Accidents and Convictions

I am singing to you
Soft as a man with a dead child speaks;
Hard as a man in handcuffs
Held where he cannot move.

From Killers by Carl Sandburg

This passage was marked with a bookmark in the poety collection left on the bedside table in the Sandburg Suite at the Frontenac Club Inn, the night before I spent a day in jail.

Accidents and Convictions

Ellen turned to me and leaned in over her Mediterranean salad. “There, but for the grace of God go I.”

We’d just settled into a booth for lunch at Aunt Lucy’s roadhouse, a quick hitchhike from the gates of Joyceville penitentiary near Kingston. We’d spent the morning behind bars interviewing and taking photos of inmates, many of whom were serving life sentences for murder. The waitress must have sensed our stress. She sat us in a narrow private booth with a sliding door. We kept it ajar.

I’d commented that most of the inmates seemed like normal guys.

“Could be any one of us, Stuart,” she said.

I thought of a night in Prague, 1994. I was travelling with a friend. We were sucked into a swirling euphoria that was on its last legs after the Velvet Revolution in ’89. Beer was still very cheap. We were young and pissed drunk on the Charles Bridge after midnight when my friend confessed that he’d been sleeping with a girl I’d been pursuing. I remember slipping out my Swiss Army knife and opening the blade. I still don’t know what I was going to do with it. Luckily, I was distracted by blood; I’d accidentally sliced open my hand.

Joyceville penitentiary is home to a unique prisoner rehabilitation programme. CORCAN works with private sector partners to put inmates to work in trades such as welding, ironwork and construction. Huge warehouses near the jails become manufacturing plants, and the inmates are trained in valuable job skills that they can use once they “hit the street.” The facility we visited was manufacturing amunition lockers for DND. Nobody seemed to think it was ironic that prisoners were making gun cabinets.

Ellen was our CORCAN host and guide. She’d been in the prisons before. Many times. She knew the drill. She wasn’t worried about walking unprotected among dozens of lifers on a shop floor covered with piles of sheet metal shards and power tools. It took a minute to adopt her air of unconcern. But once we did, the interactions were fascinating.

For the most part, these men were people who made one big mistake and were now paying for it with their lives. There was Shawn the fork lift driver who, at 39, had spent 20 years behind bars. Someone told me he’d beaten someone to death in a drunken bar fight. That was 1984. He’s been locked up ever since. There was Big Al, the shipping and receiving guy, who had convinced himself that he could escape a life of poverty by robbing a bank. “We never meant to hurt anyone.” And he didn’t. But he now regrets how what he did may have “fucked up a lot of people — made them scared all the time.” He dreams of opening a video store when he gets out.

Then there was Darryl, who is working in the milk barn. The farm programme provides milk for the inmates. “I have a new baby at home,” he said, fighting tears. “Looking after these little calves is teaching me to love. I’m going to be a good dad because of this… when I get out. When I wake up in the morning, I feel joy because I know I’m coming here. These little animals need me. I like that.”

I found out later that he had lost a newborn calf the day before. One of the ones he’d helped to birth.

I thought a lot about these guys. Some were clearly where they were meant to be. Jim’s eyes were cold, his handshake almost violent. He’d killed two women, the second after his first parole. He was never getting out again.

Most of the others had made one stupid mistake, often in a fit of rage. Someone on the outside was still suffering loss, and it was felt almost as strongly here. CORCAN gives these inmates a way out. A theme that kept coming up in interviews was “never again.” The ones who were working the hardest, who looked me right in the eye, were the ones who knew that they needed something to do when they were released. Without this training, they would probably end up back in prison.

“We live in a garbage society,” Shawn said. “People don’t fix toasters anymore. They get a new one. And they think of us like this. Like we’re disposable.”

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