When the massive inner steel door at Oakalla clanged shut behind us, my heart told me we had entered an emotional wasteland. We had entered a wide grey corridor with a concrete floor and cells on one side. Each cell contained a simple metal bunk covered with a grey blanket. Steel bars enclosed each cell. The men, clad in light brown prison garb, moved about restlessly, with little discernible purpose. Seeing us, they momentarily ceased their meaningless wandering to scrutinize this troupe of “Square Johns” entering their dreary domain. If they felt surprised, they chose not to reveal it.
We were the first batch of citizens recruited by the newly minted M2/W2 organization. Each of us had already been matched with a specific prisoner in this cell block. Our assignment was to visit this man every two weeks and attempt to establish a relationship with him. M2/W2 organizers believed if a man doing time has a contact in the community outside the prison, he has a better chance of establishing healthier relationships and a more positive lifestyle when released. In time, teams of women would become involved in prisons for women. I was still a student at SFU and had decided that this prison visitation program would be interesting and might provide some insights for my sociology courses.
The first man I was matched with demonstrated little interest in anything. The years of successive terms in prison had seemingly sapped Rick’s humanity. He was never willing to speak about his family or upbringing, but almost certainly he came from an environment that did not nurture. Too many years behind bars had warped and hardened his thinking. Generating conversation with him immediately became my exclusive and difficult responsibility. He had no plans or ambitions that interested or excited him. When I asked a question or introduced a subject, he responded only briefly, his voice remaining flat and without even a hint of emotion.
Rick was paroled a few months later and quickly vanished, probably to the streets of Vancouver. In time I would learn that this was not uncommon. My next match was Pierre, who claimed he had been a lawyer in Quebec. Conversation with Pierre was easy. He loved to talk about his exploits, seemingly without pausing to catch a breath. I loaned him several prized books dealing with sociological issues. When I showed up for my next visit with him, I was told he had been sent back to Quebec. Apparently my books had made the trip with him. I hope he read them.
The men at Oakalla were doing provincial time, two years less a day (a deuce less, as they referred to it). Visiting Rick and Pierre provided me with a basic education concerning prison inmates, prison life and regulations. It also made me aware that other than resignation, bitterness and anger, this prison was indeed an emotional wasteland. These men had little experience with joy, delight or a sense of fulfillment.
Almost without exception, the men I had joined with to visit prisoners had church connections. Many were individuals with a deep faith. Knowing that Jesus had many times responded to cries for help from lepers, blind individuals, parents with sick children, people looking for a source of hope, etc. they believed they too had a responsibility to the less fortunate.
One contingent of men came from a conservative Mennonite church on Ross Rd. in what was then Matsqui Municipality. They were rigorous, resolute, caring men, farmers, teachers, trades people, businessmen. I came to respect them for their commitment and integrity. When they gave their word, it was like a signed contract with a lawyers stamp.
I got to know one of these men, Dan, quite well. A chicken farmer, he was pragmatic and discerning, a good match for Paul. Paul was about half Dan’s age and could have considered himself superior to this farmer who chose not to own a radio or television . He and Dan were at opposite ends of the spectrum in pretty much every respect. Paul had given his life to crime. Dan had devoted himself to his family, church, farm, and the local community. He valued honesty more than money.
Amazingly, a significant rapport developed between them, probably in part because Dan unreservedly accepted and valued Paul. Paul’s past criminal activities did not prevent Dan from recognizing that this young man was a human being with immense potential. When Paul was paroled, Dan invited him to live with him and his family. Paul agreed to this and over time came to see the value in Dan’s conservative views and lifestyle. Dan helped him find work and Paul was launched on the road to a productive life.
He did have to contend with temptation, though. One day he was on the freeway, intending to visit people and haunts from his unsavoury past.
Years later he said to me, “I was halfway to Vancouver. Then I started thinking about what I was leaving behind. I knew if I went there, I would never return.” He took the next exit and drove back to Dan’s farm.
At the church, he soon fell in love with a young woman who was quite happy to accept his proposal for marriage. In time he became a skilled, specialized roofer and his services were in high demand. Now, many years later, Paul and his devoted wife have three grown children and several grandchildren. Like the other men in the church he has grown a beard and, except for his quite non-Mennonite name, in faith, work ethic, integrity and appearance, he is a perfect fit.
Paul told me recently, “I never had a good relationship with my dad. Dan was like a father to me.”
Although Dan passed on some years ago, the memory of him lingers in my mind. The relationship between him and Paul, developed in Oakalla, helped me to understand that although an individual has known only crime, bitterness and failure, such a person can still experience a miraculous change.