By Joseph Grmovsek
1270 words; 5 minutes to read
I was torn about how to begin this article. Do I grab the attention of readers by describing the story behind my decade-and-a-half career insider trading in Canada and the United States, the churning of tens of millions of dollars, the tragic suicide of my co-accused, and the time spent incarcerated in two maximum security prisons and four jails; or, do I start with a description of the role of which I am proudest, Program Director for Restorative Justice Housing Ontario, a new charity that finds homes for ex-prisoners committed to reform who could not otherwise do so on their own for reasons of limited finances or that same criminal record?
Regarding the latter, I know that I could not do a description justice without including a reference to the Salvation Army and their halfway houses on Sherbourne Street in Toronto where I once resided while on parole and the John Howard Society and its online publications and its people (such as Catherine Latimer) that have allowed me to benefit from the experiences of others. Any success that I had in finding private sector houses to rent and then subletting rooms within them to ex-prisoners who pay what they can (with RJHO subsidizing the rest) and then dealing with various bureaucracies as well as the daily interactions and requirements of the residents, I owe to what I learned from those two charities.
From corporate law to prison
As for what led a former corporate lawyer after release from prison to produce an educational-documentary called “Collared” on the prevention of white-collar crime through a focus on its unintended victims, to give speeches to student groups and professional bodies that lay bare my failings and losses so that others may learn from them, or to my current role helping ex-prisoners with their efforts to rebuild their lives and restore themselves as productive members of society, well, that is a mystery. A mystery, if you have read this far, that I would ask your help in solving.
When I entered Kingston Penitentiary, then Canada’s oldest prison, it was in its last year of operation. Because of its imminent closure, money was not being put into its maintenance and it was in state of extreme disrepair. It was February and freezing cold. Windows at the front of our range were broken, requiring us to push any extra shirts we had into the holes in the shattered glass to prevent snow from coming in. We had a washer and dryer for our clothes, but, as the washer did not work, we did our laundry with a bar of soap in the sinks in our cells. The dryer was only slightly more useful as its exhaust was pulled from the wall to allow it to spew hot air into the range to keep us warm. In short, it was the worst place I did time and I was surrounded by the hardest inmates I had ever encountered.
Life – and death – on the range
After a few weeks of typically restricted life at Kingston Penitentiary, I was offered the job of Cleaner on the range. This was a job I quickly accepted as I knew it would allow me access out of my cell to call my children after school. Otherwise, without it, I would have been locked up for 23.5 hours a day save for an hour of yard time which in practice came about every second day. A Cleaner’s job on a range in prison is, as the name implies, to clean the floors and shower and to also hand out the meals. It was during one of these times handing out meals that my life was forever changed.
As I was distributing dinner trays, one of the inmates by the name of Frankie, a long-time con that everyone on the range seemed to know, started disparaging me. Whether the result of a bad day or just hearing one too many insults that were not good natured, I insulted him back in a way that crossed whatever line existed of acceptable insults in a maximum-security prison. Immediately after I did, the range went silent and then Frankie said — loud enough for all to hear — “When my cell gets cracked-open I am going to come over to yours and kill you.” As a result of his status inside KP and whatever code he lived by, everyone on that range knew that Frankie was now obligated to at least try to kill me.
Moment of truth
I went back to my cell (the only one unlocked and open), turned off my lights, and faced the reality that nothing good was going to happen to me after Frankie’s cell opened up in the next few minutes (he was in one of the five cells at the head of the range and, as such, would be among the group first “cracked” or opened for showers). I would either win the fight against this younger and bigger prisoner resulting in more prison-time being added to a sentence that would keep me away from my children or, much more likely, I would be severely injured, maimed, or even killed.
Faced with that dark reality, and though not a very religious person, I prayed as hard as I could and made a deal during prayer that was a promise to do some good for others with my bad if I could somehow make it back to my children unharmed. Immediately after I whispered that promise out loud, I heard an explosion of metal – BOOM — followed by another – BOOM — and then feet stomping fast and hard toward my cell. I prepared myself for the fight-to-be before a hand came from out of view at the side and grabbed at my cage door and swung it locked shut with bang. Following behind that clanging of metal was a group of correctional officers frantically running past my cell.
After I caught my breath, I pushed my face hard against the bars to look down the hall to see what was going on. As I did, I saw two correctional officers come into my view carrying a stretcher before going into a cell and out of view. After a few moments they again came back into my field of vision, this time with an inmate strapped to a stretcher and flailing around. It was Frankie. Frankie, the inmate that had threatened to kill me and would have tried in the next few minutes, was having an epileptic seizure that caused the guards to come running in and carry him away from my life forever — Never to be seen again.
A new direction
Depending on your view of the world, this event was either an incredible coincidence, the result of the power of positive thinking, or divine intervention. Why it happened is still unknown to me today (though I have my beliefs), but what I do know for certain is that it happened moments before I was going to be battling for my life and exactly at the moment when I made a promise to take some good for others from the bad that was my existence to that point. For helping me to keep that promise that I made in Kingston Penitentiary by allowing me to write this article and, perhaps, through it, to remind others not to lose hope and that it is never too late to restore positive meaning to your life, for prisoners and non-prisoners alike, I thank you.
Information about Restorative Justice Housing Ontario and the work they do assisting ex-prisoners can be found on RJHO.ca. Joseph’s story as well as a trailer to his documentary can be found on his website collaredconsulting.com.