morning was the same one a nun might give if you asked her for a quick roll in the hay: unadulterated righteous indignation.

“You mean the trail-balloon for capital punishment?”

“Yeah. How ignorant is that? You believe this guy? He’s finished. The people are freaking. Now look.” Nick pointed at the T.V. in the corner of the gym. “Today he’s back-peddling like a mother-f**ker.”

And so he was. For the rest of the week, every newscast and tabloid in Canada carried quotes of the senator’s “regret” at being “misquoted” and having “his words taken out of context.” As for those who punch clock in the Prime Minister’s Office, they were equally quick-draw with a pre-cooked can of verbiage that distanced them — just a little bit — from the senator’s fiscally sensible proposal. It was, of course, all very predictable. If democracy is governance by high theatre, then the Canadian version could definitely use some new scriptwriters. What did surprise me though was the authentic taking-of-offence painted across the face of Nick the Greek who — according to the RCMP organized crime squad — has more missing bodies under him than an Italian cruise ship.

“I hate the way this guy paints all of us withy the same brush,” Nick said.

“I don’t think he did. The way I heard it, he just wants to dump first-degree murderers — and especially serial killers.” Then I sunk the hook. “Besides, you know as well as I do that if you had a dark alley and a bucket of bullets, you’d clip half the malakas in this place, even the drunk drivers. So what’s a few dead lifers?”

Nick drilled into me with a glare, the way he likes to with anyone who challenges his inalienable right to be right. Eventually the glare gave way to a grin. “Hey — that’s beside the point.”

Maybe. Or maybe it’s the biggest point in the room.

Back when Senator Boisvenu was plain old Monsieur Boisvenu, citizen of Quebec, his adult daughter was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a guy with a previous record for violence. Makes me wonder what Nick the Greek would do if that happened to his little girl. Or what I would do if it was Raquel, my twenty-one year old step-daughter lying in the morgue? The Christian in me wants to say forgive and forget. But that same Christian says that lying is a sin. And the father in me says that lying is not the first commandant I’d be breaking — if I ever got my hands on anyone who hurt her.

But doesn’t feeling that way make me completely normal? That a civilized society might want some payback when someone robs their house, steals their car, or kidnaps, rapes and kills their kids doesn’t alarm me in the least. What’s alarming is when they so publicly claim that they don’t. Isn’t this the Canada that just invested ten years, eighteen billion dollars, and 158 Canadian lives on whacking Afghani tribesmen for the way they dress their women? How did we suddenly become so moralistic about killing those that hurt our families?

It reminds me of our southern neighbours — arguably the most religious superpower in history. Founded by folks who considered it a sin to say the word vagina, never mind use one, America is now one of the largest  legal producers — and consumers — of hard-core pornography on the planet. Pornography that demeans. Pornography that victimizes. Pornography oiled in violence. Contrast that with countries like Thailand, Finland, and Switzerland. Is it just a coincidence that these countries — amongst the lowest consumers of on-line pornography on the globe — are also societies where sexuality is openly discussed in a way that allows people to express their true feelings; in the home, in the school system, and yes — even in government? It makes you wonder what kind of justice system Canada would have if we could talk about crime like normal humans instead of a bunch of Church Ladies.

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.

What? Don’t look at me.

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Of the many great and varied mysteries in human biology, perhaps the most profound is how seven grown men can gather for a Sunday afternoon quaff of chili and ginger ale where nobody farted. Or at least such was the claim, when the telltale waft grew too pungent for polite dismissal.

“Oh my gawd,” said Kaukaughe. “What the…”

Around the table, denials flew faster than an Elections Canada robo-call inquiry. “Not me,” said one.

“He who smelt it, dealt it,” said another.

“I’m sorry, Senator, but I have no recollection of that,” quipped the Chinese kid in the corner. And then, because we are a bunch of uncivilized mouth-breathers who are comfortable in our own filth, we did what convicts do. We shovelled another snow scoop full of beans into our maws and just carried on.

It may be more than a coincidence that last weekend’s noxious nosh popped into my head today, as I read about something called “the great Pacific garbage patch.” First discovered in 1997 by sailor Charles Moore, the “patch” is a fetid ten-million ton soup of particulated plastic waste twice the size of Texas, swirling in a ten-million square mile toilet bowl known as the North Pacific Gyre. With concentrations of DDT and PCB’s a million times higher than the surrounding sea water, it has become the main snackbar for seabirds, fish, turtles, larger mammals, and even zooplankton — all of which store the toxic chemicals in their fatty tissue. That would be the same fatty tissue you will be slurping back at the Sushi bar this week–the same breaded fish flesh your kids will be feasting on for supper this Tuesday. Bon appetit.

If there’s a consolation in any of this, it may be found in that ubiquitous North American absolution, it’s not our fault. The North Pacific contains only one of five such global gyres (an ocean feature created by trade winds and circular currents). According to Captain Moore, every single one of them is full of plastic — which means that you can’t blame Canadians for the smell. After all, plastic has been around for more than a century now, and these days it’s everywhere — wrapping our bodies, our homes and our food. As the human family becomes ever more addicted to its smart phones, iPads, plasma T.V.’s and bottled water, that will only increase. Last year alone, the world produced 300 million tons of the stuff, and about half of it was classified as minimal use. That means it will be discarded anywhere from immediately to a year from now. Care to guess where the rubber ducky’s share of it goes?

“Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastic that we have ever put into the oceans still remains,” research scientist Anthony Andrady told Rolling Stone magazine back in 2009.” Plastic is still plastic. The materials still remains a polymer. Polyethylene — the most pervasive type of disposable plastic — is not biodegraded in any practical time scale. There is no mechanism in the marine environment to biodegrade that long of a molecule. “Nothing, that is, except the animals that live there — all of who now (thanks to scorched sea fishing practices) make it into our food supply. It’s our crap. And now we are eating it — literally. Talk about a buy signal for Pepto Bismal.

This spring, Dr. David Suzuki — the closest thing Canada has to Jacques Cousteau — stepped down as head of the venerable foundation bearing his name. During his Canadian tour to explain why, he paid a visit to the Globe & Mail, where he talked with self-professed doom and gloom denier Margaret Wente.

“We didn’t sell the right message,” Suzuki says — in an admission that the environmental movement has probably reached a dead end. He thinks that instead of arguing that environmental responsibility could co-exist with economic growth, the movement should have argued the need to abandon the quest for economic growth altogether. “We thought if we stop this dam, if we stop that clear cutting, that’s a great success. But we didn’t deal with the underlying destructiveness, which was the mindset that attacked the forest, or wanted to build the dam.” Really? Or is it just as likely that what Suzuki really missed was the billions of minds that gave no damn at all.

“There’s no way you can clean all this up — it’s impossible,” Captain Moore says as he inspects a jug full of murky, yellowed water filled with plastic confetti. The sample was pulled out of the drink about a thousand miles southwest of Los Angeles — near Hawaii. “Right now we’re catching all this stuff with a small net. What are you going to do, drag the entire ocean with these nets? No matter where you go, there’s no getting over it. It’s a plastic ocean now.”

Sounds a lot like shut up and eat your beans to me.

 

I.M GreNada posts every Sunday on The Province’s website. To read his new posts each week, go to theprovince.com/houseofthedead.