(Orginally published as ‘Tilting At Windmills’ in Globe & Mail, June ’97)
I met him way before he was stabbed, teaching Sunday school in a rundown church in a poor rural neighbourhood. There were a lot of kids around whose futures didn’t include reform school because of him. Big ears, skinny but sincere and always learning. I married him as soon as I was old enough and we immigrated to Toronto during the Vietnam War. The Mennonites had set up a teenage hostel through Children’s Aid. During the early seventies, if you ran away, underage from anywhere in Canada and came to Toronto, we got you until your parents or somebody anted up the fare to bring you home.
Counselling kids in trouble with the law, prowling the back lanes behind Rochdale for runaways, learning how to handle social workers, we worked as a team. Meanwhile, he was studying at York [University] – an M.A. doctoral studies, a disseration. After the hostel, I joined McGraw-Hill Ryerson who were bringing out Roger Caron’s award-winning book ‘ Go-Boy'[about being a con]. But Roger was still in prison, in the hole and the company needed someone to go tell him they wanted to publish only the first half of the book he’d written. [Second half later published as ‘Bingo.’ since first half won award but nobody knew that would happen then] My husband went down, looking like one of Jason’s Argoauts listening to the Sirens singing on the rocks. The same sort of seduction.
That was behind our move to Kingston [Ontario] with its eight federal penitentiaries, although he went back to Children’s Aid and I opened a bookstore. “Visiting our graduates,” he called it whenever CAS sent him behind bars to see a father or mother. He taught a course for guards at the community college and he began to lean in the direction of the prisons when the wind was right. But he was still working on the dissertation. One day he came out of his study. “I quit,” he said and handed the dissertation to me, neatly wrapped up ina shoe box. “Think I’ll go down and knock on the gate. Maybe they can use another guard.”
“Sadistic guard,” I said. “You hardly ever see the career mentioned without an adjective like that. Everybody knows what guards do. All the prison biographies say so.”
“Not much different than being a parent,” he said, and he went off to fill out an application. Three months later he was sitting in a limestone tower with a gun, watching the sun come up over the harbour. Two guards had recently been murdered in the kitchen of his institution. Drugs poured in as though this was a pharmacy wholesaler. Brew made of fermented oranges, ketchup and sometimes potatoes was being cooked in bags all over his range. This combination of pills and stills is lethal inside.
He was right about the CAS graduates. Two former clients and a boy we’d once had in our hostel turned up, as though the universe were offering a second crack at them. Meanwhile, staff positions were being cut back while con privileges increased. (‘Con’ or ‘con game’ is what most prefer to be called). Knives were allowed in calls for crafts. Security was decreased when the prison decided to have guards do case work on computers while watching inmates, rather than hire more staff.
He had urine thrown on him from a cell. He was Maced and regularly threatened. He found so many brews when he searched that the cons began calling him, ‘the Nose.’ One night, a spaced-out con threatened a group of guards with a knife. My husband stepped between them and deflected a blow meant for his belly with his left hand. Later that same evening, the alarm bell rang for a cell fire. With adrenalin still popping from the stabbing, he ran down the range through thick smoke and carried out the dead weight of a con, half again his size.
He was off three months. X-rays couldn’t show the worst damage from the incident. During that time a fellow guard had half his finger bitten off. Cons phoned another guard’s home to say that their father had been killed inside. Effigies of guards were made and left hanging on the range.
And then one day, when a concrete truck cut in front of us and he tried to run it off the raod in our little tin can of a car, I found he wasn’t reading any more, hadn’t in quite a while. There’s a technical name for it, a stress trauma discovered in Vietnam, and, as those soldiers found, the problem is in the same place.
We run into cons all over our samll prison town. Sitting with him at an outdoor cafe, I see two men walk by who say, “Hi, boss. Buy us a coffee?” and sit down. A third comes up who has left his teeth inside, not expecting to be away from the institution very long. Others come by the bookstore sometimes, talking about trying to stay out, to stay clean.
He’d been in great shape when he joined up. But now, even with daily workouts, his spine is permanently injured. Sometimes it paralyzes him and he falls. He’s been diagnosed with sleep apnea and sleeps on a machine. His toes are broken and rigid, requiring special shoes. His glands don’t work right anymore from all the Mace.
The recent trouble at Prison for Women [Now closed}, spawned a group for offiers who had a need to talk about their situation. When it finished, they offered his prison the same opportunity. Eventually a group that included him, met ina basement to talk, smoke, tell war stories and at some point, things that were even more personal. There were tears. Those officers murdered in the prison kitchen looked over their shoulders. There was a video camera at the last session. Perhaps a tape might help someone else.
Afterward, they let the wives come in. One of the questions that came up then is how it feels to wonder whether each day will be your husband’s last, without the consolations of society’s approval that cops get. Sometimes I think guards have inherited the contempt that used to surround the occupation of hangman, with no real understanding of what it is they do.
“Write a summary of what came out of the group,” someone [asked] him. “What did it accomplish?” – “It demonstrated that post-traumatic stress is the norm for prison guards, not the exception,” he wrote. “All of us are quite wary of ‘therapeutic professionals.’
[His] article [was returned] yesterday. “No, not so,” they had pencilled over ‘post-trauma.’ “Not true’ over the line about being wary. Granted the piece wouldn’t do much for recruitment of new officers. “Since the group, I have been able to step back and look at management policies with a sense of detached, quixotic bemusement instead of personal betrayal,” [his] piece concludes.
Quixote, eh? Which makes me Sancho Panza, something I’ve suspected since we started this journey way back in the U.S. With the wisdom of that fat little sidekick, I can point out that sadistic prison guards are a Hollywood invention, necessary for filming inmate memoirs perhaps, those doctored stories from individuals we were once anxious to see behind bars.
Guards are men and women who don’t expect good news from administration or the press. They go into prison in the dark on a daily basis, hoping to provide a little light. And the windmills are bigger now than when we started this journey. Unlike Cervante’s story, however, they are not the wrong target.
This was written by my wife, Rose DeShaw, when I still worked in prison.