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The Kept

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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