‘Put us to work’: words from inside a Fraser Valley prison

An inmate in the Fraser Valley shares his thoughts on life behind bars, and how he says Canada's jails are failing the public and taxpayers

By Fraser Valley Current Contributor | October 28, 2021 |6:16 am

The writer of this letter was convicted of a horrible crime. We have decided not to publish his name to both prevent the re-victimization of those he harmed and to ensure the piece was not influenced by a desire to improve his reputation.

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I live in a Canadian penitentiary. I’ll bet some image from American TV or movies just flashed in your mind. It’s not like that, not at all. It’s actually not even what it used to be, 10 years ago and more, when I was coming into the system.

I dread the thought of still being ‘behind bars’ 10 years from now. I still have not figured out how to adjust to today, at least not without letting go of the few redeeming qualities I have. Every day is pretty much the same. There is a massive shortage of inmate jobs, and failing to snatch up one of the few positions around here, it’s fallen on my shoulders to fill my days with something.

That may sound like a ‘vacation.’ I wonder if the people who say that know what it means to be truly aimless. Everyone needs a purpose, a function, a place. Take all that away from someone and they will find a replacement. If there are no options, we’ll find something, even if it’s bad. Put hundreds of those angry, dysfunctional, mostly young men together, and it won’t be good.

Some people appear to be lazy in their hearts, cutting any corner for another minute of ’me’ time. Yet they don’t seem to be any happier. I need work. I need something to put my name on at the end of the day. Making that happen is a job unto itself. I was a low-life. A heavily entrenched, anti-social criminal. I felt entitled to do things that no decent, normal, functioning person would ever consider, at least outside of moments of rage and daydreams they wouldn’t admit they have.

When an inmate enters the federal prison system, CSC (Correctional Services Canada) puts together a ‘Correctional Plan’ (CP) for us. The CP consists of an analysis of our individual crime-cycles, breaking them down into their constituent parts, the ‘dynamic risk factors’ (DRFs). These are said to be addressed through rehabilitative programs. Although the law says there is to be a ‘range of programs’ available, there really is not. There is one for sex offenders, one for [Indigenous people], and the ‘ICPM’ is for the rest of us. I have not ever seen it be taken into consideration whether an inmate has a mental-health condition, and if so, to what degree. Neither is intelligence, education, personality types, or even neurological disorders.

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In 2010 I completed the ICPM high-intensity, (100 sessions) and in 2012 a refresher course, the ICPM maintenance, (10 sessions). I have not had a single rehabilitative intervention in the ensuing nine years of incarceration. So, outside of those 110 combined sessions, there is nothing else to rehabilitate me. I have completed my CP, so staff say. But, if I’m not rehabilitated enough to cascade down to a minimum security prison, how come whatever deficit(s) I apparently have are not being addressed?

I’m certainly ready and willing! I haven’t acted out in any way that could even be loosely associated with my crime cycle-DRS in over 10 years. And what about other inmates in my same position, having completed their CPs and still somehow not rehabilitated, and who have a release date coming up? What happens when they are released into the community?

Coming into prison, I had a Grade 10 education. Back then, jobs in here were aplenty, so I finished my high school while working in the kitchen. During this period, luck brought me to books about the mind and its processes and structures and how they interplay, creating thinking, feeling, behavior and any lack of it. Most were hard to read, being far above my head. But it was harder reading the descriptions of dysfunctional, mentally ill people that sounded like someone had come here and psycho-analyzed me. The precise fleeting thoughts and feelings I’d never put into words were on the page, staring up at me. These particular books were over 100 years old, and yet it was ‘news’ to me.

I came to understand why ICPM fails. It doesn’t address our issues. I would sit in my cell, book laid out on the blue blanket on the desk bolted to my wall. I don’t know why I put a blanket there. Maybe it was some desperate attempt to make my cell reflect my personality a bit, rather than having the dirty concrete, cinder blocks and cold steel impose itself on my personality, or maybe even crush it. Like everybody, I think, I went through the phase of thinking I was a victim.

I never used that word, which was even worse. I spent years whining, sulking, feeling victimized, while claiming ’I’m not a victim!’ But I looked around. Everybody here who does bad things seems to need that self-perception of being victimized, to do what they do, and to protect themselves from the harsh realities of their actions. They protect themselves from insight. But I can’t be too self-righteous. I was no different.

That’s not to say that all victims are phonies looking for excuses. It’s just to say that barring the full-blown, hallucinating psychosis, trauma does not force you to do bad things, no matter how badly and callously you were victimized, even if it was in your childhood. Looking in the mirror and admitting that to myself was the most liberating experience of my life. I had already spent decades mired in self-pity, and in the name of it dragging as many others as I could down to my miserable level. And now I have stopped it.

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Insight is probably the most elusive thing in the world. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Many who are devoid of insight are smart people. It’s a different function, probably more spiritual than cognitive. I got to this point by the tripod of personal growth: sheer willpower, prioritizing honesty and empathy, and just as important, having a mother who was going to love me regardless, by sheer willpower. Love, I think, is akin to insight: beyond intelligence.

I look around this place in which I am confined. I see hundreds of men who are still today like I was years ago. They don’t know themselves. They didn’t have luck bring them to the writings of geniuses, nor the stubbornness to get through it. They don’t have families of zealots. So, yes, these inmates have burnt those bridges. No doubt about it. We can sit around and say ‘you reap what you sow!’ That’s all great and true and maybe even reasonable. But then, these guys will remain the guys they were when they came in, just as they have to date. Just like they have the last times they got out, and re-offended, again and again, bringing us all to here and now. In most cases, prison makes all your problems worse and magnifies every lousy belief you ever had.

Most guys are caught up in their own insecurities, gratifying the needs which prison has confined to aggression/sadism, drugs, belonging and fitting in for protection from being ostracized and victimized.

That’s an exhausting, never-ending battle, too engulfing to even begin the process of looking inwards. The cognitive and behavioral ‘skills’ of the ICPM are all great but if someone needs skills to manage day-to-day what’s going to happen when real stressors enter our lives? Will we be able to ‘manage’ then?

Have we? By acknowledging childhood developmental factors, you are by no means giving anyone an excuse for their actions. But by ignoring them, you are all-but-guaranteeing someone will only make surface level changes that we only ever see resulting from ICPM participation.

Is it appropriate to have a guard with a Grade 12 education take a two-week course to qualify them to treat people with psycho-therapeutic techniques? What about to teach it to highly dysfunctional, defensive, uneducated people like inmates, some of the very most difficult people to work with? And what about program facilitators being ex-guards and ex-parole officers, people who have proven themselves to have little to no regard for our best interests, or even our welfare, in general? How could the ICPM skills stand a chance of taking root in inmates and changing us to the cores of our beings and personalities if we don’t even trust the facilitators? If they show no empathy, if we know that they neither understand nor care about what we need to deal with in order to become rehabilitated, let alone the program skills themselves? ’Open up’ in that setting? And we still have to factor in that the ICPM is a group setting, with other inmates present and without regard for any mental-health conditions.

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So, guys are going to programs here or there, and far less than half of us go to a regular ‘job’ that actually fills even part of our days. A few guys are working towards their high-school diplomas. The rest of us just sit around, (some of us) wishing we had some work. I guess that might not sound like the worst burden, especially since we all earned our time in prison. Sure. But should we not be contributing?

Work camps, farms, or a hundred other alternatives? Pay me $20 a day and I’ll work ten hours hard labour for ya. That could pay the costs of incarceration, and may even go towards subsidizing seniors below the poverty-line, or kids, or people with illnesses. Again, the alternatives are endless. The point is, don’t look at this waste as ‘poor inmates.’ It shouldn’t be that. No, look at it like Canada has well more than 10,000 able-bodied men, probably half of whom would leap at the chance to work for the slave wages suggested above.

We would be better prepared for release, both in having much more money saved, as well as experience in a marketable skill, a real ‘skill’ that would actually help us participate in society as pro-social citizens. Any man deep down will feel completely emasculated not being able to fend for himself, let alone his family, and providing the opportunity of a real job will provide us with the opportunity to start to learn the pride and self-esteem in honest work. THAT would be real justice. Most of us just sit around because we are forced to, year after year. Programs are the rehabilitation (allegedly); keeping us segregated from society serves the function of protecting society while we are being rehabilitated (allegedly), and also is our punishment. Since crime is considered an act against society, inmates contributing would be our way of paying you all back, whether we appreciated the significance of it or not. The poor senior would appreciate it, sitting down to a meal he or she couldn’t afford and wouldn’t have had otherwise. I promise you that.

As it currently exists, our co-called ’justice’ system is failing the inmates, failing the citizenry and taxpayers, and not solving one single problem but instead creating new ones.

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