You can call yourself a vegan but I had to call myself a lawyer and use the jail copy of the Canadian Criminal Code to read a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to write a letter to the Ombudsman of Ontario to be a Vegan.

In my mind one of the best things about Canada is our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most of us take our rights and freedoms for granted. My rights and freedoms have been curtailed at times but even in solitary confinement in a correctional facility, I had and exercised certain rights and freedoms. When you can’t choose what to sit on, where to walk, what you eat or who you see; you pay attention to what part of you the government allows.

I wore an orange jumpsuit and could not escape even the light in the ceiling. When you are in solitary confinement or medical isolation about all that exists is you and That which speaks to you.

I was allowed both a copy of the Koran and a Bible and with knowledge of several other faiths I decided I needed to not be eating meat. You can call yourself a vegan but I had to call myself a lawyer and use the jail copy of the Canadian Criminal Code to read a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to write a letter to the Ombudsman of Ontario to be a Vegan. It was jail policy that an inmate could not alter their diet unless for medical reasons after their admission to an institution. The jail tried to impede my religious freedom. I won my battle with the Deputy Superintendent and was punished with meatless cabbage rolls three times a week.

I do not belong to any recognizable faith, sect, church or choir but as someone who has experienced different aspects of spirituality in far flung places I see Canadians entering dangerous waters. It is seriously important when an institution can dictate what to eat, wear, not eat or in any way influence what gives meaning to any life. We can shout about Turbans before Burqas but we are on a dangerous slope kicking up clouds of divisions. It is somewhat frightening when a Prime Minister attempts to pit the country against itself.

It all slithers into the sinister when the conservatives have singled out one of the most vulnerable minorities in Canada. I am 46 years old and have never seen a burqa in person. My city is 365 000 small. One woman in one religious garnet is what the government wants us to see. We need to look for what we are being distracted from. We also need to imagine something similar being exposed to any religion. Religions grow, and fade. No one can be sure that they or their blood will never see a day where the faith that has guided generations becomes a minority. Why does this government dig their heels in here? When a government devotes its resources to interfere with any religion or culture, none are safe.

If a government does not belong in the bedrooms of the nation what are they doing interfering with an individual’s customs and beliefs? If we allow this government or any government the mandate and ability to interfere in any religious or non-religious custom of anyone on our shores, it sets a dangerous precedent. It makes no sense to spout to the world that we are a country with religious freedoms but if you want to become a citizen you must interrupt your fundamental beliefs. I don’t think becoming a Canadian citizen should include institutional interference with any belief or custom of any religion, faith, sect or believer.

Who would a God find favour in? The one who openly displays his or her beliefs or the one who covertly wants her or him to be subjected to an interruption of faith and belief in order to belong in our citizenship?

One would assume someone’s identity could somehow be revealed without disrespecting or dishonouring what anyone believes and gains through public or private adherence to a system or lack of which forms and enfleshes what we inwardly experience. Is the burqa less significant than the water in a baptism?

Every citizen, visitor or refugee should be allowed at any moment to honour or announce any aspect of their faith, if safe. This provision is guarded by almost every organization, institution, agency and decent citizen but the conservative government seems to want to stand tall for us all and tell certain Muslims that they must deface a custom and belief to be included in the magnificence of multiculturalism and a land that offers outright protection of freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

I would feel violated if I had to remove and turn my back on my beliefs to become a citizen of a country that claims to embrace the opposite. Are we Canadians or conservatives? Belief in something or anything can be and should be one of the most sacred of personal rights and responsibilities. A measurable minority who claim majority is imposing on the fabric of an individual by reason of her faith. I believe all should be protected from such action if we aren’t already.

One could be the other and what protects the individual protects us all.

My religious freedoms were imposed on by the government but because the government had to honour the Charter of Rights and Freedoms I could even in complete powerlessness resist their overbearing actions. They had complete control of my body but I could fight for my spirit. If the rights of the individual to express their religious freedom is not respected, honoured and implemented by the government, the government can be forced by the individual to refrain from actions or policies that hinder religious freedom.

I will end with the words of the woman in a Burqa who this government is harassing. We need to ask what the end benefit is for Canadians and what the end benefit of the Conservative’s is.

“Aside from the religious aspect, I like how it makes me feel: like people have to look beyond what I look like to get to know me. That I don’t have to worry about my physical appearance and can concentrate on my inner self. That it empowers me in this regard.”

Gratitude in the Gravy

I am beginning to take Thanksgiving and similar holidays for granted but I still consider them granted. I have had dozens of such days denied in the past. I was a turkey in a cage wishing and wondering about the real ones steaming on family tables. I had occasions of special meals delivered on plastic trays and the flavour was not lost on me but it is family and friends that provide the true seasoning and season.

We had our turkey and cranberry on Sunday. My digestive system seemed to defy probabilities and several pounds of gravy and goodness all but vanished. By 9:00 PM I was hungry again. I popped a pair of Eggo waffles in the toaster which seemed like putting whipped cream on a Frisbee but I like Eggo’s. I hadn’t had an Eggo in about a year and as I waited for it to toast I started to reminisce. The butter on my knife and bottle of real maple syrup reminded me of the days of substitution.

Grocery shopping used to be calculations and unfulfilled cravings. After I met my wife, her wage bulged the budget and foods I longed for made it past the checkout. Grocery shopping became an exciting excursion and a measure of happiness. It was more entertainment than expense and added to creativity in the kitchen. These days grocery shopping is still a pleasant experience but as I bag perogies and produce I walk away wondering which is infused with precious metal. I am grateful we can afford avocados but I wonder about others for whom a healthy diet is unaffordable.

I ate my Eggo’s and thought about days without but I smiled because I have in fact been given a gift. Had I not done without family gatherings and grocery luxuries I would have not licked the maple syrup off my plate.

Dear God, Thanks for Thanksgiving and please consider my syrupy smile gratitude for groceries. Amen

What I Learned In Jail

Corrections in General

What we pass onto prisoners through the justice and correctional system returns to the street.

Treatment in = treatment out

If we expose people in prison to unsafe conditions why would they care to contribute to a safe society on the outside? If we are inhumane or uncaring how can we expect them to be otherwise? If we allow them the opportunity to be brutal on the inside of a prison it should be no surprise to find them brutal when they are released.

We can agree jail should be a place of denial and punishment but to interject humanity or respect only makes one more mindful of their shortcomings regarding the same.

When we separate a prisoner from society normally what happens is they create their own society. There is a separate code, culture and hierarchy and this would often include” heavies” (inmates who would control what they could). This culture continues to exist in the mind of many released inmates.

While at the Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI) there was no real hierarchy and no heavies. Our behaviours mirrored more closely how people would carry themselves on the outside.

Hierarchies spawn violence. People fight for the top, or peck at those unfortunate enough to be on the bottom. I also believe it would diminish a portion of recidivism. I am not educated in the psychology of crime but for some prisoners they feel they have a higher significance and importance in jail. Anecdotally, the returning prisoners I was familiar with were those who thrived in jail, those who were above others in the hierarchy. For some, being in jail is a status boost.

If you can eliminate the hierarchy there is less social and psychological benefit to risking your freedom through criminal activity. For some, crime becomes a no-loss scenario.

1)      Chance of gain in the crime

2)      Social gain in returning to a situation where power and control (that would otherwise be unattainable) are obtained

The institutional hierarchy is mimicked by the inmates. One person walks around like they own the place and the rest fall in line according to loyalty, familiarity or criminal charge. Rather than years or service or specialty a prisoner leads by force and manipulation. We use what we are charged with as the only means of status. The pedophile could be strong and smart but never will they have status which renders them powerless. At OCI the pedophile could be democratically lifted from their position. A charge had no bearing on whether you were in charge of TV programming or janitorial duties. It allowed each prisoner a means to be something more. When someone is elected to a position a personal best must also be a communal best. When inmates depend on each other they respect each other. The more inmates manage themselves the more they value their surroundings and each other. With a concrete system with which to build a society and community within corrections, inmates can maintain a workable humane safe system.

The “heavies” on the units need to be the Correctional Officers (CO). The COs must set the tone and rules. There should be no difference between justice and prisoner justice. In my experience some are fine with the idea of prisoner’s doling out justice on each other but it is inhumane. I am reminded of the Romans throwing humans to lions. Each unit has a lion, a heavy. All prisoners are prone to being beaten (or eaten) when there is unsupervised leadership among the inmates. Cut the head off the lion. The institution should be the leader and any leadership among the inmates should be democratic and supervised.

If we want prisoners to return to society and follow rules… the best place to teach them is in jail. Prisoners need a reality in jail that better serves their reformation and society as a whole. Prisoners need simple tools to better themselves. We have to impart on them a degree of self-worth or they have nothing to lose. We need to refashion some of how they relate and what they believe. Once they are released they are vulnerable to financial stresses, relationship stresses, temptation and addiction. If they exit without learning new ways of relating re-entry to jail is more likely.

Higher penalties while incarcerated

There needs to be more consequence for misdeeds while incarcerated. It is pointless to hold offenders to justice in the first place if there is none while they are in jail. We double speed fines in construction zones so why not double the penalty for infractions while in jail? A crime on government property could have a harsher sentence?

Safety and Surveillance

When a guard or correctional officer (CO) is among prisoners it may potentially place the guard in danger but it offers a degree of safety and security otherwise unattainable. Guards are more likely to intercept contraband and weapons. They will be able to identify problem prisoners and can administer to that individual. Having guards in close proximity would enable the CO to maintain order and identify prisoners with special needs. A CO could become an assessment tool in classifying prisoners and diverting those in need of more security, health services, treatment, segregation etc.

Preventing a fight or beating by being present to de-escalate arguments is safer than rushing onto the unit to break one up already in progress. The units I spent most of my time in were in the Sarnia Detention Centre. They were basically cages. When trouble was finally detected COs had to open two doors to separate a fight or end a beating. Most of it would have been preventable by simply having a guard on the outside of the cage to watch us. Instead, they sat in a hallway with the door to noise and news closed. In my opinion some COs are responsible for the violence that can happen through complacency. They understand the prisoner code and many are covertly supportive of it.

If a CO was closer they could overhear conversations and be able to immediately intervene or alert more guards to help them with the situation. We need COs trained in de-escalating and diffusing violent situations.

If two guards are present a signal can go out for extra personnel at the first sign of trouble rather than in the midst of it.

Prior to placement if an offender is classed as violent through conviction or past record they may be more appropriately placed.

The x-ray machines I saw at Toronto South Detention Centre ensure that no weapons enter. If there is no contraband which is achievable through these x-ray chairs, the unit becomes safe to both inmate and guard. My experience with jails is that the response time for additional officers is between five and fifteen seconds. With a guard viewing the inmates at all times a fight or beating should only last as long. Two officers become six quickly. If they can interact they will prevent even that.

Surveillance in jails should be complete. In the forensic system I was viewable on camera except in private spaces.  Privacy can be suspended in the name of security. If we have the right to strip an inmate naked do we not have the right to watch them do almost everything else? Cameras don’t eliminate violence but they can prevent it.

Toronto South seemed ideal from a security standpoint; two officers on the actual unit with one guard in the tower watching over the area.

No one has time to consider their wrongs or take responsibility and work towards improvement when they must remain alert to their surroundings for safety.

At OCI, I had a desk and felt safe so I was able to learn about myself. I devoured self-help books as I struggled with my illness. The pages didn’t alter my symptoms but I have been altered. I wrote part of my book in the form of letters from jail. If a unit is in any way unsafe I would not sit with my focus on words home. If we can make units safe we have an environment where programming and prisoner improvement can take place.

Prisoner Violence

If we are complacent regarding violence and prisoner justice it detracts from taking offence at crime to begin with. If we subject prisoners to a lawless community our communities are subjected to the same when the same attitudes and behaviors are released.

Many crimes are rooted in not relating well with people. When an inmate is exposed to inappropriate interactions it reinforces existing deficiencies. If an answer to argument is a fist it will land you in jail where the fist is still the answer to argument. We are releasing people with experience in further lawlessness. It should be the opposite if we expect results from our investment in their lives.

It makes no sense to process prisoners with the same disregard we fault them for. People learn best by being shown. It can be with words or more active. If we demonstrate a degree of respect toward inmates they can learn what it is, use it amongst themselves and share it with the families and communities they return to.

At OCI a democratic and just community was built by the institution. Most adhered to it and those that didn’t were simply removed. If we build a community where inmates can practice living thoughtfully they can recognize the importance of the same on the outside.

News from the street enters the jail and news of the jail enters the street. Prisoners can reach people regardless of which side of the bars they are on. A fight or argument in jail doesn’t always end there. The prisoner culture spills into our communities.

We want prisoners to have respect. To allow brute force and manipulation to run a unit proves our disregard and furthers the cycle of disrespect.

Privileges, Programming and Responsibilities

I spent roughly a year at OCI in Brampton. I will share some of my perceptions.

It needs to be said that had I not experienced detention centres I would be unaware of the positives I experienced at OCI. For me, a toilet seat and a real knife and fork were worth behaving for. I’m not being flippant when I say if you offered me a cheeseburger for every month I behaved, I would have waxed the deputy superintendent’s car every frosty morning. It doesn’t have to be much to encourage positive behaviour and behaviour modification.

With privileges, good behaviour can be rewarded and anchored to the positive. With increased privileges on the horizon an inmate has cause to do well. A privilege provides two reasons to comply with conditions and commands. An inmate wants to do well so they are not demoted to a lower level of privilege and they are also compliant so they can advance to the next level.

With the deprivation of incarceration comes economical and simple means of reward: the TV could be left on an hour longer; thirty minutes more sleep on Sunday; a jug of watered down coffee for the unit.

In Sarnia an inmate would sweep and mop the guard’s walkway for a jug of coffee. I cleaned an entire unit and moved mattresses just for the sake of having something to do. For me it was quite an honour. Normally a guard would choose the “heavy” and blindly reinforce the hierarchy.

A person can learn healthier habits through positive reinforcement. At OCI I was the secretary for a spiritual program that we crowded for. I kept attendance and if three or more sessions of the 16-week program were missed a person would not receive their certificate. I was a stickler for details at the time and had several irate inmates on my heels when they did not receive their certificate. I saw it as an interesting piece of paper but some viewed it as an accomplishment. Those inmates didn’t come to each session but they came to enough hoping for a certificate.

An extra hour of TV can be viewed as a means to escape hardship. It not only motivates the inmate personally if he wants to watch TV but he also becomes responsible for his fellow inmates sharing the same pleasure. If you are the one who fails to ensure the TV time – you have to answer to your fellow inmates. Extra TV time at OCI was the reward for smooth unit operations. If we failed cleanliness we lost the privilege.

When I spoke at Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) it was in an unused gymnasium. With the purchase of a basketball well behaved inmates could gain five minutes to themselves in the gym. The supervised solitude will diffuse tensions and for those active some testosterone could be expended.

Access to freedom is a tool of reform. To deny it is punishment enough and to measure levels of relief provides the opportunity to create co-operation. If inmates co-operate they can witness their own importance and the importance of others.

Privileges provide some hope and in terms of treatment the optimism alone speeds progress. Jail is often hopeless having little to do or little to look forward to. If an inmate has hope they may be less prone to violence.

When each inmate has a duty for the unit they can learn responsibility, gain a sense of self efficacy and a sense of belonging.

When the lower inmate is able to advance it is a signal to those who think they are better that all have value. If everyone has value it dissolves the hierarchy.

The use of protective custody (PC) and general population (GP) creates safety through segregation but also animosity. Inmates are within reach of certain inmates through communication and connections so safety can be compromised. The GPs considered those in PC to be rats, thieves and sex offenders. As such all were looked down on and in situations where segregation fails those in protective custody are in danger. At OCI there was no PC or GP and as such the hierarchy it creates was non-existent. In some form it enhanced the safety of the institution.

I was in PC for much of my incarceration. I ended up in cells with GP, they saw me and many would know what unit I was on. We were transported together and would see each other as we accessed the yard. Any prisoner is reachable.

I saw several fights in PC and was a witness to a beating so in my estimation it is already failing to be what its name insinuates.

At OCI there was no PC. The only segregation was between new arrivals in the assessment area and the offenders already classified to units. When I was in regular jails the threat of violence coated most days. OCI was safe because non-violence was a condition of the privilege of inhabiting humane, respectful and progressive living conditions.

No one comes clean in dirty water.

We need to dismantle how inmates gain their self-esteem and replace it with socially acceptable measures. We want them to gain their esteem by behaving not by bullying and manipulating. We want them to gain their esteem by cooperating and contributing.

Portions of my mental health and corrections journey included the use of privileges. When medicine and the law intertwine privilege can be a level of security and is progressive. Inmates that are a risk can at any point be placed in the most secure setting and inmates who are doing well can be advanced.

OCI and the forensic hospital in St. Thomas (formally Regional Mental Health Care St. Thomas, now Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care) were the safest and most humane of the institutions I experienced. OCI had a zero tolerance policy regarding violence. OCI had many amenities worth behaving for. If a prisoner violated a certain rule they could be transferred back to a detention centre. Detention centres are the harshest to be in and have less comforts, opportunities and treatment.

Another rule at OCI was participation in programming and treatment. We had Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, General Addictions and an array of spiritual services administered by permanent staff and supported by volunteers. Participation in spiritual programming was widespread, though voluntary. It was a change of setting or a break to the monotony for some but for others seeds were planted. Personally, spirituality was one of the most important aspects of my rehabilitation and recovery, something that I didn’t have when I entered the system.

More importance could have been placed on programming. It is unlikely the rooms I saw at Toronto South for programs such as AA will work. There is no anonymity with windows into the room and the children’s chairs are humiliating in themselves. If programming can be mandatory after sentencing all sentenced inmates could begin with AA. Those without substance problems will learn about and appreciate the struggles of those who do. Participation in programming is an escape from the monotony and is often embraced for that alone.

Volunteers are a link to the “outside” and I found self-worth in the fact of their presence. Volunteers can be a link while incarcerated but connections can carry into the community providing continued supports when the prisoner is released. Most of the programs at OCI were maintained by volunteers.

A six week exposure to anger management will not benefit every inmate and others would resist but numerous others would benefit.

Spirituality

I would be little of what I am today were it not for being ministered to throughout my journey. I gained my faith within institutions and if I have nothing else this would be enough. If an inmate has faith they face and overcome what they might not otherwise. We should not push religion on this group but if we make access to spirituality attractive the nectar will stick to some and change lives.

 

 

Early Intervention

I am the million dollar man. I have spent three years in correctional facilities, two years hospitalized and five years monitored in the community. The five years I spent incarcerated amount to approximately $550,000 dollars and that gets added to the cost of my community treatment. In my estimation it would have been cheaper to have a worker follow me from a young age and it would have been advantageous for me and the system to have had intervention before I cost over $300/day. A mental health worker paid $60,000/year could have spent over 18 years seeing me for four hours a day. That same mental health worker could spend one hour a day with me for 70 years.

I think if there was one person who was assigned to my mental health journey I may have avoided the courts. I didn’t receive the intensive treatment I required until I was in my thirties and there were periods I was not in receipt of treatment or oversight.

I sometimes wonder if that time and money was spent when I was younger if I would have avoided everything.

Educational Supports

In my experience many inmates struggled with various degrees of illiteracy. I personally assisted a couple of inmates with reading and writing letters. It is sad to sit next to someone who hasn’t the ability to experience such an integral part of existence. I’m not sure how these adults navigated the educational system without procuring the ability to read.

When an inmate is incarcerated it presents the state with another opportunity to teach literacy. Possibly volunteers could be called on to assist in passing on this basic skill. Literacy could be conditional for those who need it and it could be encouraged and advanced through the issuance of simple privileges.

Inmates could be called on to assist each other in literacy creating cooperation and self-worth in both teacher and student. We can poke and prod this segment of society to become gainfully employed and contribute but illiteracy is a hindrance at best. These individuals are not stupid and could embrace society and normalcy more easily if they could navigate the written word. A criminal record is difficult to overcome but illiteracy is an obstacle that will only be moved by education.

Inmates need access to the raw materials for self-improvement. I took Bible correspondence courses during portions of my incarceration. I don’t see why these voluntary programs couldn’t include secular members of the community. One suggestion may be teacher colleges including marking inmate attempts at equivalencies. My exposure to schooling while incarcerated included a woman who came weekly to the Sarnia jail. I was quite psychotic and she assisted me beyond academics. While at OCI I mainly attempted to gain a typing credit with a teacher who worked half days. While we have prisoners in our grasp we may as well mold them. What if for those who have failed the public system we now take the time to instill knowledge and the ability to gain skills; skills that pay taxes and build communities. Lack of education and skills may not lead to criminality but they anchor most inmates to the cycle of crime.

If I am a better person I can’t help but be a better citizen. I was twice confined to Sarnia Detention Centre and I saw several familiar faces on my return. Many of the guards were familiar with about a third of the detainees. The repeat offender may hold less promise of participation and success but there are few beyond hope.

Better citizens add to public safety rather than perpetually compromising it. If we are paying to house these inmates we might as well do something with the housing and food we provide. There would be less educators teaching in other countries if they could safely do so within corrections. Make it a paid internship. They gain experience and the province economical labour. Obviously I’m just spitballing but there must be ways to institute inmate improvement in an economically feasible fashion. Even at an expense it might prove profitable in the long term. I understand fiscal responsibility but if a government doesn’t invest in the longer term they will balance a broken society.

Some inmates will not amount to much on the street. Corrections could incorporate measures to change this.

Uniforms

I can identify a guard as being similar to myself when they are out of uniform. Many inmates associate and resent the uniform regardless of who it is on. I can imagine a guard as having a life outside of the jail. If an inmate can view a correctional officer as more of a person they are better able to identify with them. Prisoners recognize that other prisoners have relationships and family but a guard is a guard to them. Just as the guard judges us as criminals we judge them as something even less. There is a barrier between guard and inmate which limits the amount of respect that passes between the two. If guards become caseworkers their assistance will be recognized as that. They will still be the ones with the keys but they will unlock the potential that lies within many inmates.

This places more value and respect on them in my opinion. When we see the uniform it is a reminder of where we are, when see clothes on a person, they are exactly that. Clothes on a person. If a correctional officer is also recognized as a person not just an authority figure the respect and cross identification between inmate and guard might create a more secure and safe environment for both guards and inmates. If a CO becomes someone I can know, they become someone who can set an example for me. I will not mimic that which I despise.

The majority of the justice system wears a uniform. If I was dealt harshly by someone in a robe or bruised by a badge, your uniform is part of the same and if I am looking for any revenge it might often do. You become part of why I may be suffering. The pain, stress or confusion involved with the system is taken out on uniforms. Without the uniform the officer becomes less a beacon of my plight. If most prisoners have no respect for the uniform why are they worn?

At OCI the COs often wore street clothes. It was the first time I fully recognized them as quite like me. I was wearing an orange uniform which offered enough of a distinction between us. They were as visible among us and in the same sense stood out in a different way. I saw each officer in both street clothes and uniforms and my respect did not differ.

At OCI we were encouraged and at times mandated to speak with our correctional offer/caseworker. The person with the most potential of being a positive influence is the correctional officer. In a regular correctional facility to be seen speaking too much with a correctional officer creates a dangerous situation. Other inmates can infer that they are being “ratted on”.

Keep in mind there is usually an underlying mistrust of most correctional officers.

Corrections and Mental Health

Mental illness is an illness

Mental health services in the community are not always accessible because of funding and or stigma. When an individual with diabetes enters the justice system he or she will have access to medicine. Their blood will be tested as required etc. When an individual with a mental illness enters the justice system they should have equal access to treatment for a medically identifiable illness.

When I was found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) my treatment became law. Equal access is the right thing and would be a healthy blow to stigma. Not many people lose the ability to perceive reality and are found NCR. I do believe mental illness is enmeshed in many other crimes. We need only consider crimes to which alcohol or drugs were a contributing factor.

We can still punish the offender but it makes the most sense to treat them. I saw a fellow rearrested within several hours of his release. He was an addict. He was an intelligent upbeat and humourous person but he was a prisoner on both sides of the bars. If he entered a 30-day drug or alcohol treatment program as he served his sentence he may not stay sober but it might help. These are fallen citizens who may never vote but whose hand we must grasp because we will be called to account for knowing that hand was there.

We do not tell those with diabetes they must suffer because they are a criminal and we mustn’t say it to those with depression, schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder. If there is any link between mental illness and the crime we have cause and duty to treat the illness.

Assessment and treatment of mental illness and addictions in jail

We don’t have to build hospitals to treat a significant number of citizens with mental health challenges. The correctional system provides an opportunity to assess and treat mental illnesses which are becoming too costly to ignore. Mandatory participation in treatment is easily enforced. Individuals are observable 24/7 to better assess and treat. They are being fed and housed already. OCI in Brampton would be suitable with minor modification to deal with mentally ill inmates. Mentally ill offenders should be treated regardless. To not treat them is costly, irresponsible and contributes to stigma. We can’t deny a prisoners access to therapeutic measures and proper mental health care.

Even a 30-day sentence would provide enough time to assess. Community supports and conditions could be incorporated through the probation system. Probation is often a three year duration which might provide the teeth to institute and carry on with treatment beyond the facility. While I was in the hospital forensic system I could be called on at any time to submit to drug and alcohol testing. If a dirty urine sample sends you back to jail it is reason to remain clean. If we conscript participation in community programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and can keep an inmate clean for three years I suspect it would contribute to public safety and provide a sober person to incorporate back into the community.

If one in five probation officers is versed in mental health they could administer to community treatment adherence and be a regular assessment tool.

We owe it to our communities at least to ensure that when an inmate is released whether they suffer from schizophrenia or addiction that they have been treated.

If my mental illness was better assessed and treated while I was at OCI I may have not entered the forensic system. The year I was there would have been ample to get a better handle on my illness.

Accommodations can be minimal for any offender but the mentally ill offender requires the opportunity of solitude and a degree of mercy and compassion.

Segregation

Segregation should be a last resort – not an only option.

Segregation is used as punishment for misdeeds in jail – but an extension of a prisoner’s sentence would be more impactful. Even those who do well in jail look forward to and count on release. Many would not risk further time. Those that do are a problem prisoner and could be managed otherwise. Most do not experience segregation so its threat is obscure. To be given more time is comprehendible as a threat.

I often lament the use of segregation but my personal growth, in part, sprung from the deprivation I experienced. Deprivation gives rise to insights otherwise difficult to obtain. It is punishment and can be used as such where appropriate but the mentally ill offender is better served in a different setting. Seclusion can alleviate acute symptoms in the short term but is detrimental in the long term.

From a prisoner’s perspective justice and corrections is a maze no one in particular cares if you make it through. If I can see a correction officer’s purpose as that of assisting me it lessens animosity. An inmate may resent someone having authority over them but if the correctional officer is helping that too can be overcome.

Corrections should be an avenue of reform and rehabilitation.

 

 

Diversion and Community Supports

Mental Health Courts and Diversion are necessary but mainly tinsel if they do not bring about the services and treatment necessary to in fact divert the offender from further contact with the justice system. Had my diversion lead to something remotely like the hospital forensic system in terms of treatment and compliance I may have never entered the correctional system. The money spent could have been a better placed $30,000 hospital visit.

I believe it is in the public’s interest to administer more in community support to individuals on a mental health journey. If I was prescribed a worker to follow up on me I would have more likely been truly diverted from the justice system. It could have been a daily phone call. If it was a person I already had a therapeutic relationship with I would have trusted enough to convey what was happening to me and I would have a ready contact for how best to get help. If I could access supports through this individual it would coordinate care and supervision of that care. One person could have access to my complete history to best determine what was presently appropriate.

Portions of my incarceration were inappropriate and at times no one was aware of my challenges. People who are psychotic/deemed NCR, or otherwise acutely ill, should be in a hospital setting as they would be for an acute physical illness.

Hospital Forensic System

When I look back on my mental health experiences I see compassionate well trained professionals but some of it seemed haphazard. The forensic system was the best worst thing to happen to me. It was the exception. It has flaws but it was the first time I was exposed to intense and comprehensive treatment.

I can understand not wanting people occupying hospital beds but it makes no sense to provide the care when a person commits a crime – the care should take place before it happens.

Accessible and proper mental health care could reduce the numbers in the forensic system. If an illness is being monitored and managed it is less likely to result in some of the tragedies we hear about. Forensic patients are not punished so the fact that their recidivism rate is so low can mainly be linked to the fact that deterrence lies in treatment. If treatment can be used to deter future conflict it only makes sense to provide it as early as possible. For some it is far too late after the crime.

If we continue to do as budgets allow and be fiscally responsible, we will not progress. In the short term it appears as fiscally responsible but when I consider the repetitive nature of my mental health journey and of the many others I have witnessed it is only truly fiscally responsible to properly address the problems to begin with.

With the use of Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams, those at risk can be managed in their own homes with little call on the taxpayer. Community treatment is more therapeutic and it allows the client to remain enmeshed in their families and communities; both assist in immeasurable ways and further reduce leaning on the taxpayer.

If we could compare a typical mental health journey to a boat with a leak – what I experienced was like taping up the hole. When I was in crisis I had a piece of tape placed on my life and I was returned to sea. It is expensive to take the boat from the water and properly fix the damage but until that happens we will be buying tape and citizens will suffer individually and collectively. Tape doesn’t fix the hole.

NCR offenders will never be eliminated but they can be reduced if comprehensive treatment is applied to those most vulnerable. Most of the forensic patient stories I am familiar with included the application of mental health services before the offence. If these individuals are coming into conflict with the law after and or during the application of mental health services it points to a gap.

Early Education

In my youth psychiatrists were secrets. I was taught how mountains were formed but not how emotions are formed.

I believe we can convey to youth what stigma is, how it is perpetuated, its consequences and we can challenge them to be the generation to eradicate it.

In the 70s and 80s we had exposure to some health curriculum. We had dental hygienists come into the classroom to teach us how to brush our teeth but I don’t recall information about the mental side of my health. A mental health worker could stand in front of the same class to inform youth about mental health.

If we are exposed to the correct information at a young age we are able to filter future truths. Stigma is an attitude attached to distorted thoughts which are anchored in misinformation. If the proper information is presented much of the fear which feeds stigma will be eliminated. If the emotion of fear is challenged by knowledge it can be lessened so when we are exposed to mental illness in our neighbourhoods and communities we can be more rational about what we are witnessing and those experiencing it will be more apt to find help. If fear is eliminated it leaves room for respect, compassion and empathy.

We can teach youth mental hygiene.

If youth are exposed to various mental health professionals and other knowledgeable citizens they will know where to turn if they or a friend need assistance. With education they may recognize their own difficulties and seek early treatment. When mental health is talked about in the classroom it is talked about around dinner tables. Youth can carry information to people who may have passed by the pamphlets.

If a mental health worker is a regular visitor they become a familiar face for someone who may need mental health services in the community. The mental health worker can be the link between our schools and mental health services in the community.

Most of my exposure to mental health information has come from experience and self-education. Knowledge doesn’t alter symptoms but it relieves the stigma which is at times worse.

I do not think we would create a generation of mental health hypochondriacs any more than a Heart and Stroke Foundation presentation would lead to strokes.

I believe mental health education can be presented in a meaningful and interesting fashion. The more that is done to inform people about mental illness the more stigma is combated. If stigma is reduced it creates a more therapeutic environment for all mental health consumers. The results will spill from our classrooms into our homes and communities. If a gate is left open something will get through. Education is a gate that needs to be opened to mental health. When we educate our youth we educate society.

Lack of mental health education perpetuates stigma. If a government makes mental health education a priority it brings mental health itself to the forefront. It is a signal to all citizens that mental health is a priority and that your approach as a government is to expose mental illness for what it is. Making mental health education a priority fights stigma.

It is achievable to create a generation which spreads accurate information and the understanding, compassion and empathy that it enables.

To not educate our youth has costs as well. People resist seeking treatment because of the stigma. Illnesses progress untreated increasing social and economic costs. The cost in terms of suicide alone is incalculable. If we can get people to seek help early the chaos that springs from illness can be managed.

Mental health knowledge strengthens the fabric of communities by incorporating the legitimacy of mental illness. If my illness is understood and accepted I can contribute in a more meaningful way and find support in the community. Understanding undermines the isolation of mental illness.

Herstory

I was at a funeral this afternoon. I was there as a personal comforter and had never met the departed. One never knows what to say at a funeral and this opportunity was more so for me. I was sorry for their loss though I didn’t even know what they lost.

I learned the departed’s age, knew what she looked like as a young woman and saw the flower in her hair everyone seemed to be mentioning, in more recent photographs. I learned about her family history and stories from her life.

I met the departed in the voices of a daughter, a grandson, a granddaughter, a niece, a friend and a minister. Her spirit trembled in their words. She floated from their thoughts and hearts even into me; a stranger. If I could be touched without a real glance at her what might have she been like alive? There was no casket but she moved through the room and down the cheeks of several sitting in front of me.

The person I was accompanying had never been to a funeral and was a little unsure of herself. I didn’t give her any advice on what to say or where to sit. She figured it all out as she sat next to me wiping away tears as well. Tears are always appropriate and a funeral is a good opportunity to feel someone one last time or for the first.

Volunteers

It was my honour to be the guest speaker at Elgin Middlesex Detention Center this evening. It was a dinner and awards banquet for the many fine people who volunteer there.

For me it was like entering jail for the first time in a way. Everything was pleasant but I had never been in the front door. It was full of the same uncertainty. What’s beyond that door? How long before this one opens?

The gymnasium was decorated and had a theme; there was live music and great food. A lot of time and enthusiasm went into honouring the volunteers. When I went up to speak I felt somewhat small. Prior to my words, awards were given for years served. Thirty-years are a tough act to follow.

I had intended to write some words specific to the volunteers but had a speech land in my lap weeks before. A family friend returned a stack of letters I had written years ago from a correctional facility. I spoke words I wrote years ago with a voice I hope conveyed the same gratitude.

October 19th 2002

Dear friends,

I am including a copy of a speech I delivered. I ended up speaking in front of 200 people. The Volunteer dinner was an even bigger deal than I imagined. It was all amazing to me. I was among people who don’t dress in orange but more importantly didn’t seem to be bothered that I did. I was eating olives, deep fried veggies, bacon wrapped pineapple and sausages. It was a smorgasbord of special foods I won’t see again for half a year. They even brought in the Honour Guard. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I first saw them. I thought it was six OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) wading through the reception area.

How is it that a jail becomes a place of contemplation, transformation and insight?                Volunteers.

What astounds or confounds me most about volunteers is that we are not judged. You give your time to the barely sober, the unsuccessful, the lost, the poor, the uneducated and the lonely; there are no exceptions. You include us in your lives and share your experience, strength and hope with people who sometimes have none.

Why do you give of yourselves? Is it some moral duty or obligation? I can only guess it is a form of love; a love and respect for yourselves, a love and commitment to your community and love and compassion for us here at Ontario Correctional Institute.

Volunteers break our isolation from the world and give us a glimpse of what we can look forward to. You provide a link with normalcy and the outside as well as with reality and the future.

Collectively what goes on here is amazing. Lives are saved and many more are changed to a point where we can progress in health within society. What you do here has no ending. You will never see how I am with my children or how I treat family and friends. To those of you who have spent years as volunteers I am very much inspired. To have not grown tired of our stories, to see the same attitudes once again and yet walk forward with hearts to help. As a group we are in dire need of an example – thank you for providing one.

With your help I am not ashamed of myself or discouraged by my mistakes. I can see that these mistakes have been an important factor in my life`s progress. I would have loved to forgo some of my journey. I would have gladly turned away from my problems and denied their existence. You have helped me confront myself, to see myself. To see the warts on the man I was and the light on the man I am becoming.

By talking and sharing I heal. You make my experiences more real by listening to them, and give me something to contrast them with. You lead me beyond myself. Equally important you show me. You show me what it means to give, to be human. You lead me with your example. I can see now that my purpose in life is collective, it is community not individual. You have helped me with a new view of life; insight by insight.

I`m not sure how you view yourselves but I think a principle of physics applies here. It is that the greatest effects come from the smallest causes. We are in critical moments of our lives and some days everything hangs on what to you may appear to be a mere nothing but from which great things spring. Volunteers are the hidden sources, the smallest causes. I have had the good fortune to find my own guilt and have gained a sense of spiritual dignity from it; a sense of acceptance. I now believe the saying `Nobody can fall so low unless he has great depth. I am inspired to do my best.

I have some peace in here that I never had on the outside and am free in ways I never have been before. How is it I can find this in jail?      Volunteers.

The greatest gift to give a man is to give him Grace to live again.

Thank you for your time; thank you for your efforts; thank you for your Grace.

Realigious

I was looking over some jail letters I wrote years ago. My mother, an aunt and a family friend saved all the letters I wrote during my confinements. It’s interesting to read my observations and perspectives. I saw much more than bars when I was behind them. I learned lessons that the same time in school may never have yielded. I wrote the word “parity” and its definition on January 16, 2002. “A state of being equal and a theory in physics that any substance and its mirror image counterpart have the same physical properties.” I would like to argue against this theory as any mirror I stand in front of has less hair and more weight than I know I posses but I see its truth. A rock in front of a mirror is nothing more or less than itself. It has cracks and has no reason to deny them. It will not lose stature as a rock if it reflects flaws.

I am not always pleased with my receding hairline but it is mine. I can still smile with it, I can carry a conversation; it really doesn’t take away from who or what I am. When I can recognize myself as I am; full of warts but fine thanks just the same I can be who I am. It is more reflection and less deception when I can see myself as light and dark. When we see our true substance and the mirror image as the same it in fact creates “parity” itself. “The state of being equal.” If I see myself as I truly am there is no maneuvering into being better or worse than others. We are all the same.

There is little need to be anything in solitary confinement; the Hole. Whatever you are is all you live with. There is no need to say or do anything to alter your position as there is no one to posture for. I often crawled about my small space scratching notes on my papers and upon the walls and floor. My life had more importance than any time I was a free man. There was nothing to fear in nothingness. What would fester in your mind if it had nothing to occupy it? What if there was no phone, computer or company? Who and what do you connect with when you are the one and only for days, weeks or was it months? When it was just me most of my thoughts had spiritual significance. Realigious experiences and perspectives are often a symptom of mental illness. Maybe some are but wouldn’t that make God crazy?

Comments

I’m not sure how many of my followers actually read this blog but I would like to point all who do to look at the comments I received regarding Victim Impact Statements. I was saddened to learn that some of my followers have tragically been affected by crime. They have bravely stated the importance of Victim Impact Statements. For this I am thankful. I have never denied their importance but more people need to hear of their importance to victims. It is something only a victim can articulate. While being mindful of the pain I wanted my readers to see the Grace in these comments.

It may be an odd question but I would like to ask if the impact of a tragedy changes?

I know from my own tragedies that I have gained and lost. I would not have strength, compassion or patience to the degree I do were it not for my losses. I can tell simply from these comments that these individuals possess these qualities beyond most.

My tragedies have been different but often I would have traded all the pain for any of the gain there may have been. At times I think; take it all away and send me back to where there was less pain. But if I consider all the fine people in my life, if I consider what I have in my mind and heart, it would be an even greater loss. I would mourn more if my life was anything different from what it is.