Sisyphus gets a sidekick
This is the first of many posts we plan to publish by current and former prisoners about their experiences in the criminal justice system.
“Why a cat?”
I looked up at the weathered wisp of breath fogging my doorway. Thick Acadian accent, white skin and hoary, retreating (retreated?) hairline. Sixty-two years on the planet, thirty-five of those behind bars. Frail, but unbroken. Prior to dragging his leg irons through the front gates of Quebec’s St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary in the early 1980’s, Gaton* had been trained as an accountant. Which makes sense when I think about it. Two people dead. Life-25. Fifty pounds too heavy, sixteen teeth too light. His cell contains exactly four shelves; just ask him. One of those is reserved solely for dictionaries — all 13 of them. Really. And as he reminds me, daily, we’ve now been strolling the Big Yard together since 1993. Three laps to the mile. Three miles to the hour. Twenty-four hours to the day. Ninety-one days to a season. Twenty-four years of an eternity. Unbroken.
“Why not?” I reply.
“Smart ass! You know you driving me crazy with that, when you don’t just answer. Is a simple question.”
“And therein lies the point,” say I. Gaton waits, more a crumb-craving puppy than feline. But today there will be no more. Only my best professorial pose — emeritus, I think they call it. Gaton`s face twitches. Early onset Bell’s palsy? Nice to know I still have the touch.
Gaton and I are life-sentenced Canadian prisoners. We inherited this peerage when both of us were only 27 years old, though my sexagenarian cellmate received his dubious crown ten years prior to mine. And a decade isn’t the only thing separating us. My criminal CV may be the one that reads like something from a Batman movie, but it’s Gaton who keeps prison administrators awake at night with his threat to the established order. Not because of what he did to end up in a place like this. More like what he didn’t do.
When Gaton was arrested for murder 35 years ago, his initial reaction was relief. Having spent his formative years in some of the city`s seedier patches, there was a garden variety of reasons why the Montréal police might be kicking down his front door. Counterfeit hockey tickets? It has been suggested. Hijacked kitchen appliances? Again, a possibility (though a conspicuous lack of serial numbers could at least raise doubt with a jury). Or maybe it was that missing strongbox of postage stamps from the local dépanneur that had brought the bluebirds knocking. But murder? Hell, no! I mean, where`s the money in that?
Unfortunately though, Montreal’s homicide squad somehow missed the logic of Gaton’s obvious innocence. As did a series of Superior and even Supreme Court judges. After 12 years, five trials, and every penny of his (and his family’s) savings consumed, Gaton the Acadian accountant was left holding the reality cheque for a meal he claims to have never eaten. As for the where’s, when’s, and why’s, they no longer mattered. For a life-sentenced Canadian prisoner who maintains his innocence, the only question that matters is what next?
From the time a Canadian is arrested and charged with murder, the legal process can run on average six to eight years before final appeals to the Supreme Court (SCC) are heard. For some, like Gaton, winning at the SCC only means that the process starts all over again, with a brand new jury trail. The typical result is bankruptcy — and not just financial. In Canada, a life-sentenced prisoner who maintains his innocence has much in common with the Greek hero Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a boulder up the peak, only to watch it roll back down. It is a contest littered mercilessly with the lives of those who’ve tried to best it. But occasionally that contest can attract some company.
“I gotta lawyer,” said Gaton. “Confirmed. She is coming here tomorrow, to see me.” My Acadian co-confused was smiling in the only way that a man so bereft of teeth can — with his eyes. They were drunk with hope. In exactly 96 hours, Gaton will appear before the Parole Board of Canada. It will be his tenth attempt at convincing a sceptical panel that he is no threat to public safety and can be reasonably managed in a halfway house. With no support from Corrections, no new story to tell the PBC decision makers, and cards little different from the ones played at previous hearings (tell the truth and let the chips fall), he’ll need more than a lawyer. Even a miracle seems inadequate.
After considering his news, I eventually muster a reply. I inform Gaton that in American prison, the correct term is yard-dog. It’s what you call a sidekick — a guy who walks the Big Yard with you, year in and year out. “Except that you, my dear neighbour, are definitely not a dog. Think about it: the uncontrolled lasagna addiction, your overweight sense of cynicism, a propensity to doze off while on your feet, and your absolute, unmatched, irrepressible refusal to just curl up and die… not only are you a cat, you are the cat. You’re bloody Garfield.”
And with that curiosity suitably killed, my convict the Cat reached belly deep and summoned up a giddy guffaw, round as a summer soap bubble. I`m sure that I don`t want to know where he`s been keeping that.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.
I.M. Grenada is a serving Canadian prisoner currently housed at Cowansville Institution in Quebec. His writing can be read at theincarceratedinkwell.ca