I’m mystified at how, collectively, and for a very long time, society has had the idea that to lock someone up and treat them like garbage, will help them blossom. From what I understand, there’s little within the prison system designed to achieve that outcome. Nor do the stats support the theory.
Yet we continue this charade of ‘punishment’ which we prefer to call rehabilitation even though there are fewer and fewer funds to make it so.
I wonder at the why of it and can only come up with Because we’re idiots. And lazy and what’s tucked away out of our sight is someone else’s problem. The problem is that the people whose problem it is have too many problems to fix the real problem.
So we console ourselves with being better than other countries at this prison thing as if that’s the only marker and in some camps the answer now lies in MORE prisons—and ever bigger—where inmates can be treated even less as individuals with individual needs and emerge even more isolated—emotionally or otherwise—to try and live within a society that stands on its moralistic pedestals clucking its giant tongue.
The anthropological side of this absurdity fascinates me.
It’s a big subject and I certainly don’t know what to do about it. I’m not even qualified to rattle on about it. All I know comes from what little I’ve read, a few conversations and a stunning tour through Kingston Penitentiary a mere week after the last inmate left, an eye-opener as to some of what’s wrong with our prison system. [all photos taken on said tour]
In his book, A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, Stephen Reid talks about the lack of ‘prison literature’ while writing (from prison) one of the best of that genre I’ve read. Despite spending the better part of his sixty something years dealing with the effects of abuse, drugs, rehabilitation and incarceration, Reid is able to share his stories objectively and without sentiment. Also without gratuitous asides of the horrors of a system he knows too well. Reid doesn’t name any monsters or over-describe details or try to persuade you to feel this way or that; he’s wise enough to let us be all the more dumbfounded by the monster that emerges rather naturally.
Most surprising of all, he writes without a shred of anger or self-pity but with the wisdom of a seasoned prison sage when he says it would be a fine thing to be a ‘metaphysical butcher’ so that we could slice away the 1% of the personality that uses and offends, suggesting that the greater part of the most hardened criminal is decent and kind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, he says. “In criminal law, and much of life, we are our behaviour.”
In the essay ‘The Last Score’ he details the circumstances that landed him most recently in jail after thirteen years of living on the ‘outside’, drug free.
In ‘A Man they Loved’ he is remorseful beyond measure. “I’m forty-nine years old, married to one of the most interesting and beautiful women on the planet, and parent to two incredible pieces of magic… The forfeiture is unbearable. I see a clear plastic laundry bag lying in one corner of my cell. If I could only get it over my head, wind it tight, airtight, at the neck….
“I am determined to go where I have to go, to take it as deep as it is deep, to do whatever it is I have to do to become whole, to never commit another offence, to never again get addicted. To become finally and forever, the man my many friends and family described…”
‘The Last Jesus I Know Of’ is about the Intensive Therapy Violent Offender Program… “a gruelling horror show in which sixteen of the most dangerous offenders are culled from seven regional prisons and forced to endure a year of masochistic and humiliating psychodynamic therapy.” He does this because it will at least break the monotony.
“No one has to be Sigmund Freud to figure out these were men who grew so tired of being wounded, they went out and wounded something else.”
They write autobiography for therapy. And read aloud during sessions. And discover the humanity inside those broken shells.
“… I have learned… that for a lot of people in this room, their first bad choice was their parents.”
“Christmas Eve [a guard] shows up with his crew for a surprise shakedown on the tier. They toss our cells, making a mess, then depart going, ‘Ho Ho Ho.’ The rest of the holiday season passes with Sally Ann Sunshine Bags, attempted suicides, and dark chocolate.”
“Prisons are about addictions. Most prisoners are casualties of their own habits. They have all created victims—some in cruel and callous ways—but almost to a man they have first practised that cruelty on themselves. Prison provides the loneliness that fuels addiction. It is the slaughterhouse for addicts, and all are eventually delivered to its gates.”
“Perhaps the days of prison literature have passed… our culture doesn’t encourage those locked up as criminals to learn to engage with their experience on any intellectual level…. We are a society impatient with its misfits.”
He then offers a list of books worth reading.
In ‘The Zen of the Chain’ he writes about being transferred from one prison to another. He breaks down the indignities, the realities, the heartbreak and fear like a 12 step program. By #11 you are holding your breath and by #12 you realize you’ve just read pure poetry.
“…To survive you must find the zen of the chain. For instance, if you’re unfortunate enough to have a black box designation and you have to wear that uncomfortable contraption over your handcuffs all day, don’t dwell on the cramps and pain it causes, flow with it, become your black box. Don’t be a new wave crack baby criminal, don’t go sissy on yourself. Suck up them fumes, concentrate on your breathing, find your mantra. Diesel in, diesel out. Let that which doesn’t kill you make you stranger. Transform yourself and your busload of fellow maniacs into an edgy version of Ken Kesey and his band of merry pranksters. Be patient in all things, let the seasons come and go, and one day fortune will smile. The bus will rumble to a stop at some front gate and you will walk in, passing by enough piles of coiled razor wire to make a knife, fork, and spoon for every man, woman and child on the subcontinent of India. You will step into the induction area, they’ll take off the chains and do the strip fan. You’ll get dressed again but this time the bulls will direct you to the right. And just like that you’re walking down a corridor towards a mainline. You feel weightless. You have survived. Life is grand. Until next time.”
About native justice, healing circles and the sweat lodge [versus incarceration], he writes: “A hundred years ago [an offender] would have faced his victim and his village in a longhouse. Restitution would have been part of the determination. [The offender] would have been punished and the circle would have been damaged but it would not have been broken.”
“Prison is, simply put, the bottom rung of the welfare ladder.”
Should be required reading in high schools.
—Purchase Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden online at Blue Heron Books.