Read A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden Online

Authors: Stephen Reid

Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (13 page)

I feel safe in the library, away from the grind of the joint, away from those who invent crossword puzzles for the outside world. In here, between the green metal shelves stacked seven-feet high, are my touchstones, the rows upon rows of books.

In the old days a prison library was more likely to resemble a second-hand bookstore after a crowd of shoplifters had passed through. Now, with yearly budgets to buy the books and a television in every cell to ensure no one is interested in checking any out, the library remains well-stocked.

I move through the familiar territory, my fingers tracing the lines of books, their titles, their authors, their publishing houses. I can almost feel the whole and complete world that is inside each.

At the end of the row, I almost bump into a biker with a ponytail. His right hand, the one with the letters for L-O-V-E tattooed across the knuckles, is wrapped around a slim volume of poetry. I want to ask who he is reading. I want to ask about his left hand, which has only two letters across the knuckles — H-A. Is it a zen riddle, or a tattoo interrupted? But the guy goes two and change without the ponytail; he leaves with his poetry and my questions untendered.

Alone, I roam some more. The arrangement of this library oddly reflects the prevalent social order. Brown leather-bound law books, imposing by size and nature, sit all statesmen-like along one wall as if they were a private men's club. They even have their own sign, “Do Not Remove” as if someone is afraid we might take the law into our own hands. The adjacent wall houses the business section, beginning with a large grey tome on bank mergers, which towers above all the rest. Then management books run in descending order all the way down to small entrepreneurs. The business section breaks nicely into vacation and recreation, books on golfing, skiing, and yachting. Then we enter the trade person's section with titles on plumbing, welding, auto mechanics, and carpentry. There are no children's books in prison.

The fiction wall has the most titles, lies and escapes being favoured pastimes in here. Fiction begins with hardcovers — the classics, the new releases — but soon gives way to the gritty, the hard-boiled, the dog-eared detective paperbacks. It is in this seedier neighbourhood, the haunt of characters of Crumley and Chandler, Burke, Vacchs, and Bunker, where I am most at home.

But today I gravitate towards what booksellers in the free world would refer to as the “Woo Woo Section”. In a bookstore this section would be chock-a-block with books on crystals, and candles, and Angels; guides for the twelve different stairways to heaven, recipes for dharma cookies, and chicken soup for everyone, even the chickens. You could find forgiveness, fight forgetfulness, or sue for false memory syndrome; learn to better raise your kids, your dogs, or your self-esteem. Recover your inner child, your authentic self, your femininity your masculinity, your creativity, your sexuality, or even your virginity. But back in this library, the budget for spirituality seems thinner than a ghost. There are 100 books, from Dewey Decimal 200.01 to 299.05, and fifty of them have Jesus in the title. Nowhere is innocence more lost than in the lives of those who reside here, yet the regional librarian must believe the only road to recovery is lit by the Star of Bethlehem.

A friend sent me a book,
When Things Fall Apart
written by a Buddhist nun named Pema ChÖdrÖn. Although Jesus and Buddha teach the same lesson — to learn to live with compassion for all things, I am compelled toward the Buddhist approach. Which is why I am standing here in the Woo Woo Section looking for more of Pema ChÖdrÖn. But what I find, placed there I'm sure without a trace of irony, are titles like
Break Out
Should I Leave?

The title of
Life, How to Survive It
takes on new meaning if you're doing it, as does
Lethal Lovers
Death in the Family
if perhaps you are the cause of such books to be written. I pick out one book called
I Don't want to Be Alone
and on my way out place it on the cart that goes down to the solitary confinement unit.

My fifteen minutes of sane is up. Time to get back to work, tutoring South American drug lords in ESL. I'm thinking of getting L-O-V-E tattooed across the knuckles of one hand, and the words Ha Ha on the other. Or maybe I'll put “17 Down” on my butt, and if there's any ink left over, I'll tattoo teardrops at the corner of my eye, one for every book I'll never read.


across the country inmates will be lining up to cast a ballot in this year's election. It is not the first time offenders have been allowed to vote. A small number of federal inmates voted in the 1997 General Election and before that an even smaller number participated in the 1992 Referendum (Charlottetown Accord).

The issue of voting rights for prisoners has been an on-again, off-again tangle of court petitions, appellate reversals, legislation and counter legislation, not to mention hot newspaper editorials and hotter talk show debates. What has become clear in constitutional law courts has done little to convince the Canadian public of why ballot boxes should be shuttled through the front gates into a prison.

Why allow the vote inside? It's a fair question. It could be defended with an earnest and humanitarian plea, or even argued in a logical and lawyerly way, but for anyone observing the actual process inside our prisons, the reason for giving criminals the vote becomes obvious — it may be the only interesting thing about this whole election.

At the onset of Election 2004 I was standing around on the top of G-Tier with a group of guys known in prison terms as regulars, or solids. They were rolling cigarettes and talking nonsense when someone from administration strode up and stapled the first notification to the bulletin board. Everyone crowded around, reading about how we could now vote. “Fuck them. I ain't voting. They're all a bunch of crooks anyway.” It was the kind of talk you hear over formica tabletops and on Amen radio anywhere in the country, and the irony of the crook reference seemed to go unnoticed. There was a quick and general consensus — tough guys don't vote.

Down at the Native Centre a lot of the guys expressed similar sentiments for different reasons. As a result of being both aboriginal and a prisoner most felt twice removed from any stake in a federal election. They are more rooted in local or band issues. My Cree friend from Manitoba wondered aloud if Stephen Harper might be related to Elijah Harper but I told him, “Neither by blood nor inclination as far as I can tell.” Others in the Native Brotherhood wanted to know if they could nominate Leonard Peltier.

By the time I made my way to the library a half dozen of the
Encyclopedia Britannica
crowd had abandoned their
Paris Match
s and
Atlantic Monthly
s and were seated around the reading table immersed in a civil exchange on the merits of the NDP versus the Greens. Within moments their polite chatter accelerated into a six-cylinder debate that grew so animated and loud they almost knocked over the chess board and drowned out CBC Radio 2.

I also made a point of dropping in on the Chapel group that evening. The cons for Christ were confused, as they so often are, by the Olde Testament platform of their kindred spirits in the Christian Right. The God they know and pray before, forgives the unlovable and loves the unforgivable. Don't the Conservatives know that Jesus was soft on crime?

Over the next few weeks, listening to the exchanges in laundry lineups or at canteen windows it becomes clear that within the prison world the Greens and the Marijuana Party are running at the same neck-and-neck pace as the Liberals and the Conservatives out there.

Then came the leaders' debate. Proportionately there were probably more people in here that watched the whole thing through than outside. Posters begin to appear, often with attached photocopies of news articles. Most inmate voters seem fairly relaxed over the accusations of scandal or of financial mismanagement. After all, art, politics, crime, it's what you get away with that counts. Prisoners begin walking the compound or sitting together in common areas talking of wasted votes, social programs and foreign policies, negative campaigning, party platforms, hidden agendas and not so hidden agendas. The understanding of the issues deepens.

Prisoners seem to be connecting, vigorously and passionately, to the human, social, and environmental aspects as the campaigns unfold. A fly on the wall might begin to suspect that these men are feeling a part of something, possibly a stake in their country, maybe even in their own futures. If their vote counts perhaps one day they too will count.

Still, a few cons remain apathetic, but comparably less than in any small town or neighbourhood. The Chapel group, even the Protestants, are now leaning towards Paul Martin and his Liberals. The Brotherhood decided that no native in this country can afford to be apolitical, so most are identifying with the outsider image of the Greens, plus they like the party's stance on the environment and treaty rights. The library crowd remains fairly solid NDP, but even they agree that Jack Layton's smile is thin, and his presence even thinner. The tough guys, especially those with a long history of meting out rough prison-yard justice, have now decided to vote because they are attracted to Stephen Harper's promises of harsh treatment for sex offenders. And the Marijuana Party has hardly been mentioned in weeks; I think it's a short term memory thing.

Whatever results on June 28, the journey in here has been worth the privilege. Prisoners have been registered to their home ridings, last-known residences, or places of arrest. Their impact on election results will be practically negligible. Not all, but the overwhelming majority of inmates in this country have not committed a crime so beyond the pale it excludes them forever. Canadians should be proud of extending voting rights to the very people who have offended against them. It is the measure of a true democracy, an expression of compassion and dignity, and some of that can't help but find its way back inside.


. I had prestige — and fun. Handing out the betting slips, chasing down the odds, hiding it all from the guards. But write a book? After fouteen years as a cell-block gangster the only respect I get now is from a skinny embezzler who spends all his time in the Russian novelist section of the library. Just the sort of ally I need when I'm trying to convince four young turks not to borrow my television set.

My first taste of literary success came at mail call. A letter from the editor of a small magazine congratulating me on winning their poetry prize. A cheque for sixty dollars was enclosed. Sixty dollars! For my vision! My light! The reward seemed downright criminal — on the other hand sixty beans would keep me in Cheetos and Dr. Pepper's for a month.

To add insult to poet's wages, the editor had put in a P.S. “As a fellow writer I envy you the peace and solitude to pursue your chosen craft.”

Peace? Solitude? Didn't this guy know that when you close a cell door the flies can still get in? Maybe he thinks those convicts hanging over the range are hollering in sign language. Give me a break! Writing in prison is like trying to juggle chainsaws during Chinese rush hour.

For every hundred guys making noises there are at least another hundred that think I'm their private writer-in-residence. Every cell has a story; every prisoner has a letter begging to be written. It gets busy. I must be the only convict in the world doing twenty-one charlies who doesn't have enough time.

I had to come up with a way to be fair so I listed all the requests in order of urgency. If a guy was over six-feet tall and could deadlift 400 pounds, it was urgent. If he was under 140 pounds, I wouldn't write him a suicide note.

Meat, for instance, my latest cell partner, asked me to pen a love poem for his girl. “You know, full of passion and stuff, like Harold Robbins.” Meat keeps a knife in his sock and his brains wrapped in a bandana. I wrote:

Dear Mona,

Roses are dead

Violets are doomed

As will be you

If you don't visit soon.

Meat liked it, but wanted to add “and bring lots of drugs.” Instead of a discussion on iambic pentameters and the poetic interruption of the fifth line, I reminded him he'd “only just met the girl once” and that he maybe shouldn't be so forward.

Between winning sixty-dollar poetry contests and wooing Mona, I managed to type out the two favourite words of any novelist — The End. I rushed right down to the mailroom where it cost me a month's wages to double certify and triple register my Pulitzer Prize-winning blockbuster to a top New York agency. Two months later I got the manuscript back with a note: “Great story — wrong decade. Sorry.” It seemed the market for bad guys was down.

It took a further two months and a half a dozen more rejections before I signed on with a bottom New York agency. Her office was a Volkswagen camper up on blocks. I had to write back care of a licence plate in Newark.

Still, she was a New York agent — well, a New Jersey agent, but close enough. It wouldn't be long before I was being feted at one of those literary parties, sipping the bubbly and eating little weenies off toothpicks. Moguls would line up to buy my soul. Women would ask to touch my scars.

My Jersey agent got me a contract. The advance was six figures if you overlooked the decimal. With her end she bought wheels for her camper and moved to New York. We were on a roll.

I was assigned an editor. Her first letter was like a dentist's promise. She stroked me for three pages and wound up by saying, “there's some work to be done; it won't hurt a bit.”

It hurt a lot. Near the end I wrote to her wondering if anyone else in the world spent two hours splaying their brains over whether to replace the word “and” with a comma. She wrote back saying “writing is war.” I had been at war all my life; I had hoped writing would be different.

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