This post is about 1800 words and can be read in about 7 minutes.
The grating debate
by I. M. Grenada (pen name of a lifer prisoner in Canada).
Previous work by this author published in 2017 and 2018, including here.
To be… or to be hung? That’s the question every life-sentenced prisoner has had to face at one time or another since Canada officially converted its capital punishment regime in 1976. Sometimes that debate happens between our ears at 11:00 p.m. with the cell door sealed for the final time that day, and the boot-falls of the lone bed check sentry at least an hour away. “The hanging hour,” we call it. More Canadian prisoners die in that sixty minutes of the day than by riots, murders, or all other forms of Big House misadventure combined.
In Canada though, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms considers incarceration without any hope of again waltzing the aisles of Walmart on Christmas Eve to be somewhat “cruel and unusual.” So eventually those of us wearing a life tag stop wrestling with the midnight demon and settle in for a decade or two of close quarters and Canadian cablevision. While the rest of the country muddles on in expectation of true love and/or the occasional hometown hockey trophy, a lifer’s aspiration is but one: parole. And just as the dead would generally swap eternal peace for a piece of fresh cherry pie, so too the life sentenced class would trade permanent rent control and unlimited Netflix for one last chance to walk the Seawall with our grandchildren. Increasingly though, that which once kept us alive through the hanging hour has been obscured by the acrid smoke of ever-changing “case management objectives.” Just ask David Cook.
Dave is my neighbour at a medium security penitentiary in Western Canada. He showed up here in 1990 as an 18-year old judicial transfer from juvenile custody. The sentence was life without parole eligibility for 8 years, for the shooting death of two other teenage boys over… (wait for it) a girl. Don’t get me wrong. I too am a parent – and now grandparent. Two dead cousins on the household carpet is every family’s version of an unending nightmare. But as Solomon once said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Which also makes it unsurprising that one victim’s parents happened to have a friend in the upper echelons of the Ontario Provincial Police… who also had friends in the correctional service. Let’s just say that the past three decades haven’t exactly been easy time for Mr. Cook.
“I really don’t get it. What the f☹k do they want from me? I mean, I’m fifty f☹king years old!”
Dave and I met through a fellow prisoner I’ve been helping prepare for parole. In 2005, the B.C. Law Foundation funded advocacy training for me and 11 other life-sentenced federal prisoners. Since then I’ve heard a lot of tales of woe from flabbergasted convicts. But what sets me apart from all the other flies on the wall is that I’ve seen the CSC paperwork behind those tales.
“I’m telling you, this Warden wants me to ‘beg’. That’s all it is. He wants me to go to his office, get down on my knees and plead for the privilege to clean his toilet. Well fk that! I’m Native. We don’t beg white guys for the ‘privilege’ of cleaning their toilets.”
Dave seemed pretty resolved, but to me that determination smelled more of plain pain and frustration than it did the cry of intergenerational Indigenous oppression. I decided to sniff around some more…
When I began my life sentence in 1995, Canada’s federal correctional service (CSC) was organized to meet three primary objectives. The first was to enforce a judicial sentence of incarceration. The second was to prepare the prisoner for release, either by parole, statutory release, or warrant expiry under the CCRA. And third was to keep the prisoner, government property (including employees), or anyone else from losing an eye while attaining objectives one and two.
In 2012 though, the federal government introduced changes to the CCRA (section 15.1) that established by statute something called a “Correctional Plan,” making it the responsibility of every federal prisoner – including those serving life in prison – to “transform” into a better social creature than they were before their incarceration. To this end cognitive/behavioural therapy has become de rigueur, if not obligatory, in the 21st century penitentiary. Any hiccup in daily prison life is interpreted through the lens of “relapse” against the Correctional Plan – a philosophy likely recognizable to China’s Uighur community.
“It started a year and a half ago,” Dave explained. “Before I could transfer to minimum security, my P.O. wanted me to prove that I won’t run away. So they cleared me – to go outside the fence to pick up sticks and garbage under the watchful eye of armed guards. If I didn’t run, I suppose it would have proved that I wasn’t a complete moron.”
In Dave’s case, he proved that on 13 consecutive occasions between January and March 2018. Then, one day, back in the cell block, he was the victim of an attack by another inmate. Subsequent investigation proved that Dave was the victim, and as such he was cleared of any institutional charge. Yet that didn’t stop the powers that be from rescinding Dave’s “perimeter clearance” status, and referring him to a cognitive maintenance program.
“So I sucked it up and did ‘maintenance’… for the third time, even though this whack job attacked me in my cell. By then, it was time for me to see the Parole Board.” As an Indigenous offender, Dave had applied for a section 84 release to a halfway house (CRF) in June 2018, but due to CSC administrative delays was not heard for 22 months.
“It was the middle of the pandemic and my lawyer wasn’t able to come to the hearing. But I wasn’t going to postpone for another… who knows how long. We were locked down for almost four months, remember? I was climbing the walls just like everybody else.”
As might be expected, the PBC denied Dave’s application due to the fact that he had no support from his parole officer. And why would he? He had only finished two months of picking up garbage outside the fence before screwing it up.
“The Board asked my P.O. what his plan was to move me ahead. He told them they were going to get me cleared for perimeter clearance, and after six months of that, they’ll give me an [escorted temporary absence] to visit the minimum, and if that goes O.K., they’ll revaluate.”
I had nothing to offer. No advice. No criticism. No commiseration. I was simply silent in my empathy.
“The thing is,” Dave sighed, “I’m a 50-year-old man paying for the actions of a 17-year old boy. I swear, I can’t even remember what I was thinking back then. I mean, I wasn’t. I was a fking teenager! And every time I turn around they keep moving the target. It’s like climbing a greased pole where they add an extension every time I get close to the top, and when I tell them that they say I’m ‘in my crime cycle’ or I’m ‘relapsing’. I just don’t know what they want from me anymore.”
While Dave’s exasperation is palpable, evidently what is wanted from him is the same as for every lifer under CSC’s new social reconstruction mandate. For Dave that means that his risk to public safety will be measured by an ability to egress the prison’s front gate without cursing, spitting, or any public repositioning of his testicles. First though, he must again meet the ever-shifting standards of “perimeter clearance.”
After one life sentenced prisoner walked away from a local minimum security institution two months ago, prison administrators have become decidedly foggy on what that standard is. Once it gets straightened out though, Dave will then be required to attend a “Warden’s board,” where the last time he was grilled on his “tone” and “attitude” (really). Then, finally, if the Institutional Head clears him, Dave will be on-call to clean an administrative building outside the fence, but under the close supervision of prison staff. And for greater certainty, yes – that building is home to the Warden’s personal water-closet.
When COVID-19 caused Canadian penitentiaries to adopt restricted movement protocols, the prison Dave and I live in entered a Iockdown regime worse than the solitary confinement conditions that Canadian courts banned in 2018 as “cruel and unusual”. After 60 days of 23 1/2 hour per day cell-time without any outdoor exercise, I was ready to “tap out.” I put in a request for emergency psychological assistance.
“I’m Ken,” said the respondent. His introduction through a face mask, behind a face shield, and through my locked cell door marked the beginning of what has become a very interesting professional relationship between me and Dr. Ken Mildewan, the former chief psychologist of CSC’s Pacific region.
“As controversial as it might sound, I think that every person convicted of a serious crime should get a life sentence. And only after they’ve proved that they’re safe to not do it again should they get out,” Dr. Mildewan said during one of our later discussions. Like almost
everything else he had said to me since our first meeting in May 2020, I was intrigued – but chose instead to reflect before responding. Unfortunately, endless psycho-therapy isn’t exactly a CSC’s budget priority, so Dr. Mildewan had to move on to (arguably) needier clients before we could finish exploring his vision of Canada’s future justice regime. It’s been that kind of a year.
But if I were able to meet with the good Doctor again, I would certainly have a couple of questions. For instance, how would he define “serious crime?” Would his version include administrative crimes, such as bribery or breach of trust? The harm to public trust and political institutions caused by this type of crime is arguably as great as violence. And under his “life for everyone” proposal, what test would he propose for an offender to “prove that they’re safe to not do it again?” And perhaps most importantly, I would want to ask the career CSC employee whose Psychological Risk Assessments have for decades significantly colored the decision-making processes of both the CSC and Parole Board of Canada just how he would justify bypassing Canada’s 150 year history of proportional justice and judicial independence by trading our Criminal Code’s sentencing guidelines for the self-fulfilling prophesies of CSC risk assessors?
Then again, that’s really not Dr. Mildewan’s question to answer is it? As every life-sentenced Canadian prisoner I’ve assisted legally in the past decade now knows (well over a hundred), that question belongs to all of us – whether citizens, advocates, lawmakers, or the courts that interpret them. My hope is that we’ll find the answer before everyone become a lifer. And if not, I suggest that someone notify the good folks over at Public Works procurement division; We’ll definitely be needing more toilet brushes to get us through the hanging hour…