Authors: Stephen Reid
Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000
In the years prior to my arrest I had been both a volunteer and a paid worker in an area of what's commonly referred to as Restorative Justice. I had served on numerous boards of directors for organizations such as the John Howard Society, LINC, B.C., Prison Arts Foundation, PEN Canada, Spirit of the People, and
Journal of Prisoners on Prisons
. I lectured to crime students, taught creative writing in prisons, and conducted victim empowerment workshops. I was a paid contract worker for Corrections Canada (I had Advanced Security Clearance), helping long-term offenders find their way back into the community. I'd prepared pre-sentence reports, moved prisoner's wives into low-cost housing, driven their children to visits. I was an assistant at parole hearings, I refereed diversion programs for young offenders, moderated victim reconciliation sessions, and participated in healing circles.
In the latter three forums the victim and the offender are brought together in an informal and neutral setting. The objective is to establish a moral relationship between the offender and the offence and to meet the needs of the victims. These sessions were where healing could begin to take place for the parties in conflict. It was an approach to criminal justice wherein anger, shame, and hurt could be transformed into fairness, generosity, and accountability. It was sometimes a way through the anger and the hate. It was often the beginning of hope.
One particular session left a clear impression on my mind. It was not the sad tale of addiction and violation that was unfolding before me â these were all too common â but as I sat there, comfortable in my own chair, a witness to the human clumsiness that passed between this victim and this offender, I experienced a sense of liberation. I felt confident that I would be forever beyond the sad and humbling awkward ritual of accountability. I was so sure in that moment that I would never again be brought before the brass rail, made to stand, and be confronted by my own criminal failure.
And hey, look at me now, I can't even meet the eyes of my lawyer, my friend.
He writes it all down. He turns the pages as I peel off layer after fresh layer and sink deeper into the territory of my crime. It is like collaborating on a book: I draw images, he writes the text. Early in the draft I think â why couldn't I have been an alcoholic instead of a doper? At least an alcoholic is blessed with blackouts and memory losses. But a cocaine psychosis is nothing short of a chilling distillate; it was as if I had memorized a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The queer part is that “me” â the “I” in the parade of events as they happened â had little or no emotional memory. Cocaine, in a full-blown psychosis, causes an utterly pure detachment. The moral relationship, ironically and sadly, belongs to the person I am this day. The moral compass, the remorse and the shame, are present in me through memory, through me reliving, reattaching myself to the events of that day. Unlike an insane person, I am responsible for my condition and unlike a psychopath I can attain an authentic sense of responsibility.
Still, I wish there existed a meat cleaver I could simply hand to some sort of metaphysical butcher who could lop off the part of me that committed these crimes, and who could send that part off packing to the stoney lonesome. Then the rest of me â the other ninety-nine percent â the part that is a devoted father, a decent neighbour, a dedicated husband, and a caring, useful member of my community could go home.
But it doesn't work that way, and even if it did, who would choose what to cut? A psychiatrist might want my brain for analysis, a tribunal of judges would chop off my hands, the police I shot at, would, for sure, be clamouring for my oysters. And what about the heart? The heart of a parent? That overly mortgaged muscle? Would they drive a stake through it and then return it to my family?
But no, none of this will happen: it's all up on the block and it's all going. In criminal law, and much of life, we are our behaviour. I've offended wholly and I will pay wholly. The nature of this offence calls for a life bid, or at least enough years to pass as a lifetime. I know from experience that the calendar days of those years will march over me like an army of ants, each taking a uniform bite and carrying it down into the dark. But sympathy is not what I am looking for, even from myself. I have earned my incarceration. I just wish it weren't so.
From jump street I had told my lawyer to enter “an offer of accountability.” On November 29th we had what was termed a “mini-trial” in regards to “specific” intent to attempt murder. Three of the charges were dismissed, reduced to careless and criminal intent; one attempted murder stuck.
Sentencing is set for December 20th. The Crown is asking for twenty years, my lawyer will ask for fourteen years â my original “offer of accountability”. Neither option feels much like Merry Christmas.
This year my friend Patrick is putting up our tree; Tim is stringing the outside lights; Dano is buying my children's gifts for me; Michael and Marilyn are walking my family through Butchart's Gardens to see the Christmas lights. My mother-in-law isn't making her annual batch of Nanaimo bars and is worried no one will finish up the yams at our family Christmas dinner. My older daughter wants to leave for Mexico or L.A. â just to be anywhere but here for the first Christmas. My younger daughter seems more hope-filled. She tells me on the phone, “It'll get better, Dad, as more Christmases go by, but we'll still go through phases, you know.” She is a wise young girl who has learned to separate what her dad has done from who her dad is, something even her dad has yet to learn. When she visits, which is every Monday night at six-thirty, I watch her through the plexiglass as she draws pictures on a pad the guard has given her. She draws me, or my pop cans, lifting her eyes only occasionally. I watch as she carries her art over to the visiting area supervisor, as a present, and I see a ten-year-old girl who will be walking up to receive her high school diploma before I'm eligible for parole. Yes, there will be a lot of phases. I ordered the book she is reading,
Island of the Blue Dolphin
, so we can have our own private book club. I watch her favourite TV shows â
Sabrina the Young Witch
. She is filling a time capsule for me with stickers and art and letters. She wants to buy me Christmas presents and save them all up for me to open when I come home.
My older daughter, who will graduate from high school this year, is also under the legal visiting age and has to visit me with Susan or with her boyfriend. She puts her arm around her mother's shoulder in court and holds her up in the hallways on particularly trying days. She answers the phone and fends off the media. She makes dinner when Susan visits me in the evenings, or takes her sister to a movie when Susan needs an empty house. I watch her support whoever needs it, including me. Charlotte seems the strongest of the four of us but the crime is, at seventeen she shouldn't have to be.
During the last stage of my sentencing hearing, good friends and good neighbours got up on the witness stand: most swore on the Holy Book, and they all described a man they loved, a stranger to the events described during the trial stage of my hearing. That process was characterized by a
columnist as a eulogy. Everyone should be afforded the privilege I had to hear the love of friends before his funeral.
My wife was the last witness of the day, and in her trademark grace and humour she described the pain and the joy of our thirteen-year marriage, and I loved her all the harder.
Both children have insisted on appearing on my behalf. I reacted with an emphatic
â they've been through enough â but as in most things with children, a compromise was struck. They have each made a video.
All that is left of the sentencing hearing is to see these videos and listen to the testimony of BC's chief forensic psychiatrist. I have read Dr. Lohrasbe's report. He says I empathize and have understanding of the impact of my actions on the victims of my offence. He judges my remorse to be genuine. He's right. He also expresses the opinion that an extended period of sexual interference from my childhood is a significant factor in my life-long battle with addiction. Whether or not he's right, we both agree it's not an excuse for criminal behaviour. But it may give me a handle, something to hold on to, a place to begin again in my quest to become whole. I am determined to go wherever I have to go, to take it as deep as it is deep, to do whatever it is I have to do to become whole, to never commit another offence, to never again get addicted. To become, finally and forever, the man my many friends and family described that day from the witness box.
My previous incarceration lasted fourteen and a half years. Most of my adult life has been spent in some of the toughest maximum security prisons here and in America. Many of those years were spent in solitary confinement. When I think back to those endless days of silence, lying there curled around that emptiness, it at least made sense then. It was designed that way: alone in a cell, separate from all that's human, I was supposed to feel alone. But years after my release, a release I had worked so hard towards, changed so much to accomplish, standing in the middle of a room with my family, that emptiness would return. I felt so inhumanely alone, and it felt so unfair. Surrounded by the people I loved and who obviously loved me, the emptiness didn't make sense anymore.
No human being lives in any state close to constant grace. I had moments when grace visited. It came unexpectedly, and remained ever so briefly. Sometimes, when I produced my life and inhabited it fully, like early in the morning, up witnessing the dawn and hearing the first bird clearing its throat, or over a candle-lit dinner watching Susan drink slowly, the legs of a red, red wine reflecting the flame between us: these times I would be in awe of the world.
These are the moments that as I learn once more to meditate and make prayer, I hope will return for a visit.
This morning, when the judge drops his gavel, my chin will probably be on my chest, and as I so often do when I stand alone and afraid, I will probably be rocking my body back and forth. But I hope that as his arithmetic reaches my ears I will be tilting forward, and thus follow through, begin a new fall, this time towards grace.
HE JUDGE GAVE ME EIGHTEEN
. What could be worse than spending Christmas in a county jail? On Boxing Day they tossed my cell and seized the broken-off tip of an Xacto blade. It was beginning to look like New Year's in the hole.
I considered protesting â that my “contraband”, the size of a microchip, would make an unworthy weapon, or that one of his officers had given it to me so I could cut my horoscope from a newspaper â but decided to hold my mud. After seven months on a regular unit with too many nineteen-year-old garden gnome thieves listening to Metallica and watching
, the thought of a little solitary seemed too appealing to risk losing.
What to pack for the digger? Bruce Powe once addressed a Writers' Union AGM, and one phrase had stuck with me: “the future of solitude is reading.” My future was a lock. I'd better pack the reading.
I knew they always allowed one book in the hole, the Bible, so I chose
The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver. King James, Kingsolver, they'd never notice.
A battery of guards marched me down to Segregation â ten cells along a narrow hallway in the basement of the jail. My bed ran across the back of the cell â four inches of concrete topped with an inch thick vinyl mattress. I've slept on futons that were more comfortable.
I tapped on the wall, a three and one. A three and one back. Other wall, no answer. Morse code it wasn't but I knew I had one friendly down here.
A few days later I was kicked back, two thirds into
and smoking three a day, compliments of my friend next door. Kingsolver's
was a providential choice, a story of such unbearable radiance, I rationed my daily pages. New Year's Eve count was down to about four hours and I'd accepted being a quiet witness to the new millennium.