“Well?” My question pounces with all the subtlety of the Spanish Inquisition. Its target, my 62 year-old cell-dwelling neighbour, Gaton (name changed to protect identity), had just returned from 2 hours and 40 minutes of cerebral ping pong with the Parole Board of Canada. Nothing major at stake here — just life and death. This was Gaton’s tenth appearance before the tribunal. Historically, they have been unsympathetic to his claim of total innocence, a claim he has maintained from behind bars for 35 years. In preparation, both of us have been walking, talking, and sleeping on razor blades for weeks.
“Reserved decision,” said the Acadian lifer. “Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week.” Maybe never. That a life-sentenced prisoner is guaranteed eventual release may in fact be Canada’s greatest collective illusion (not counting the one that says aboriginals have too much political influence nowadays). Judges, lawyers, and parole boards know the reality, though. When you are the owner/operator of a criminal sentence with no warrant expiry, maybe is really the gold standard.
For prisoners maintaining their innocence though, even ‘maybe’ becomes an unpassable bog. Where it gets especially sticky is in Corrections’ unique interpretation of the word accountability. In Canada, prison law requires that inmates “demonstrate accountability” for the crime(s) they were convicted of in order to qualify for release by parole. While most societal norms measure human accountability in actions, be that through change of conduct or even financial redress, at the house of Canada’s high-security hoteliers words can often mean more than actions. Especially if those words rhyme with “I didn’t do it.”
“O.K., but what do you think?” I asked, drilling Gaton harder. “Did they listen to you? Did they give you a chance to answer the questions this time? Did you tell them what we talked about?” Now it was the Cat’s turn to play coy. Innocence. Some days it feels like quaffing a cup of rusty radiator fluid.
“C’mon,” he said. “We go for a walk. Is nice out.”
There are 207,360 hours that make up the 24 years I have been walking next to Gaton on this journey. We spent the next two in much the same manner we had spent the previous two-hundred-thousand — chewing our tongues and growling like young lions. As one Big Yard lap morphed into another, Gaton painted out the minutia of the morning’s proceedings. It had taken him all of seven minutes to figure out which of the two panelists was the bad cop, and which one the disinterested. “When is your tenth time to the circus, is not hard to know which is the dancing bear,” said Gaton. Or the convict clown, I thought.
But if anyone imagined that Gaton`s latest visit to the parole board would be just another stop for the Cirque du So What, then they needed to know something about my Cat. He may not know how to say “uncle,” but the man can write a legal brief to stop traffic. Where others in his shoes have succumbed to drug addiction, prison violence, or even suicide, Gaton has spent those rent-free decades sharpening his claws on law books and learning how to argue successfully at the Federal Court. The result is a 400-page parole application with 37 tabs and 86 support letters – most of them from former staff employers – and he wonders why we call him the Cat.
“I think I got it,” Gaton summarized. “They had nothing — no concern. Even the parole officer has nothing to say. Nothing. At the end, all my lawyer does is tell about my 35 years of very good conduct, and how is my family always supporting me, and how I will be going to university if they let me out. If they come back and say no this time, the lawyer says she will go with me to Supreme Court — no charge.” A lawyer without fees? After that, what’s left to say?
The next morning, Gaton’s parole officer sent him a pass slip for 8:30 a.m. Thirty-five minutes later, he walked back into the cell block. I met him at the door. Looking into his eyes, it came to me that I have spent more time with this man than I have my wife, my children, or even my parents — combined. Through two of his hunger strikes, a few bouts of suicidal depression, unnumbered trips to Federal Court, and more disappointments than anyone but God has experienced… I was here. Most days I think I know the Cat better than I know myself. Which is why there was no need for words now, six months and 21 days into his 35th year in prison. Just tears. And silence.
Evenutually, his froggy throat found the words I have waited decades to hear. “Good-bye, my friend.” And as we stood there embracing, shaking, like men who had survived war, I knew that every day forward in my journey would smell a bit more like hope. After all, if Canada is now letting the innocent out of prison, maybe there’s a bone in there somewhere for the rest of us dogs.
- M. Grenada is a serving Canadian prisoner currently housed at Cowansville Institution in Quebec. His writing can be read at theincarceratedinkwell.ca