I was doing research into inmate culture at Matsqui Institution for a fourth year Sociology course at SFU. On this day Shefield and I were sitting on stiff backed wooden chairs in a cramped interview room. About 35, with an unsmiling face that was prematurely lined, he seemed a man who would never enter into a conversation with a prison guard or counsellor. After observing me a few minutes, he seemed to decide I could be trusted. Much like a penitent sinner who feels compelled to tell all in a confessional, he began talking about memories from his dark past.
Speaking out the side of his mouth with the wary mannerisms of a gangster in a movie he said, “You’re my first visit here. I’m doing a lot of time. Shot a cop in the leg in an armed robbery.” He paused and I sensed he was assessing my reaction to this revelation. I waited. “Last time I saw my parents was in the Stony Mountain Penn in Manitoba, 6 years ago. They gave us 45 minutes. The folks had come from Ontario.” His watchful eyes glanced about uneasily, as though suspecting a hidden microphone.
“My life changed big time playing poker with some guys I met in a bar one night,” he said. “Got behind real bad. When my money was gone, I threw my house on the table. I knew it was a mistake, but I wasn’t going to walk out a loser. Luck wasn’t with me. Those guys cleaned me out.”
He ran a hand through his thinning black hair, then in scarcely a whisper said, “I had to go home and tell my old lady and 2 young boys we were moving. She told me she’d had enough of my crazy life. She and the boys would move out on their own and I could go to hell or anywhere I wanted.”
He shifted uneasily in his chair. “I was a fool,” he said, his voice tinged with bitterness. “Wanted to get everything back in a hurry. That’s how the armed robbery happened. A witness picked me out in a line up. The judge wasn’t joking when he said he was giving me a lot of time to think about my life. Never saw the old lady or the kids again.” We talked further and when our allotted hour was up, a guard pushed open the door, jangled his keys and told Shefield to move out.
When I completed my interviews with inmates and staff 2 weeks later, the conversation with Shefield lingered in my mind. After handing in my final assignment, I began visiting him. In time a measure of trust developed between us and when he became eligible for citizen escorted absences, I brought him home several times.
A few weeks before Christmas, Linda and I asked Shefield if he wanted to go with us to a program in a local church on the 24th, then stay in our home over night. He was apprehensive about being in a crowd of strangers, but decided it would be preferable to staying inside the prison walls.
At the church on Christmas Eve, he became anxious so I took him downstairs where a few others were hanging out. Shefield quickly got into a discussion with Willie, a man I’d known many years. When he realized Willie was a Calgary City police officer, he became agitated and argumentative. After a few minutes I explained to Willie that Shefield was an inmate at Matsqui. Willie was as hardened against criminals as Shefield was against authority. He never spoke to me again.
Shefield slept on our couch that night and the next morning I said, “Shefield, I’m sure it would be very special for your parents to hear from you. Our Christmas present to you is a telephone call to them.”
We were able to obtain a number from Directory Assistance and as he was dialing, I left the room. From the adjacent room I could hear his voice but not understand the words. When the conversation ended I returned to the kitchen. Shefield was unashamedly dabbing at his eyes with a hankie. He seemed surprised. In a shaky voice he said, “I guess that proves I’m human after all.”
For each of us, Christmas can be a time when we reach out, reconnect, and recommit to relationships that were once precious to us.