Monday, May 18, 2015

What You Should Know About Prison by a few prisoners and prison volunteers

I have been volunteering at a men’s prison in the Victoria area for more than three years. I teach yoga and then, for about half an hour after, we do a creative activity, mostly drawing and/or writing.

Recently, we did a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness-style writing exercise where the only instructions were: just keep writing. We started with the phrase, “If I could let people know what they should know about prison…”

In emulation of this mess: our government is building more prisons and passing unnecessarily harsh laws.

If I could let people know what they should know about prison… The men I’ve met in prison have been people I find to be extremely creative, intelligent and often funny. I don’t meet all the men here, but I’ve met quite a few. I try to imagine what they might have been like as kids because I also teach yoga to kids (well, that’s not the only reason I try to imagine them as kids, but it does make me compare the two groups a bit).

I can imagine them as the boys who are antsy, trying to get a rise out of their buddies, a little bit of the shit disturbers. When I teach yoga [to the kids], I get quite a bit of that but I give them quite a lot of room to not be “well-behaved.”

I’ve been coming to prison for more than three years and I never make an effort to know what the men have done to be in here. I just accept them as people. I find it quite simple. I don’t really have relationships like this outside of prison. It makes, in some way, for a purer, easier friendship.

I can’t say why the men I’ve met seem to be on the more creative, intelligent and shit-disturby (i.e., a kind of creative energy that can also be destructive) side but I can guess (and from the little some have told me) that these qualities were never nurtured or given space.

I see the yoga kids getting a little of that (not just from me) and it’s so helpful and healing for them.

Prison and its punitive, disciplinary associations is so damaging. Add bureaucracy and fear for employment and it’s a recipe for fucked-upness. Now, following the idiotic, messed up example of Americans, we’re adding the idea of for-profit incarceration.

What I see are human beings caught up in a culture of contradiction. It’s tangled and upsetting and mirrors society. Yes, they are dealing with the burdens of their crime(s) committed. But most problematically they are also placed under the burden of a damaged, unfinished culture of passing the buck.

J. (another volunteer):

What would I like people to know about prison? I don’t really tell people that much about my time spent volunteering in here mostly because it takes too long to get through the judgmental face. And, although I would be thrilled to share my thoughts and feelings, I don’t wish to justify them. But if someone wanted to hear one thing it’s that jail is full of human beings and many of them forgotten human beings.

I have space inside me (stop laughing) to hold onto other people (sometimes, not always) so they can be human.

In here, people have done this for me too and it has pulled my feet back to the ground. In here, I have the luxury of talking to people with time on their hands. No computers, no cell phones, humans who are willing (and eager sometimes) to sit and have a conversation.

Inside this place that may not seem safe from the outside there is a safety to be who you are. In here, these humans have seen so much that what you are, even in all your freakishness, doesn’t seem so very hard to accept.

What I have found in here is appreciation and a space to learn things I wouldn’t necessarily get anywhere else. Here are people living just down the road but in a different world. People I grow to care very much about and feel so grateful to have been allowed to step into this world when I can.

Having never been in prison, I don’t think I can fill up more than one side of the page but K. is still writing like a maniac. Seriously, he’s on page 2 and still going.



But anyway, J. [prisoner] has a huge pumpkin. He is like an Asian Charlie Brown. There put that in your magazine! Okay, write before J. [volunteer] gets me in trouble again and Tasha sits me in the corner [FYI, I don’t do that].

I don’t know what to write. Blah Blah Blah. I really don’t feel like writing about prison. It is the last thing I want to write about. I have been in prison for nearly 17 years and living it everyday. Yoga and creative time are times for me to escape and not think about it.

Mmm, scented markers. I wonder if J. [prisoner] would let us color his head with scented markers if J. [volunteer] talked him into it.

My stomach is growling. It is getting close to eggs and sausages, hash browns and toast with peanut butter time. I am starving. After lunch I need to get over to the shop and do some more painting. I love my new grinder.

I think it is raining again or maybe it is just the tinted windows. I watched about 5 or 6 episodes of Adventure Time this week. It is so awesome. Game of Thrones tomorrow night. I am going to be so sad when this season ends. A whole year until next season. NO! George R. Martin had better hurry up and write more books. He is old and if he dies and doesn’t finish the series I will kill him. What was that puppet’s name? Why isn’t J [prisoner] writing anymore? Slacker.

Sausages and eggs and hash browns and toast, mmm. J [prisoner] is saying what the fuck. Now he is asking a bunch of questions again. I am going to start writing what they are saying because they are talking louder than I am thinking. Why isn’t Tasha telling us to stop? Why don’t I just stop? I bet G.’s actually doing the assignment and J. [volunteer] probably wrote something nice about prison or her experiences here. G. says stop but Tasha did not so I am not stopping until she says to. People are talking louder than I think. And more questions from J. [prisoner]. There we can stop now.

J. [prisoner]:

Prison changes people. Mostly it fucks with their morale. What is right in prison is not right on the street. Crime is so frequent that minor offences are often overlooked and justified. And there are many sets of rules. There is the rule they speak of and then there are prisoners’ rules, which changes from region to region, era to era. So people should expect uncertainty. Because what is right today might not be right tomorrow. When a prisoner gets out, he will have to learn what is right in the street all over again. 


I think it should start with what the community wants the prison to do! Do they want the criminals to be rehabilitated or do they just want them to be locked up and then worry about the consequences when the convicts are eventually released into the community? I think the Citizens’ Advisory Board should meet with the inmates and actually discuss the issues of reform instead of being toured around the facility and having smoke blown up their chimneys.

It is an unfortunate circumstance as there is very little correction being applied by Correctional Services of Canada. The status quo is feed the inmates a bunch of token group programs, along with some useless employment. Give some menial employment skills so they can say, say see what we did for them! Yet not everyone wants to be a first aid attendant or a construction laborer. They keep modern technology away from us and when we get out we are lost in a new world.


People who are incarcerated are mostly just like most of the population. Convicts are just the small part of our society that have made bad choices and are sent to jail to atone for their transgressions.

Then there are the few who have been falsely convicted for whatever reason, which I deem to be quite sad. Speaking from firsthand experience, I myself can deal with my sentence knowing that I am guilty. Yet I can never begin to fathom what it would be like to lose your freedom when you had done no wrong.

Jail is mostly being shunned by society. Most people do not care about this part of our society. They leave it up to the powers that be to deal with us.

Most times jurors are just for show. It comes down to the judge’s instruction as to whether a jury will vote guilty or innocent. This is just another misnomer that most of the general population never experiences.

We could debate this topic until all of our arms were no longer able to write but prisons are here to stay and we should all try to be better informed about this section of society.

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