Grace, Grit and My Damn Brother Wherever the Hell He Is

I was once a forestry technician. For any who wonder what exactly a forestry technician does, we basically plant trees in the spring and spend the rest of the year cutting them down. It all made sense to me when I was paid but in hindsight had they hidden the chainsaws, spring would have involved less perspiration.

I am reminiscing because my brother and I did some tree cutting ourselves at the family cottage. It was a long weekend and we actually cut down two trees. I use the term ‘we’ loosely.

My brother and I each have our own chainsaws. Between you and me my brother doesn’t know how to use his. Although his is more dormant I was on this occasion thankful he has one. I was exhausted before we were even near shade. I spent the first hour pulling the chord on mine. It ran quite well but only for a few seconds at a time. I gave up when oil started oozing out of spots I’m pretty sure contain no oil. I found a part in the grass near my folly and I could find no place to reattach it so I surrendered. I’m a tree hugger at heart but by this point I could barely lift my arms.

I sometimes mock my brother’s abilities and equipment but on this occasion I openly embraced his much cleaner and operable saw. We installed my larger blade and chain on his saw and were ready for forestry. We scampered along the slope in front of the cottage next to the tree that was in age more weed than wonder. It grew on a 30 degree angle opposite of where we wanted it to fall and its limbs conspired with their weight in the same direction. It was half rotten at the base and I struggled to make a notch in the side I wished it to fall. I made a cut on the opposite side fully expecting it to transfer its angle and weight in the direction of my desire. In protest it leaned logically and pinched my blade and my brothers saw. My knees were shaking as I know the danger of twisted, leaning, half cut trees. I was soaked with sweat and seriously considered unbolting my blade and handing my brother back the portion he owned. He doesn’t get out much and had been practicing yelling “timber” all morning so I obliged his obsession.

I climbed the hill to the shed where I put my hands on two axes, a hatchet and a sledgehammer. To this day I am unsure of what my brother was doing at the time. If a tree can be obstinate this one was. I placed the axe into the wound the saw had inflicted prior to being pinched. I pounded it in with the sledgehammer until the saw was released. Again, I am unsure what my brother was doing at the time but I heard him exclaim that the saw was free. “Thanks for that.”

I was basically petrified at this point since there was little holding the tree up and I knew it could kick out or fall in any direction, the least likely being the one I wanted. I did a little more cutting with the saw but I was basically at a point a beaver would be ashamed of. A beaver would have enough sense to leave the rest to the wind but I could see the eagerness in my brother’s eyes. I grabbed the axe again and using the sledgehammer pounded it with all my might in the direction the tree was deciding to go. “It’s going…wait…wait… did you hear that?” my brother exclaimed. In fact the tearing noise was fully audible to me as well and did nothing for my trembling knees. I kept swinging the sledgehammer wildly and it finally started to fall in the exact opposite direction of our initial plan.

It was somewhat anti-climatic as it fell into the limbs of other sympathetic trees and landed on the uphill slope as though settling into a favourite chair. I started to limb and cut the trunk into lengths that will eventually warm my mother. I struggled in the mess of leaves and limbs as I maneuvered up the slope. I couldn’t see much for all the trees but in need of someone to pull cut branches out of my way I had to again wonder where my brother was. I finally sawed a path to the top of the hill where the deceased tree had stretched. I stood on the cottage deck and took in the new view. It was only one tree but the view was entirely different. It only took two hours of fiddling, fear and frustration to see things differently. It all reminded me of the many other things I could not see at times in my life. The barriers and obstacles I have had to get past. I would like to say I have removed them myself but many have only been overcome by grace, grit and my damn brother wherever the hell he is.

Ignoring inflation it cost $550 000 dollars to deal with my mental illness institutionally.

I read an article in the London Free Press regarding policing and mental health. In a survey Londoners were asked :

“What do you think is the most important crime-related or policing problem facing the community and London police?”

Mental illness replaced downtown safety/bar issues in the top five. Why do Londoners believe that mental health is a police concern? If physical health is not a police concern why is mental health? If diabetics deserve doctors from start to finish why wouldn’t people with mental illness? If we are ever going to view mental illness differently we need to insist on medical interventions rather than law enforcement interventions. Part of the problem is the widespread perception that mental illness is synonymous with dangerousness.

Less than 3% of violence is attributable to mental illness in the absence of substance abuse. If ever we notice someone we suspect as hearing voices or disoriented in their thoughts or actions or somewhat delusional we might cross the street. The truth is that on both sides of the street 97% of our vulnerability to violence comes from the people who have no mental illness. People with mental illness are more often the victims of crime than the perpetrator.

When we allow law enforcement to administer to a health concern it is little wonder that the health concern becomes stigmatized, related to crime and associated with violence. If the police escorted diabetics to the hospital we would all have similar impressions about diabetes. Consider what we visualize, assume, think, feel and understand about mental illness. Now imagine having similar perceptions for a cancer patient. It would be unfair to the diabetic person or the individual with cancer but for the mentally ill it is as it would be for others with other illnesses; a barrier to treatment and a difficulty of rehabilitation.

Five years of my life have been spent under 24 hour care 7 days a week in an institution. Ignoring inflation it cost $550 000 dollars to deal with my mental illness institutionally. If a tenth of that money was used for comprehensive treatment in my youth, I might not be writing this.

A mental health clinician paid $60 000 dollars per year could have treated me for one hour a day for 70 years.
If we continue to fund and access policing and correctional measures to deal with mental illness we will forever feed the wrong end of the cow.

We do not fight cancer by building more cemeteries.(King)

When I first started living in the community after the forensic hospital I saw a psychologist once a week, a specialized therapist once a week and my psychiatrist at least once a month. Those supports were needed initially and they would have been expensive but it was nowhere near the near $350 dollars a day it cost to keep me in an institution. People can be monitored and treated in their own homes.

I could simply say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure but people might miss the point.

We leave mental illness unanswered and instead we deliver services mainly in times of crisis. Figure out the cost of an ambulance, two police officers and a truck or two of firefighters to respond to a suicide call and with any luck deliver that person to an emergency room and possibly a psychiatric unit for an indefinite period.

Now figure out how much it would cost for a therapist to prevent it in the first place.

If the financial realization is not enough for you consider letting heart disease progress to the point where invasive measures were necessary. With every other illness we prescribe the greatest amount of medicine at the beginning because to let any illness worsen is more devastating, difficult and expensive to treat. The social costs are immeasurable.

If you were ask a child how she feels about her father finding the best treatment for his heart she would likely answer the same for helping her father with schizophrenia. The best medicine at the beginning is not rocket science.

We are stupid to continue as we do but we are wrong and inhumane to do nothing.

I Use Christ as a Benchmark and Pull Back the Arrow Once More

I was thinking about God and or specifically Jesus Christ. He was a remarkable figure and I in no way want to disparage or disgrace His Spirit or messages. Any who know me would assume that was a given.

To a degree I understand His sinless nature and I recognize that in giving His life I was spared. He should have been elevated and celebrated when He was alive but He died betrayed, abandoned and with something less than the dignity He deserved. That is part of the story and in no small way one of the reasons I am drawn to Him.

I was thinking, He was flesh and bone-a human-a man. My understanding is He knew what it meant to be human, excelled at it and was even exposed to temptation. At the same time “to err is human.” His sinless nature does not separate me from Him but in a subtle way it does. I take comfort that He understands my pain and struggles and I believe He is often a presence in my life. I was simply wondering if He really does understand me. He did not sin so possibly He does not know what it means to feel shame, guilt or regret. I think He knew and knows more about forgiveness than anyone before or after but did He know about extending forgiveness to self?

I’m not saying the story would have been better if when He hit His thumb with the hammer He threw it, cursed and kicked the cat but I would have been drawn to that as well. Maybe it would have made His sacrifice impossible or impaired it somehow but if I knew He said, “Wow, that was stupid of me” or “sorry I messed up, I did not mean to hurt you but I have.” “I failed there but I will do better next time.” That would have inspired me to do better as well.

Maybe it would relieve some of the pressure to do and be perfect. To never sin is a worthy aim but to miss the mark often hones the aim and creates efficacy. I keep trying because I do miss the mark. I would sit on my sorry ass if I hit it the first time. I do not throw my hands up and say “I have fallen short, it’s over, I am disqualified.” I use Christ as a benchmark and pull back the arrow once more.

I say and do the wrong things fairly consistently. I am a blind archer but in my heart I believe God finds satisfaction in my persistence. I have a conscience and I sometimes shake my head at myself but I also laugh at myself. I’m hoping God is so busy helping you that He doesn’t notice me. “What have you been up to Brett?” “Who me?” “Oh a little of this and a little of that-you know the usual.” “Maybe we should talk about that.” “Sure. I’ll pencil you in.” I hope Jesus and God get me. Humour aside, I do hope they watch me once in a while and say: “Well, at least he’s entertaining.”

With all due respect, thanks for making me think God.

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.

Ten Cent Shoes

I recognize the fact that many of you have better things to do on Christmas Day, so I will speak out of turn. Experience has made me morose and more but I hope you can find some piece of truth or the heart of the Day in my musings.

Christmas in many jails is like any other day. The timing is impeccable as is the monotony. We tend to not watch the TV specials so it even echoes yesterday. There is nothing to signal what rattles your very soul. There are no funny Christmas presents and if orange is festive you would throw up on Easter.

The most painful part of incarceration for me was to surrender my fatherhood like it was as worthless as my watch and clothes. We are numbers and last names; nothing more.

On more than one occasion the flavour of the season was delivered by the Salvation Army. Bars prevented the hug I longed for but candies and such were a welcome amusement; humble gifts. I was more satiated by their presence. Who wants to go caroling in a jail? I listen to hours of music each day, it is my morning coffee but seared in my mind are the notes coming from the accordion on the other side of the bars. Strangers can help to mend a torn heart. I was a father without the whiff of my children and visions of them tearing into wrapping paper laid waste to my strength. I don’t know about most of you but I have many Christmas memories. Imagine letting them all loose when you’re in shackles that very day. There is only anguish at each passing vision. I was disinfected of any meaning despite what swirled in my mind. It was like being a Goldfish. There was all that stuff beyond but the best you could hope for was a sore nose.

The first Christmas I spent in jail was in the Stratford Gaol. It was built in the 1800’s with nothing much more than stone. The season was colder than I was accustomed to. We hooded ourselves with blankets as the stone shone cold on our bodies. Our frigid defence was rendered useless as we were ordered to leave blankets in our cells as they were a security issue. Fire with Fire.

I soon decided Christmas was going to be delivered even if compassion was held up with customs. I had a weakness for sweets while incarcerated. When I was in hospital I would waken in the night and eat a black licorice. I would waken in the morning with a piece or two on my pillow and lost half a tooth soon after but it was comfort. My family has a taste for black licorice and I must have found a connection when I was without them. Sweets were also a connection to the outside while in jail. A “snickers” tastes better than a “snickers” on the outside…trust me.

I always had a couple of chocolate bars either near me or in me. I would ration them. To eat a whole chocolate bar was like throwing away several moments of ecstasy. I ordered enough chocolate bars using the system used to procure street food and product on canteen. On Christmas Eve my cellmate turned into an Elf and ran diversion as we were being locked up. As he pretended to use the toilet I filled my pockets with chocolate bars and scurried from cell to cell and gave each man a chocolate bar. I shook hands with my own pain and glanced into the same infinitely sad eyes but there was a sparkle. It was Santa in an orange jumpsuit wearing ten cent shoes.

P.S. Thanks Mom for the canteen money.

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.