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The Measure of Change

Some of the staff and prisoners I interviewed for this book were young children when I first entered the gates of Matsqui Institution in 1972. Some had just entered the federal correctional system when Prisoners of Isolation was published in 1983. Others had prison careers spanning a quarter of a century and had experienced the changes in life inside prison during that time up close, day by day.

From my perspective, one of the principal changes since I began my research and advocacy work in prisons in the 1970s is the ease with which many officers will now talk about events and experiences that were once hidden behind a veil of silence. During one of my 1993 interviews, a now-retired staff member, confided that when he was working in the B.C. Penitentiary in the 1970s, there was, among a very influential group of guards, a visceral hatred of all that I represented as an advocate of prisoners' rights. He told me that officers in gun towers would track me with their rifles as I walked from the front gate on my way to the segregation unit atop B-7 Cell Block, hoping I would do something that might justify them getting a shot off. Some of these officers in their after-hours conversations would apparently take great pleasure in imagining ways to make the world a safer place by eliminating people like me. Although I never experienced any slashed tires or broken windshields (sanctions visited upon some staff members who broke ranks with the officers' code of silence), my picture identification at the front gate was disfigured with cigarette burns strategically placed between my eyes. For many years I kept that disfigured memento in a box along with a small section of the bars of one of the cells at the B.C. Penitentiary, mounted on a wooden base, which was given to invited guests at the ceremony marking the official closing of the Pen in 1980. As Correctional Supervisor Jim Mackie observed during my interview with him at Kent in 1998, it took a long time before staff at kent felt comfortable opening up to me. As he put it, "It took years for people to decide what side of the fence you play on, where did you come from, were the staff getting a fair shot?" In response to my question about what side of the fence staff thought I was on, he stated diplomatically, "Sometimes inmate-slanted, but being very truthful." I can return the last part of the compliment as I reflect how forthright correctional staff have been in my many interviews with them.

The nature of change in the Canadian penitentiary was brought home to me early in my research for this book by an encounter in the staff dining room at Matsqui Institution. A young correctional officer came over to my table and introduced himself. He said he had been speaking to some of the older staff, who remembered me from the B.C. Penitentiary days. They told him that then I had been a radical lawyer with all kinds of wild, unrealistic ideas. However, from their conversations with me over the last few months, they felt I had mellowed; my ideas seemed more reasonable, and instead of shunning contact with me they were eager to share their experiences.

My reaction to his words took several turns. Initially I was startled that I was no longer regarded as a radical lawyer. As someone whose legal education coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement and whose professional life has always been in support of greater recognition of human rights, I regarded the label "radical" as a badge of honour. If I wasn't radical, did that mean I had become mainstream? I did not believe that I had lost the fire of my convictions, nor that my ideas for justice behind the walls had been compromised as my career had matured.

As I reflected further on why my image and my message were now seen in a different light, I was able to offer the young officer something more than a pained expression. When I first met with the young officer's colleagues, prisoners had no rights. When lawyers like John Conroy and myself argued that prison officials had a duty to act fairly in making decisions about prisoners, our arguments were seen as subversive. The idea that Aboriginal prisoners should have the right to practise their own spirituality was viewed in almost apocalyptic terms as either a return to "barbarity" or the leading edge of a revolution based on Red Power. Yet by the time this young officer went through his basic training in 1993, prisoners had legal rights guaranteed by the CCRA and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ; the duty to act fairly was an integral part of the correctional mandate; and the right of Aboriginal prisoners to practise their distinct forms of spirituality was recognized as a vital part of their journey towards healing and rehabilitation. Principles that in the temper of the times had been viewed as radical were now embedded in the law and the Constitution of Canada; indeed, they were now part of this young officer's training and job description.

There was another important level to understanding why officers who had once hated my guts would now sit and talk with me, almost as in a confessional, often decrying practices they had seen or participated in. Could they be right that I had mellowed? They were right to believe that over the years I had become more knowledgeable about prison as a social and cultural institution, and that I better understood both the pressures under which correctional staff and administrators worked and the difficulties of translating law and policy into operational reality. While I remained an advocate for the rights of prisoners, I took seriously the concerns of correctional staff and administrators that their rights to safety and dignity should not be undermined in the process of respecting those same rights for prisoners.

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Looking up to the BC Penitentiary