Many of the conversations I had with prisoners in the course of my research
also centred on changes within the system. Steve Fifer came into the federal
system in 1972 and was at Matsqui when I did my initial study there. I
asked him what had changed in the twenty years since we first met. He
said the changes were quite dramatic in terms of both staff and prisoners.
The profile of the prisoner population was completely different, he said.
The old "con code" was dead, and prisoners today regularly ratted on each
other without being concerned about it. Mr. Fifer attributed this to a
number of factors. One was that there were now far fewer career criminals
among the prisoners than those for whom crime was the consequence of their
victimization through childhood abuse. He distinguished between people
like himself who had been "arrested" for their crimes and other prisoners
who had been "rescued." The former group, when they came to prison, saw
themselves as outlaws -- a breed of people who operated outside lawful
society. There were very few people like this left, he said, and the respect
they once had evoked among other prisoners and staff was no longer there.
He expressed his feelings vividly by saying, "I'm ashamed to be here.
I look at this place as living in a sewer," and added, "in fact, it's
what's retiring a lot of guys like me." He also pointed to some of the
changes in the institutional regime as contributing to the breakdown of
the old con code. The introduction of the "living unit" concept, in which
staff interact with prisoners on the ranges, made it easier for prisoners
to pass on information. He accepted that communication between prisoners
and guards was a good thing, because it made for less violence and anger
in the living environment, but at the same time it was bad because it
increased the number of informants and ecouraged acceptance of ratting
(Interview with Steve Fifer, Matsqui Institution, September 1, 1993).
Steve Fifer believed changes in the staff had been even more marked.
Just as the con's code had been broken, so had the "bull's" code. The
employment of women had softened the whole system up, and that contributed
to making it more humane. Line staff now had far more promotion possibilities,
were better trained, and were therefore more motivated towards programs
and rehabilitation. He thought that the Mission Statement had been important
and that it was being followed as far as human nature permitted. He summed
up the changes by saying, "Most of the staff got rehabilitation on their
mind instead of slamming you up and telling you to shut the fuck up."
I asked Steve Fifer whether the contemporary programs at Matsqui were
different from those twenty years ago and whether the prisoners who participated
in them were better motivated. His response was that, in most cases, prisoners
participated for the same reasons as before - "the hustle for parole or
transfer to lower security" -- but that it was possible some of the prisoners
did benefit from these programs. He gave as an example the substance abuse
program; he did not find it very useful, but he was amazed at how much
misinformation the younger prisoners had about the physical and psychological
effects of drugs and alcohol. In addition, he said that the Violent Offender
Program at the Regional Psychiatric Centre had had a profound impact on
him. He had been made to hold up a mirror to his face day after day and
to ask questions of himself he had always managed to evade. He came to
accept that for twenty years he had been building a legend of himself
based on false premises. It was the only program that had brought tears
to his eyes and over which he had lost sleep.
In reflecting on his years in prison, Steve Fifer proudly pointed to
the landscaping around Matsqui Institution. He had planted a lot of the
flower beds just inside the front gate, and his job now was to take care
of them. He said, "I've always tried to leave my mark wherever I've been."
He added that he had such a low profile in the institution, people almost
didn't notice him as he worked in his garden with a flower in his hair.
I told him about the story I read to my children, Shane and Melissa, of an imaginary world
in which all the wild animals, including the tigers, were the size of
butterflies and lived inside the petals of giant flowers, the reversal
of the natural predatory order. Mr. Fifer liked that image and said it
reflected where he saw his life going once he finished his sentence.
Dave Humphries was serving a life sentence for manslaughter and had
spent much of his adult life in federal penitentiaries. He was also a
heroin addict. He told me it is difficult for non-addicts to understand
the tremendous investment of energy that goes into making drug connections.
Giving up drugs requires finding something else in which you can invest
all that energy, he said. Mr. Humphries told me he had been very affected
by what I had written in Prisoners of Isolation
about slashing being the only way some prisoners could focus the pain
in their lives. By seeing their own blood, they could at least identify
a source of their hurt. Dave Humphries said that for him, sticking a needle
into his arm was how he dealt with the pain that had filled his life from
the time he was a physically and emotionally abused child. By using heroin,
he obtained a release from the pain for a few moments. He knew that heroin
would always provide that release; hence its great attraction (Interview
with Dave Humphries, Matsqui Institution, August 9, 1993).
A month after our first interview, Dave Humphries was granted a parole
which, like some of his earlier releases, proved to be short-lived. He
came back to prison with a further five years added to his sentence, for
a robbery committed to obtain money for heroin. Mr. Humphries had been
optimistic about his release, in large measure because he would have the
joys and challenges of a new family -- his wife had borne him a son while
he was in prison, conceived through family visiting -- and his highly
acclaimed wildlife paintings were bringing good prices. When he returned
to Matsqui, I asked him why these things had not enabled him to succeed.
His response was that he had not made as much money as he had hoped from
his artwork, and the work he was able to secure in construction had been
limited. His wife was working double shifts to pay the bills. His not
being able to fill the function of provider gnawed away at his self-esteem,
and his experience of family life again became painful.
In describing the changes in the system since 1973, Dave Humphries,
like Steve Fifer, focussed on the changes within prisoner culture.
It's the cons themselves. It's a state of mind, an
attitude. Back in the early seventies, there was a strong sense of unity,
fellowship, support for one another that you don't see today. A guy can
be thrown in the hole today and nobody bats an eye. Prison was a community
when I came into the federal system, but today it's more of an individual
thing. People are just like lost shadows scurrying about here and there,
and you don't even know your neighbour any more. The loss of unity, the
loss of solidarity, a loss of a common sense of values and purpose and
direction. Back then criminal activity was a way of life. That's what
we chose, as other people would choose something else as a career. Drugs
were secondary. Now for many of the young guys in Matsqui, the drugs are
the main thing, and they become criminals because of the drugs. (Humphries
interview, August 9, 1993)
When Dave Humphries commented on changes aming the correctional staff,
he identified the genuine compassion he had seen in some individuals,
particularly when he was in the Violent Offender Program. Compassion was
not a quality he had seen much of in his early days of imprisonment, but
it had given him an additional reason to try to succeed, he said, so as
not to let down those who had extended themselves for him.
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