1200 words; 5 minutes to read.
Summary: Some highlights from Yves Côté’s book about his life, more than 30 years of which was spent in prison.
Audio summary courtesy of volunteer Bella Kiss.
Note: In reviewing this post, Mr. Côté requested that we use his first rather than his last name because prisoners are constantly referred to by last name or number ‘to remind us who we are in a very impersonal way…When I read any documents and I am referred as Côté it reminds me that I was so long seen as a number.’
In the 31 years from 1982 until 2013, Yves Côté was only out of prison for about 11 months, and not at all in the 24 years between 1989 and 2013.
Early on in his brief and insightful account of his life, co-written with BC academic Alana Abramson, Yves poses the question: ‘How does someone go from an innocent five-year-old child to spending almost 32 years in prison after committing countless acts of violence? How does that same person then return to the community as a responsible, contributing citizen?’
That is the story the book tells, in about 100 pages.
Yves Côté was born into a large family. When his mother died young, his father was unable to look after them all and the family was broken up. Yves lived in in a highly abusive foster home for several years. That was the start of a life of increasing disruption and violence, including time in group homes and juvenile jails, and frequent referrals to services that seemed unable to help the young boy. In his teens he was raped by another foster parent.
At age 20 he was imprisoned for trying to kill his oldest brother, who had been abusive to Yves throughout his life. In and out of jail over the next few years, he came to the conclusion that he could not survive outside of prison, and, astoundingly, that his best strategy would be to spend his life in prison.
‘I was never successful moving from prison to the community where there was no structure, unpredictable days, and you needed to trust people. Within 3 months of my last release, I was back inside pre-trial jail facing a first-degree murder charge. It seems unthinkable for most people to imagine taking a life; however, the violence I used that ended a man’s life was planned and deliberate. At the time, I wanted to return to prison forever and I knew that committing murder would achieve that goal.’
Yves tells the stories of his violent life openly and without sparing himself. Although he grew up in dire circumstances, he is well aware that he also made choices. ‘I will never debate or complain about the sentences that I received over the years. I was a very violent man who needed to be stopped. I am accountable for the crimes I committed and do not blame others for my actions.’ On the other hand, he notes, nobody has ever taken responsibility for the abuse he suffered as a child and ward of the state.
As he tells his story, Yves has brief but insightful comments on many aspects of our systems – child protection, the police, the courts, defence lawyers, and the class biases built into these systems. None of these systems seemed to have much desire to help him.
Life in prison
30 years in prison might be better described as 11,600 days. Yves served time in 18 different federal institutions at all security levels.
He is strongly critical of maximum security prisons because they are inevitably places dominated by violence. The focus on security makes it impossible for most prisoners to take any positive steps in life. He notes the hugely negative effects of boredom, constant strip searches, constant lockdowns, meaningless work for absurdly low pay (and high costs to buy anything), the over use of solitary confinement, and the lack of any positive activity. In order to survive ‘I became like the men that I feared when I first entered prison’ – that is, embodying a constant threat of deadly violence.’
On his extensive time in solitary/segregation, he writes ‘I have chronic depression as the result of solitary confinement. This depression has led to self-destructive and antisocial behaviour, self-harm, and suicide attempts. While some of these mental health concerns came into prison with me, they got worse the longer I was there…’
‘…I observed many correctional staff abuse their power. For many years, it was difficult for me to trust a civil servant working in prison… it seemed that their main goal was to punish prisoners. Whether by pure meanness or ignorance, the damage done by staff to prisoners can be immense.’ Over time he cane to a somewhat different view. ‘I now feel that most people working in prisons are doing the best they can while working in a toxic, oppressive environment that breeds suspicion and prevents the development of healthy human relationships.’
Turning things around
All of this made improvement extremely difficult. Anytime I started to try and improve my self-worth in prison, people working there seemed to take great pleasure in reminding me of all that I have done. I was never judged for the positive steps I was taking, but only for the horrors of my past.
Yes despite all this, his attitudes and behaviour did change. A turning point came at Christmas in 1995 when he realized how bad his life was and had been, and began to think about changing it for the better. He embraced religion and began the long and hard work of changing who he was and how he behaved. He writes about confronting the harm and damage he had caused, not just to his victims but to many others including those who cared about him. He tells the story of the programs he attended, changes in his behaviour, and then eventually going through the parole process and being released on parole.
The challenges of release
While every prisoner longs for freedom, those with many years inside also face release with fear. And, as Yves writes, the adjustment is hugely challenging. Work and housing are hard to find. It is hard to create meaningful relationships. After decades of a highly regulated life, everyday choices can feel overwhelming.
‘Every day I wake up, I think about the years wasted inside those prison walls and all those people I hurt. The depression kicks in once again, and it is often a struggle to find the will to stay alive. It would have been much easier to stay inside and die there than to face the hurdles in the community that institutionalization brings.
Yet so far, in nearly 10 years of parole, Yves has navigated all that reasonably successfully, and built a positive and meaningful life – as have many other lifers released after many years of imprisonment ***.
Still the costs are always there. ‘Detention is a wound that never fully heals….. No matter how long your sentence is, captivity will never be normal for anyone. Prison impacts us as individuals and everyone we are connected to: wives, children, parents, siblings, parents, and friends. These impacts last a lifetime, particularly for those who are given a life sentence.
The desire to punish those who do wrong is understandable, but there must surely be a better way than what Yves Côté had to experience!