1200 words; 5 minutes to read
This post is reprinted with permission from Lawyers’ Daily as one of a series on prisoner experience they are publishing. The original link is: Prison, a view from inside: Meet the lifers | David Dorson – The Lawyer’s Daily
Audio summary courtesy of volunteer Averi Brailey.
Prison, a view from inside: Meet the lifers
by David Dorson
(David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. The Lawyer’s Daily has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after completely serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.)
How many of us know someone who has killed a person? Murder is uncommon in Canada – about 500 a year – so most of us have never met someone who has committed one. But anyone who has spent time in a prison has met quite a few people who are there for murder.
I spent most of my time in a minimum security prison. In Canada these all have many ‘lifers’. And a life sentence means exactly that. You may be released from a prison, but you are forever under supervision, and you can be sent back to prison at any time, for any reason. Indeed, as shown in a recent study, those sentenced in Canada for 2nd degree murder are spending many more years in prison than used to be the case. Parole is not a ‘get out of jail’ ticket.
About 25% of the population where I was were lifers, who had spent many, many years in prison, slowly working their way from maximum security to medium to minimum. Of the many lifers I met, the fewest years in prison that I encountered was 18, but more often it was 25 years or more before getting to minimum security.
Life means life
Twenty-five years in prison may roll off a judge’s tongue easily enough. We can read in the newspaper ’25 years before eligibility for parole’ and not bat an eye – maybe think it should have been more. But think about it in terms of an actual life. What were you doing 25 years ago? Where might you be 25 years from now? Imagine spending all that time, day in and day out, year after year, locked in a 6 by 8 foot prison cell, with minimal contact with the outside world, including all the people who matter to you. Not to mention the many other restrictions and humiliations that come with time in prison. In the context of any human life, it’s a very, very long time.
For a lifer, getting to minimum security is a huge gain. Finally they are in a place where they are not locked in a cell most of the day, or shackled when you leave, even for a medical appointment.
Lifers were key to the operation of the prison. We lived in houses – 6 or 8 to a house. Almost all houses had a lifer as the ‘head’ because they were experienced in prison life and able to keep things in line without having to involve the guards or prison officers. With so many years in jail, often under very difficult conditions, they just wanted life to run along as smoothly as possible. A house with at least one lifer would be calmer.
Do your own time
I didn’t know exactly what any of these men had done. The first rule of prison life (though like all other rules in prison, it’s regularly violated) is ‘Do your own time’. This means that you don’t poke your nose into anyone else’s business. You keep conversation impersonal. And most of all you don’t ask them questions about why they are there. Sometimes as I got to know others, they chose to tell me things about themselves, including their crime, but mostly not. As another prison aphorism goes, ‘You aren’t in prison to make friends’.
To give a sense of how diverse the lifers group was, a few snapshots (names have been changed):
– Ron, a housemate for a few months. He had been inside for 35 years. He told me that he had an abusive childhood and when young he was just a ball of rage. But now he was a gentle, thoughtful, curious person who worked as the chaplain’s assistant and did everything he could to make things easier for other prisoners. He was finally paroled around the time I was, but he was not allowed by his parole officer to be in contact with me.
– Don, a very sweet and gentle Aboriginal man, also a housemate for a time. Although his health was not good, he never got angry, always had a smile. When he was allowed to attend a one day workshop on Aboriginal healing, he told me it was the first time he had been out of prison, except for medical appointments, in 35 years.
– Pete worked in one of the prisoner services and did a lot of writing and drawing. He was very smart and always interesting to talk with, but he was quite bitter about his treatment in prison over the years. He had, he said, sued the Correctional Service several times for mistreatment and received a fair amount of money in settlements. He also told me that there was not a day when he did not think with pain of what he had done to get a life sentence, and wish he could do something to make up for it.
– Alden was probably the youngest lifer there and had made it to minimum in under 20 years, which is exceptional. His very old mother spent 6 hours on a bus every month to come and visit him – the only person from his former life he was in touch with, he told me. We used to walk together frequently while he told me of his planning for his parole hearing, which could happen in as little as 4 more years.
What struck me
The lifers I met were not a random sample. The really messed up or dangerous ones never get to minimum security. What struck me is that these men were like so many other people on the ‘outside’ but that a wrong moment, a wrong choice, a hard past had changed their lives – and those of their victims – forever for the worse. What struck me is that they were not the same men they were 30 years earlier when they had done something quite terrible. What struck me is that any of them would be perfectly acceptable neighbours to me, even friends. I found that pretty remarkable considering decades in prison, a really dreadful environment for any kind of positive life let alone personal development.
What struck me most of all is what a waste it was keeping them in prison for so many years – a waste of their lives but also a waste of the opportunity for restitution and forgiveness.
And a giant waste of public money. The cost of all the years of prison for each of these men ran into several million dollars. It’s hard to see how we could have done spent that money in a more stupid way.