From Chapter 4: In Canada, We Have Life after Death
“It took me years to get to a place where I could live with myself,” Steve says. He pauses, lights up another cigarette, takes a deep breath. He holds it in for what seems like at least a minute and lets the smoke drift lazily out of his mouth. “The day they sentenced me, you could’ve hung me, and I wouldn’t have given a shit. The only thing that would’ve made me want to stop it would’ve been how it affected my family. Because of how I was brought up, I believe I deserved death. I was actually in favour of capital punishment at the time.”
He stops again. After another puff of smoke, he adds, “I was sentenced to life in prison on my 19th birthday, October 16, 1965. Even life-7—for a 19-year-old, seven years is almost half a lifetime. You can’t see the end of it. And you don’t know anything about how the system works or how you’re gonna get out. Eventually you find out. You have to decide either to work with it or against it. If you work against it, you’re going to be there a long time. Some guys serve over 30 years on a life-10 or a life-7. Why would you do this to yourself?”
From Chapter 8: Forty-six Years on Death Row, Married to a Corpse
Back in 1958, [Roy] was condemned to hang for murdering his wife, Lee. He was 34 when he was drunk and shot at her lover as the man ran from the house trailer where Roy and Lee lived in Swan River, Manitoba. He missed the 6-foot-7, 300-pound lover. Three bullets hit his wife and killed her instantly. Roy was convicted and spent two and a half years in Headingley jail waiting to be hanged.
“Three days before they were going to hang me,” Roy smiles between puffs on his cigarette, “the secretary comes running in and says, ‘Your sentence has been commuted. Have you got anything to say?’ I guess they wanted me to say something for the newspapers. I said no, I don’t.” He looks down at his slippers and the faded yellow carpet. I see his lip quiver and a tear form in his eye. “If they’d given me a choice at the time, I’d have taken the rope. Because you only suffer for five minutes and that’s it. This way you suffer for the rest of your life. This happened 46 years ago and it still bothers the hell out of me. I still dream about it too.”
He takes a long, deep drag on his cigarette, sits up straight in his chair and smiles at me. “Wanna see a picture of her?” I say, “Sure,” and he races to the bedroom, grabs a framed 8-by-10 photo off his dresser, and hands it to me, beaming, as if he were a newly engaged man showing off his fiancée. “This was taken in the ’50s, and so you’ve gotta turn the clock back. She’s been dead 46 years. This is a black-and-white picture, but she was a redhead and had blue eyes.”
From Chapter 10: Drugs and Scanners and Kangaroo Courts
On September 13, 2002, I have 13 prisoners committed to our monthly M2W2 visit. I have exactly 13 visitors lined up to come too. I tell my supervisor, Ken From, who’s planning to come as well, “Isn’t this interesting? All these 13s coming together? I wonder what could possibly go wrong?” Ken rolls his eyes and we both laugh. Ken supervised four prison visitation programs in Alberta, and he’d been in prison work long enough to know the value of a good laugh.
We arrive at the usual time. The front desk officer goes through the routine with the new ion scanner. It was installed recently to help the prison detect traces of drugs on people who want to enter the prison. He gave us each a white paper disc and asked us to wipe it on some part of our clothing, our glasses, or our wallets. Out of 13, six— including me—test positive for heroin, LSD, or some other drug. The officer gives the six a second disc to wipe on a different part of clothing, and for me and another man, the second test is negative. He says nine of us can go in but not the other four. We all confer and agree to leave the prison and cancel our visit. We are reluctant to disappoint the prisoners, but we refuse to cooperate with this kangaroo court where we have no recourse and no opportunity for self-defense. We ask the guard to please send word in to the prisoners that we will not be coming in.
We reconvene at the nearest Tim Hortons for coffee and donuts. Every one of us sees something positive in what we just went through: we got to experience something the prisoners live with every minute of every day. Prisoners have told us many times about guards, administrators, parole officers, even the warden, how they make up reasons to deny visits, cut gym time short, refuse shower time, or simply decide not to announce on the unit’s PA system that it’s time for the prisoners involved to move to V&C for the M2W2 program. Or to announce it and give the prisoners no time to change their clothes so they will be allowed into the visiting area.
The next week, Ken and I schedule a meeting with the then warden, Chris Price, to talk about the ion scanner and the volunteers it fingered. We question the scanner’s reliability. We express concern that the record of these hits on the scanner might end up with the RCMP or Canadian or US border guards. We speculate that these volunteers could be investigated by police or refused entry to the US or re-entry to Canada on the basis of ion scanner hits. We ask that the records be destroyed. The warden says he cannot and will not destroy the records. He says he and his security staff might need that information. He says the information by itself might mean nothing, but if it’s combined with other data, it could help identify a future risk to the institution. He values our program, he says, and acknowledges that nobody associated with it has ever been caught trying to bring drugs into a prison. He assures us these records are for internal use only. He explains that the information is internal to this prison and that it cannot and will not find its way into any external databases. Ken and I shake his hand and leave the office. In the car on the way back into the city, I say, “I’m sure the warden means well, but who does he think he’s kidding?” Ken chuckles and says, “Well, we did what we could.”
Six months later, Mike Sadava of the Edmonton Journal calls me. My name showed up on a leaked document, he says. He wants to ask me about the ion scanner and the night I hit positive on it.