In the first year after receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree from SFU, I didn’t earn a single dollar using this hard won education. I was not troubled by that. My volunteer activity at Matsqui Institution was, in essence, an unpaid apprenticeship in corrections. I was experiencing challenge and fulfillment, and there were plenty of opportunities for learning, exploring and growing. The experience I was gaining would prove to be of immense benefit once I became serious about launching a career. My working arrangement with Dad in his landscaping business allowed me considerable flexibility to attend to my M2 prison responsibilities.
Our program rapidly became known within the prison and the flow of applications increased at a rate that alarmed me. As yet we had none of the sponsors I had promised.
Persuading men to become the friend of an inmate proved to be more challenging than finding inmates who wanted to participate. Fortunately at some churches there were groups of men who invited me to come and present the opportunity to make a significant difference in someone’s life. Sometimes I was able to arrange for an inmate to accompany me to these sessions. I had found an exceptionally strong, patient sponsor for Roy, and he soon lost his stern expression and unfolded his massive arms. He was one of the men I took along at times. Although he remained silent during the meetings, he became quite willing to answer questions afterward.
On one occasion I arranged for several inmates to join me in a church group discussion about the corrections system and what was helpful for rehabilitation. One of the inmates I brought to this meeting was Albert, a man of about 60 with a lengthy prison record, much of it for drug possession and trafficking in heroin. In a group setting, Albert was relaxed and congenial, and he expressed himself coherently. Wearing a grey suit and striped tie, his appearance, bearing and speech were entirely distinguished.
One of the church men arrived late. After the meeting he said to me, “I’m really impressed that the warden came.” I was puzzled at this. The warden had not been there. From his description, I realized he thought Albert was the warden. Certainly Albert’s appearance and demeanour could have caused anyone to conclude he was a highly placed official at Matsqui. As a prisoner, he was responsible and his capabilities were exceptional. Unfortunately, out of prison this gifted man had always reverted quickly to his street mentality. On the street he saw himself only as a user and seller of heroin.
I knew a lot of men would be intimidated by the thought of developing a relationship with a man doing prison time. How would they possibly find anything to talk about with someone who had long been confined behind a high perimeter fence? Some were also concerned about their own safety and that of their family.
To counter the various anxieties, I began inviting individual men to go with me to visit an inmate who wanted a sponsor. I phoned a man I had gone to school with but hadn’t talked with in years. I also approached a successful businessman who had previously been with CBC television. Another was a tradesman I didn’t know well but respected highly. I was pleasantly surprised when each agreed to go to the prison with me And, like many others, each decided to sponsor the man they visited. Once they met the individual and talked with him, they realized that this man had many of the same desires, concerns and needs they had. It became an effective strategy and it meant I could select men I believed had sound judgment and would be dependable.
In time, the decision makers at Matsqui came to believe that our sponsors were of good character and would not assist inmates in anything contrary to prison regulations. This gave us considerable credibility and sponsors were able to take inmates out on day passes when they became eligible. Often they took them to their homes for a meal and to meet their family.
Almost without exception, inmates were grateful for these excursions beyond the high, confining prison fences and did not take advantage of their sponsor. The relationship gave them an opportunity to view life in mainstream society. The experience challenged their thinking and in some cases persuaded them this was a life they too could have. Although they would find that straightening out their badly bent lives was difficult, they had someone willing to walk along this path at their side, possibly for the first time.