On my first visit to the B.C. Penitentiary, Mr. Gowler had evidently not been impressed by my beard, long black hair, jeans and runners. I wasn’t yet prepared to part with the beard and hair, but I pondered the idea of a partial image upgrade. My goal was to persuade Mr. Gowler to provide a more suitable place to interview men who applied for a sponsor with our organization. To this end I purchased a casual blue business suit and matching tie.
A few days later under a grey sky and in a light rain I drove to the penitentiary in my long ago primered Volkswagen van. My income wasn’t yet allowing me to have it painted.
Wearing my newly acquired light blue suit, a conservative tie and dress shoes, I appeared at the door to Visits & Correspondence. The high grey wall again loomed over me, as though still challenging my bid to enter. Mr. Gowler opened the door, spent a brief moment assessing my new image and invited me to enter. I thought I detected a hint of cordiality in his voice.
He led me in another direction, not toward the detested place where I’d visited through the glass last time. “You can conduct your interview in here Mr. Martens,” he said, opening the door to a small room. Except for a desk and 2 chairs, it was completely bare. Not even a picture on any of the walls. “This is where lawyers conduct interviews,” Mr. Gowler said. “Press that button when you’re done.” I thanked him and when the door closed I heard the click of a lock.
A few minutes later an elderly custody officer with a thick moustache ushered in Jim through another door. I stood up, shook hands with Jim and introduced myself. He was thirty two, wide shouldered with a muscular physique a wrestler might envy. His brown hair was cropped short. I thought I detected a sadness lingering around his eyes and mouth. He didn’t smile.
Being a big man, he needed to pull the chair farther from the desk to sit down. After a few minutes of preliminary small talk I said, “are you getting visits from family or friends?” The focus of our organization was to provide a friend to prisoners who were friendless.
“No,” he said, “my family is scattered across the country. No one visits me. My friends are in Nova Scotia. I don’t want them to know about this.” I knew he was in for murder, but I didn’t ask for details. Eventually he might want to talk about that with his sponsor.
He rolled up the sleeves of his grey shirt to the elbows, like a man getting set to do strenuous physical labour. Placing his large forearms on the desk, he leaned toward me. I wondered if he felt a need to be near another human, one not doing time or guarding him. Although we had been in this room together only a few minutes, it occurred to me that he might want to talk with someone he could trust. Possibly he had never spoken about his crime to anyone other than his lawyer.
For a moment he looked up at the ceiling, then around the room, even turning to inspect the wall behind him.
In a high security prison, only an unsophisticated, guileless inmate would not suspect the room might be outfitted with a listening device. I said, “this is the room the lawyers use Jim, I don’t think anyone would mess with them. They’d be in court with it the next day.” He relaxed and leaned forward again.
“I’m a truck driver,” he said. “Highway rigs. Never graduated from high school. My Old Man drove too. From the day I came into this world, he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. When I was a kid, every Christmas he bought me a different kind of truck to play with. Same on birthdays. Slapped me around some if I didn’t pay attention when he talked about trucks. I was just a kid.”
He paused to do up a button that had popped out of its hole in the grey shirt. “Once I was old enough, I wanted out of the house. I found a pretty woman and we moved in together. We had a kid pretty quick, a boy. He’s 4 now. She wanted more kids but the company was busy and they wanted me on the road a lot.” Lines of wrinkles appeared on his forehead, adding 10 years to his face. “Maybe the sperm were as tired as I was. Anyway, it wasn’t happening.” His massive chest was preventing the errant button from staying in place. He stopped talking for a moment and gave it his full attention.
“Like I said,” he continued, his right hand holding the button in place, “I was on the road a lot, mostly in the U.S. She begged me to get into another line of work, but that’s how it is with us truckers. I needed to be behind the wheel of a rig.”
“She got lonely without you there?” I felt I needed to say something to indicate my interest.
He covered his face with both large hands for a moment, then looked at me. “Guess so. It’s the old story of a guy coming home when the little woman isn’t expecting him. It was her birthday. I got the dispatcher to give me a short run so I could get back quick and surprise her. Had a dozen red roses for her.”
He paused again. I sensed that his words were stirring up a terrifying memory.
“An unfamiliar car was parked in the driveway. Out of province plates.” He paused as though reliving the memory.
“Driving a rig in the states, you have to expect trouble. Had a hand gun stashed in my bag. Never used it. I wasn’t really suspecting anything but I did think it odd she locked the door when she had company. It was a small town, and we never saw the need for locking the door during the day. I used my key. They didn’t hear me come in.”
Jim’s breath was coming in gasps, his grey eyes staring intently into my face. “ When I saw what was goin’ on in the bedroom, I grabbed the pistol from my bag. The guy was down on his knees by then, completely naked and blubbering. Must have gone crazy in my head. He was so close, I couldn’t miss. When I turned around and walked out, he was lying dead in a pool of blood.”
Jim shared a few more details, and then I could see his energy was spent. I stood up and shook hands with him, promising to visit next week.
As I was about to leave, he said, “I don’t know if I can handle this. What do I have to live for? She won’t let me see our son.”
He seemed entirely genuine and I liked him. “Hang in there until next week, Jim,” I said, “we’ll work through this with you.” I pressed the button Mr. Gowler had pointed to. In less than a minute the moustached custody officer opened the door. Jim gave me a little nod, his face still serious. I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I’d see him.
One week later I called in to the BC Penitentiary to arrange a visit with Jim. Mr. Gowler’s assistant answered the phone. She said, “I’m sorry, but he is no more.”
The next day a rehabilitation officer told me Jim had managed to hang himself. He was a man I’d gladly have gotten to know better, even to have as a friend. I felt devastated.