Let’s back up a bit first.
When I was in grade 12, one of the rituals of being in the graduating class was to prank the school in some shape or form. It usually involved relatively harmless late night hijinx directed at a classroom, a hallway, or the school in general. A group of us thought it would be “funny” to fill a hallway with plastic milk crates and real estate “for sale” signs. I don’t know why exactly, as it doesn’t sound all that funny now. Anyway. We fanned out in various cars to procure said crates from local grocery store loading bays and signs from lawns. However we had the distinct misfortune of doing so in a neighborhood that, unbeknownst to us, was enduring a bit of a burgling crime wave and was therefore receiving a heightened covert police presence. That’s how I found my 17 year old self being dragged out of the passenger side of my friends ride at gun-point under the hue of numerous flashing red and blue lights. I can assure you I was the perfect polar opposite of a hardened criminal in how I conducted myself. My partner in crime and I spent that evening in separate holding cells – it only took a few hours for the misunderstanding to be cleared up, but it was enough to permanently etch into my teen-age head that I was not “prison material”.
Fast forward about 10 years, and I was working in a brokerage house, having been successfully ‘scared straight’ and dodged a hardened life of crime. One of the clients of a coworker was spending some time in a correctional facility for various assault charges, and for whatever reason, his account somehow migrated to me and I became his gatekeeper into the financial markets. Dennis would call in (collect, of course), and place orders to buy tens of thousands of shares of penny stocks – he was working on the assumption that eventually, one of his picks would hit it big and be his ticket to riches when, or if, he ever got released. As far as I know, neither has happened. But what stood out, aside from my apprehension in placing almost certainly doomed-to-fail trades for someone with documented anger management issues, was his voice. He would call, I would ask how he was doing, and his reply in a quiet but hardened tone was always the same, “Well, I’m still alive”. Despite knowing it was coming, I never had a good response to that. I generally just replied with, “Well, I suppose it’s a good day then”. What else can you say?
Fast forward another 10 years or so, and my then-wife and I had moved to Vancouver. A childhood friend of hers, “Dale”, had moved from the BC interior to the Fraser Valley, about an hour outside of Vancouver. He lived there with his wife, whom he had met at work. Not terribly unusual, except that he’s a corrections officer at a medium security prison. He had always said that anytime we wanted a tour of the prison, to just say the word. Our friend Mike was in town one week, and as he was just as interested as I, we called Dale and asked if there was any chance we could take him up on his offer for the tour. He was happy to oblige, and gave us a date that he wasn’t scheduled to work. We eagerly met him at his home, and off we went to the Big House. Field trip!
Ironically, the date of our tour was the one year anniversary of a major riot within the prison. There had been concern over the preceding days that some sort of unrest might materialize on this day, in which case our tour might have to be abruptly cancelled. Rioting inmates with fashioned shivs don’t make for an ideal touring environment, although they would enhance the realism, I suppose. Dale’s coworkers chatted, and they mentioned that there was an uneasiness in the air, but nothing more than that. He led us through the facility, and gave us a view of prison life that I had not been expecting.
It’s worth mentioning that Dale is not your stereotypical prison guard. He’s fairly short. There’s no neck or forearm tattoos. He’s not exceptionally fit. And he’s not even armed. But once we reached the prison, it was obvious the one characteristic that he did have in spades was Confidence. Something both Mike and I quickly realized we most certainly did not have. As he took us through the various buildings, many inmates were walking freely, and I’ll readily admit that both Mike and I felt vulnerable. But not Dale. He strode amongst them as if he was 6’5″ and 285 pounds with a quiet confidence. He wasn’t mocked, no one threw crap in his face. There was a mutual respect, that was clear. We toured the outdoor exercise area, the trades room, solitary, and the mess room, which as I understand it, is where the biggest potential firestorms can start – many inmates gathered in a confined environment can lead to serious problems. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. There is no freedom, little privacy, much boredom, and a never-wavering sense of constant, submerged, Fear.
I learned four valuable lessons that day.
As with many aspects in life, one of the most important elements for success is confidence. For any hope of sustained success, no excess of any other components can compensate for a lack of it. A well armed, but fearful prison guard doesn’t have a future.
The men and women that run facilities such as this earn every penny of their paychecks. What it takes to do that job, and jobs of first responders in general like police, fire and ambulance, is something I dare say few of us could do, much less do with the high level of competence they provide our communities on a daily basis.
Our prisons might be considered tame by comparison in those in the US or abroad, but after seeing the cells, chatting with the inmates, and feeling the steel and confinement all around me, it’s not an easy time. It’s prison, and it sucks ass. Perhaps if more kids that were on the verge of going down the wrong path in life could see first-hand what awaits them, there would be fewer inmates.
And finally, I learned that I most certainly do not have what it takes to make it on the inside. And neither does Mike. But I think we both kinda already knew that.