Although separated by language, geography, and a century and a half,
the words of both Dostoyevsky and Gallant go to the heart of contemporary
prison conditions. As Jason Gallant told me:
If you want to change a man, you must change his
thoughts. And you don't change thoughts by appealing to a man's fear of
reprisal. You have to appeal to his humanity no matter how far we fall.
In order to appeal to a prisoner's humanity, you must first believe and
accept that he has some. If you have an attitude, a perspective and a
perception of prisoners as having humanity -- not necessarily being humane
because by and large most of us aren't -- I believe there's very few of
us that will not respond in time to humane, fair, and kind approaches.
If you're going to have any chance at all of turning men like me around,
you must treat us fairly, you must treat us kindly. And yes, you must
treat us with discipline and continuity in all that you do, and all but
those who suffer from dementia cannot help but respond to kindness and
fairness. That is the most dangerous weapon you have against the criminal
element. But you can't get me to buy into a system where you tell me no
violence should ever be used when the first time I do not do what you
say, you come down with gas masks and clubs and beat the living shit out
To survive in prison the prisoner must come up with
his own values that give him self-esteem, a sense of purpose, a sense
of direction. You don't dole these out like they're privileges. The need
to love and the need to be loved, a sense of direction, of self-worth,
of purpose, those are indigenous to the human being. This is what raises
us above the beasts. You don't tell us to act human and then you will
give us back those things as privileges. Those things that you are willingly
prepared to give us if we act human are the things we need to be human,
free of the fear of reprisal. (Gallant Interviews, February-May 1994)
I asked Jason Gallant, as one of the "barbarian princes" identified
by Mr. Justice Muldoon, to talk about "that savage, unwritten 'code' of
conduct which is kept alive by the dominant inmates in those 'aggressive
inmate communities' in Canadian prisons."
The con code in the strictest sense is to make sure
that you don't mess with anybody else's time. The violence as enacted
by some of us guys on the inside isn't because we hold to a code of ethics
that extols violence; the nastiness in the con code doesn't find its origin
in the heart of a callous prisoner. That's not it at all. The cons know
they're not far removed from society in wanting vengeance. When somebody
rapes your child or another loved one, even law-abiding citizens just
lose it. It seems to me that Judge Muldoon was making this connection
that all violence on the inside is a result of the con code. It may have
nothing to do with the con code whatsoever . . .
Society says we're riffraff. They delegate us to
the realms of second-class citizenship. We can't very well, individually
or collectively, accept that view. I think the con code in its infancy
stage was to give us a sense of value and identity that was more consistent
with our view of ourselves as people with some dignity and worthy of respect.
As it has developed in terms of justifying retaliation against informants,
is that so unreasonable? It's not that the stool pigeon is necessarily
at fault, because the person informed on may have done something wrong.
But for whatever reasons this man pulled us down. Is it a realistic expectation
that we can live with that man? Is it so unreasonable that we would be
angry and vengeful at somebody who is responsible, directly or indirectly,
for our freedom, even within the prison, being further taken away? How
is that different from society on the outside exacting retribution and
punishment on us, for infringing on their freedom? Inside, we're outside
of the law, and we do not have available to us the means to enforce our
values and mores in any lawful structure. The violent aspect of the con
code is our way of adapting to the system being willing to sacrifice some
prisoners in order to have a flood of information whereby they think they
will have better control.
After one of our first interviews, Mr. Gallant found himself unsatisfied
with how he had answered some of my questions. He offered me a set of
poems he had composed which he felt better captured the essence of his
experiences as a prisoner and a human being. Here are two of them.
To My Love From Prison
We're embraced by the hypnotics,
of a small fire crackling.
All around us in the woods,
are the scents and the sounds,
of "just after a light rainfall . . . "
In the near distance,
are the slight beckonings of a babbling brook --
full of gurgling laughter!
To our immediate west the sun,
is fondly nuzzling our horizon.
This caress --
is showering the skyline and heavens about,
with iridescent yellows,
mating with floraled pinks and jaded reds,
which in turn give birth violently;
to streaking swirls,
of ephemeral blues and gasping purples;
amid indignant lanceolate greys.
It's all so hauntingly Empyrean!
Inhaling deeply I sigh,
then curse --
for the cell floor, come to think of it,
is pretty fucking cold on the bare feet!
Escape from the Demon's Lair
They've ravished my soul
and raped my mind.
My spirit they try to take.
For once behind these prison walls,
they think we're theirs to break.
It was accepted, in times
we had rights; with freedom of choice
But once these doors to gloom slam shut,
we're robbed of even voice.
We can file complaints --
on forms, with procedures fair.
But to the very ones found hounding us --
what's the odds you think they'll care?
I stand in awe of noble
more pointedly of its Spirit.
But caught up in its written word,
most people just won't hear it.
The Spirit corrects the
heart of man,
while the Letter disciplines the mind.
The Letter comes easily from the hand of man,
but the Spirit is hard to find.
I first read this poem in 1994. When I reread it in 1998, following
Mr. Gallant's account of his strip search by the ERT, its phrasing seemed
even more relevant. How should we balance the letter and the spirit of
the law to ensure that the guidance it provides does not become a source
of oppression? It is to that question I will now turn in discussing the
merits raised by Jason Gallant's complaint.
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