The purpose of my going to the Correctional Centre, aka jail, was to meet with two artists confined to the facility, individuals who I hoped might be able to do some sketching for a writing project I am working on.
Corrections? Or is it jail?
I am tempted to stick with the word jail in that it’s a much less cumbersome term and possibly the more descriptive of reality. Certainly there are forces in our government and society as a whole that are more interested in jailing a person, to hell with correcting anything. But I decided I would not give in to such an attitude and refer instead to this place of incarceration as “Corrections”. Better to pray for what has been lost than to forget it.
Right from the beginning I am reminded that I am entering a different world, one of restrictions, an environment I am not accustomed to. First, I was informed I had to “get clearance”, that is fill out a form, send it in and wait two days to hear if the powers that be deem I am a safe bet to visit the place. I was reminded of applying for visas when we went to the U.S. years back. Our son was then one year old, nevertheless we had to fill out a long questionnaire in which we assured the government he was not the owner of dangerous weapons and was not going to engage in criminal behavior. They let him in just as the authorities let me in yesterday, one old man looking for someone who can draw some sketches and who has paid all his traffic tickets. Can it be any other way? Probably not.
Upon arrival the mere look of the facility gives pause for thought. Call the place by whatever name you like, you can’t really disguise twenty-foot walls, adorned as they are with rolls of razor wire, concertina wire by name. Interesting word, concertina. Originally it referred to a hand held accordion, one of those happy little instruments that stretches and closes squeezing out a tune, light, gay sounds you can dance to. But here at “Corrections” the concertinas remain motionless and mute, their razor edges glinting in the sun.
I enter through a set of doors, heavy brutes comprised of half inch glass and steel that crunch close with a finality that sounds more like jail than corrections. Once inside I encounter, behind a screen, an attractive young officer, as neat and trim in her police black uniform as the tiles and glass that surround her. She instructs me to sign in which I do, fits me out with a tag and I am ready to go.
A second officer appears and introduces herself, the same person I have been emailing with over the previous week. B.. is tall, plain featured, no make-up, a woman pushing 50, a little wary as she measures me up. She watches as I lock away my wallet and keys then leads me through another set of heavy sliding doors that close behind us, locking us in to a 6’ by 10’ glass walled chamber. A moment later and doors open on the opposite side and we step out into a space all its own.
I have been in the hallways of other institutions. Schools, for instance, where there is a plant or two, a picture of the Queen on the wall together with posters proclaiming the value of tolerance and equality and getting an education, passageways that ring with the shouts of children and bear that distinctive smell that arises from the intermingling of chalk dust and the odor given off by fifty sets of sweaty little sneakers.
Hospital hallways are different. There is a distinctive smell as well, one of chemicals, body odors, and urine combined with a dash of air freshener to create an aroma like none other, one you will detect hours later in your clothes and hair. The space seems narrowed, confined, cluttered with carts and all manner of equipment together with staff - cleaning ladies, technicians, nurses on the move, and clumps of white coats in conversation -all vying for the same little bit of space. Wend your way through it all and you can find a patient.
The hallways at “Corrections” are different yet again, passageways 12 feet high, hard rectangular tunnels of painted cement, tiles and heavy glass. Wherever you go you are visible. No pictures, no posters, no clutter. No smell. There are people, to be sure, two distinct groupings, those in neat trimmed black, men and women, and all the others, men only, dressed in some variation on sneakers, jeans and T-shirts.
We arrive at our destination, a classroom as barren as the hallway, the sole nod in the direction of human habitation are two arborite covered tables and some chairs in disarray. Actually we are fortunate to have even this little bit of space. When I arrive the following week I am told that due to overcrowding this room too has been taken over by bunks, as has the chapel. We must meet in B..’s office, a ten by eight cubicle crowded with two desks, a chair or two and “stuff”, as much a storage area as an office.
Presently two young men arrive, one aboriginal, one not. The introductions go easily; they greet me with firm handshakes and smiles. I suppose I have been expecting a reticence on their part, an awkwardness in our meeting but this clearly has been my problem, not theirs. It remains with me to tell them why I have come, that I am looking for an artist to do some sketching. I am pleasantly surprised at the questions they have and the interest they show.
“Why did you choose us, why did you come here?”
It is the aboriginal man who speaks, a man of maybe 30, wispy mustache, and friendly demeanor. He is wearing a covering over his hair, made necessary because he is working in the kitchen from which he has time off to meet with me. Later he will say he is interested in writing, that he would like to try his hand at it.
“I came here,” I reply, “because I have seen art work done by people like yourselves, by individuals who have experienced difficulty. I think good art comes out of adversity and you know about that.” The conversation rolls on. We talk about what I want in my sketches. Less is more. Stripped down images, not too much detail. Suggestive. I read them a little of what I have written and they respond easily. We talk about how I might pay for what I receive. One of them offers to let me take one of his sketches –a beautifully drawn violin and bow, detailed, perfectly proportioned -to see if it can be reduced in size on a copy machine.
We arrange to meet in a week’s time and review what they have drawn. If I can use their work we will proceed with the details of a contract and payment. B.. will arrange for our meeting. Although I suspect what the answer will be I ask her if I can bring some cookies or muffins for our meeting next week? Sorry, nothing of that sort allowed.
And a sinking feeling comes in the pit of my stomach. Later in the quiet of my home, at my leisure, where there is carpet on the floor, the doors close quietly and I can have a muffin with my tea, I take the time to reflect on my time spent in “Corrections”.
What an awful thing to lock a man up, take away his freedom and put him in a cell behind bars where the sights and sounds and smells of every day are swept up, denied, and in their absence imposed a terrible kind of neat and tidy order, a sterility that reduces everything to no, denying the very essentials that make us human. Of what value is this?
I know why Corrections locks people up, says no to cookies and muffins and most everything else that humans enjoy, but surely to God if you can build a place with concertina wire on the walls and every security feature in the book you can figure out a way to spot a bit of pot in a cookie or a razor blade in a muffin. Corrections? Jail?
In discussion alone with B.. she talked freely of the adverse conditions that prevail in the facility, the overcrowding, a lack of programming, the hierarchy among the prisoners, the harassment many of them endure, the abuse staff themselves absorb. And she confirms what I have thought, “Nothing”, she says, “gets corrected here.” Later one of my artists echoes her words when he says, “It’s jail all the way.”
Under these conditions what can become of my two artists. What will happen to them? I have no idea. I imagine good things for them but then there’s reality. Their chances of success are probably on a par with the outcome of my writing project. Conformation of my fears comes a week later when I return to find one of the men has been sentenced to 28 months in the penitentiary.
And yet… .
Even as I reflect on the dark side of “Corrections”, see the futility of what is being done, “that nothing gets corrected here”, I realize I am looking forward to going back to meet again with my artists and with B.. . Maybe I am looking for a fix, a happy ending for my sermon. Or maybe it’s something quite different, something humans do. We tell stories searching for an ending, an ending we can live with.
Whatever the case two moments, two scraps interrupt my narrative.
At the conclusion of one of our visist sI had begun making preparations to leave and the men to return to their work. We discuss what kind of art supplies they will need. Some sketch pencils and paper. I am prepared to go and buy what is needed but B.., who seems to have warmed to the project, says she has a few supplies and will make them available. We stop by her office where I think I detect pleasure as she hands out what she has. As for the artists they are pleased, take the supplies eagerly, examine them, all smiles. And I am hauled up short, touched to the point of tears: gratitude over three sheets of paper and a box of pencils. And then there’s the candy.
On a desk in the clutter of B..’s office sits a bowl of hardrock candy wrapped in cellophane, sour cubes, the kind that once in your mouth refuse to break but take a half hour to slowly reduce to slivers and then dissolve. B.. has bought them at Dollarama and leaves them here for all who stop by.
I help myself and even take three for my pocket. Then in occurs to me these bits of candy are breaking all the rules. God knows what could lie hidden in those colored chunks of sugar. More to the point, I am embarrassed. For most of the people who sit in this chair one piece of candy will be a week’s rations. More than that it will be a place to rest awhile and talk, time to enjoy the care of a mother who knows what a man requires. I put the three back and suck more thoughtfully on the sliver that remains.
Ron Evans is a CPSP Diplomate living in Saskatchewan, Canada is a a published author. He has frequently presented his poetry and prose at meetings of the CPSP Plenary as well as contributed articles for publication in the Pastoral Report.
The following are two of his recent book publications:
Coming Home: Saskatchewan Remembered
The Sourdough Bagel: Confessions of a Loner Who Likes Company
Below are several of his articles published on the PR:
Five Books At One End of a Shelf
A Word From the Lord
To contact Ron Evans, click here.