Although I did not gain a deep sense of satisfaction or fulfillment from the Oakalla experience, it did foster within me an interest in prisons and prison life. I was asking questions such as, “what is the role of personal choices in producing men and women who spend years of their lives behind prison bars and high perimeter fences?” “What part does the family play in this?” “What about societal factors?” “And how does prison life influence and impact the thinking, attitudes, actions and futures of inmates?”
At the beginning of 1971 I needed to write a major paper to complete the requirements for an Honours BA. I discussed my interest in prisons, and especially inmate culture, with one of the SFU profs who would supervise me in this. Fortunately he had an acquaintance who was a department head at what was then the Regional Psychiatric Centre. He readily offered to make arrangements for me to meet him.
On arriving at the Psychiatric Centre, which was actually a high security prison, I quickly realized that the emphasis was definitely on security. An electronically controlled steel door slid open to admit me. I understood at once that from this point on, I would not be master of my own fate until someone opened this door for me again and allowed me to exit. I was buzzed into a small building where an aging, very thin officer was waiting for me. A sheet of glass with a metal aperture separated us. He pushed a book through the opening at the bottom of the glass and said “fill in the blanks, print your name and then sign.”
When I had provided the requisite information, he appeared grudgingly satisfied and said, “wait here, someone will escort you to your appointment.” A young security officer appeared from somewhere behind him. He smiled and said, “follow me”. I gathered that unlike the older man, he was not yet institutionalized and not bored.
Although it was much newer than Oakalla, the place had an intimidating institutional personality. It occurred to me that I probably would not be able to walk anywhere along these halls without being tracked by a camera. My psyche felt under siege and I questioned my wisdom in wanting to do a study in this forbidding place.
The department head was middle aged, balding and experienced. He very likely understood immediately that the high level of security and the nature of their inmates might be overly daunting for me. “We deal with extremely difficult cases,” he said, evidently feeling a need to establish a direction for our conversation. “Our clientele includes a number of sexual offenders.” Possibly he didn’t want to discourage me so he allowed some time for discussion. As we talked, I had the sense he was considering where my request might be looked upon favourably. After about 10 minutes he seemed to have come up with
a possible plan. “I think Matsqui Institution would be a more appropriate place for you to do what you have in mind,” he said. “They have the type of clientele you should be talking with. There is more of a cross section of inmates. The Superintendent is Doug McGregor. I’m quite certain he would be open to this. I’ll give him a call and ask him to talk with you.”
Matsqui Institution is a federal medium security prison on the same tract of land as the Psychiatric Centre. I knew it had a reputation as a prison that dealt with a high number of drug users and traffickers. Many were incarcerated for crimes that supported their habit.
I had read in the local papers that at some risk to his own career, Doug McGregor was experimenting with a Day Pass system for inmates. Some in the Fraser Valley community were experiencing considerable anxiety at the idea that federal prisoners were being granted either escorted or unescorted passes.
When I entered Doug’s office, he greeted me cordially and gesturing toward a chair, invited me to sit down. He was wearing slacks, and his shirt was open at the neck. Very relaxed and confident, he helped me to feel at ease. I liked him immediately. For nearly half an hour we talked about prisons, especially his experimentation with the Day Pass System.
When I explained the nature of the research I hoped to do, he listened intently, breaking in occasionally to ask a question. His alert mind quickly grasped what I was requesting. The idea of a study of inmate culture interested him. “Go ahead and do it,” he said. “Just give me a copy of your paper when you’re finished.”
For almost three months, several days a week, I sat in a small room interviewing men doing time for crimes such as break & entry, trafficking in heroin and cocaine, armed robbery, murder, etc. Their sentences ranged from 2 years to life. A life sentence did not mean they would never be released. Occasionally, a man died in the prison as a result of being stabbed, hit over the head with a metal pipe, an overdose of heroin, or some other unnatural cause.
I also spent time talking with counsellors, living unit officers, the warden, and others. Sometimes I was invited to have lunch in the prison dining room and I observed inmates serving food to staff. A senior security officer gave me a tour of the living units. Occasionally counsellors invited me to attend group sessions they were doing with inmates. I had numerous discussions with counsellors and also at times with the prison psychologists.
When I completed the research paper, I gave Doug McGregor a copy, as promised.
Now, more than 40 years later, I still appreciate the prof who arranged my meeting with the department head. I also value the department head for introducing me to Doug McGregor. And I am thankful to Doug for opening the many doors of Matsqui Institution so I could move about virtually without restraint.