The ominous grey perimeter wall of the BC Penitentiary towered
high above me as I stood uncertainly at the massive door to the “Visits and Correspondence” section. I was keenly aware that these walls confined some of the most dangerous, desperate men in Canada. They cast a sombre shadow not only over the prison grounds, but also over the lives of the inmates. From the beginning, in the minds of people driving by, this prison had been shrouded in mystique and secrecy. What kind of reception would I receive on my first visit to this maximum security penitentiary? I knew that many prison staff harbour a deep suspicion toward newcomers to their stringently regulated domain.
I pressed the button that alerted staff to my presence. After waiting a long minute, Mr. Gowler opened the door and stepped aside so I could enter. I had made an appointment to interview an inmate, but even so he asked about the purpose of my visit. I explained that Cal, the inmate I wanted to visit, had applied for an M/2 sponsor. His next question concerned the nature and purpose of M/2. He already had this information on file but apparently had not read it. Rehabilitation of inmates was not on the prison’s top 10 list of priorities.
“Follow me,” he said. He led me to a narrow room with partitions to allow each visitor and inmate a minimum of privacy. I despaired when I realized Cal would be on the other side of a glass partition. A small metal aperture in the glass would permit the flow of our voices.
After a few minutes a man in grey prison garb appeared, accompanied by a young custody officer. The officer withdrew out of my sight and the man lowered himself into the wooden chair on the other side of the glass. Short and lean, I guessed he was at least 50. It was evident from the lack of colour on his face he had not seen much sun in years. Lined, expressionless and haggard, the face told of virtually a lifetime sacrificed to crime and prison. His scant strands of dark brown hair were flecked with grey. For an awkward moment he studied me. I sensed he didn’t believe anything good would come from this visit.
Thinking that an attempt to lighten the mood with small talk might just irritate him, I introduced myself, then said, “I have read your application for a man-to-man sponsor. Knowing some things about you will help me match you with someone from the community. Is it ok if I ask you a few questions?” His face remained impassive. Only a slight nod indicated assent.
“Do any family members visit you?” I asked.
“First time in jail they came,” he said, shifting uncomfortably in the hard wooden chair. “Not now.”
I found the glass between us a distinct impediment. It didn’t surprise me that his family had long ago chosen to avoid this ordeal.
“Do you have any interests, like reading or playing chess?”
He shrugged as though this really wasn’t a useful question. “No. Just a game of cards with a few guys before dinner.” He turned in the direction where the guard had gone, probably not wanting the man to hear anything he said.
“Do you follow politics?”
“Why would I do that when I’m in here?” It wasn’t said with impatience, but rather with a note of resignation.
My next question elicited a reprimand from whoever was monitoring conversations between visitors and inmates. A disembodied voice broke in from an overhead speaker and said, “you are not permitted to ask that question.” I apologized for having stepped over this unseen line and continued.
From memory, I went through a list of 10 questions, some of them about his early years. I then finished with, “is there a particular reason why you applied for a sponsor?”
“I need help getting out of here,” he said very matter of factly. Then, rubbing his forehead with one hand, his voice dropped to a whisper. “Can you help me?”
It was the plea of a man deeply immersed in the quicksand of prison life, grasping for a hand. A disastrous upbringing and a succession of unfortunate choices on his part had set his life on an uncontrolled downward trajectory. He was now in the fickle hands of uncaring fate.
I had been there for about 20 minutes and I sensed that Cal had given more than he had planned to. His inner turmoil had exhausted him.
“I’ll look for a sponsor for you,” I promised, rising. “He’ll visit you about every two weeks. I’ll try to get back and touch base with you.”
He nodded and the young custody officer appeared.
The desolation of Cal’s inner life troubled me. How many other men hidden behind these grey walls had sunk into the morass of hopelessness that was sucking the life out of him? Our prison system was adding to the despair of these lost men, many of whom would one day return to our communities.
Once outside the doors of the Visits Office, I breathed deeply, grateful to be a free man. Our sponsors visiting men in the BC Penitentiary would face extraordinary hurdles.