Monday, 12 December 2011

Prison Chaplaincy

Not long after I assumed the role of 'Pastor' of MCC Vancouver it was suggested that we create a newsletter to be distributed to the registered congregants and placed in public places to be picked up by anybody interested. The congregation did not have much spare money so the publication was run off on a Gestetner machine and distributed at church as well as in various Gay businesses around town - including the King's Castle Hotel on Granville Street.

In the mail one day I received a letter from a prisoner who was incarcerated in the Agassiz Mountain Institution which is about 60 miles east of Vancouver on the north side of the Fraser River. The writer of the letter never told me how he came to have a copy of the newsletter - except that it had been brought to him from the Kings Castle. He asked if I could come out to visit him.

I knew that I would have to gain clearance in order to do so - so I wrote to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and received a fairly prompt reply in the affirmative.

Before I proceed further, some background information.

While growing up, the bus we rode from where we lived into downtown New Westminster passed the huge B.C. Penitentiary. As a young teenager I was fascinated with 'crime comics' and would buy them. In those publications invariably felons were depicted as very ugly men - however, often when I passed the prison on the bus, 'trustees' were outside taking care of the manicured grounds. They were ordinary looking men and not ugly at all. Ergo - prisoners were not necessarily physically gross.

In the latter part of the 19th Century many immigrants arrived in Canada from Eastern Europe. Among them were members of a small religious sect called  Sons of Freedom' (or 'Doukhobors') who would protest situations by parading around while nude and/or setting fires to buildings - even their own homes. After World War II their protests increased in number so there was a crackdown.

Due to the nature of these people they could not be placed with the regular prison population so a separate institution was built to house them. This came to be called Agassiz Mountain Prison and, later, when the original need abated, it became a prison for sex offenders.

Greater Vancouver was growing and expanding including New Westminster so, as the B.C. Pen occupied valuable real estate, it was closed in favor of a large housing development. Before it closed, another large prison - known as 'Kent' - was erected about half a mile from where the Doukhobors had been kept.

On my first visit out there I went to the wrong institution and had to be redirected!

The man whom I went to see - and on a number of occasions - was middle-aged and had a record as a pedophile. That type of activity is abhorrent to me but he was a human being and he needed spiritual care from somebody who would not issue judgments - just listen and talk.

It was interesting being in that large room usually almost full of people visiting others. There were young people and old people and others who were in between. I am a 'people watcher' so I kept my eyes on what others were doing and witnessed activities which the guards would not have approved of if they had seen them.

Jack - as I will call the prisoner - was from Manitoba and had been incarcerated elsewhere for the same crime. Therefore, when he asked me if I would sponsor him for a weekend pass to come visit me in Vancouver, I thought of the paper boy who lived next door and declined!

He had a sister and brother-in-law who lived in North Vancouver. His sister did come to visit him but his brother-in-law flatly refused to do so.

A few months after I had begun visiting him there was an 'Open House' at the prison so I brought a friend with me who was a member of the church and a strong-willed person but who was curious to see the inside of a penal institution.

Eventually, this prisoner was transferred to a prison back east and our contact was severed.

However, he was the first of a series of prisoners who were in touch asking for visits. Also a grapevine seemed to be in operation and prison personnel would contact me when a new prisoner was determined to be gay. The following are notes about a few of those.

Two lads were incarcerated in minimum security camps which were well back in the woods miles from the highway. One was near Harrison Mills (about ten miles west of Agassiz) and the other at Alouette Lake northeast of Coquitlam. Both of these young men were sentenced because of theft. One was identity theft and the other stole some material items.

The one charged with identity theft had a Parole Hearing at the 'work camp' and I was asked to attend. I was surprised and shocked by what I witnessed - downright rudeness by one of the interviewers towards the prisoner.

Another who was charged with theft was Kelly. I do not remember what he had stolen but he was chased by the Vancouver Police to Granville Island. When the police closed in he jumped into False Creek and tried to swim to the other side - only to be pulled out of the water by officers in the police boat.

He was sentenced to the medium security prison at Matsqui near Abbotsford. Our go-between contact was the Anglican chaplain of the prison. Usually he was in his office when I arrived and would accompany me to where Kelly would be playing the piano in the chapel. One time, however, the Padre had to be elsewhere so Kelly took me on a tour of the facility showing me the shops, his cell, the exercise yard and so on. When the Padre heard about that escapade he was horrified - the caper put me at risk. If one of those prisoners wanted to get out - or thought of a 'blackmail' scheme, - I would have been, in all likelihood, the hostage.

Kelly was released soon after that and, thanks to friends from away, was whisked out of the area.

There is one more prisoner whom I want to mention.

This fellow was a French-Canadian who had come from Montreal to Vancouver and met a man who had a dangerous fetish - blood sports - and who loved to take drugs. One evening the two of them became stoned, a knife was produced and the 'guest' was to nick the other so that there was blood. Being as stoned as they were, the knife slipped, punctured a vital organ, and the host died. The other was charged with murder.

By this time it was known that I 'pastored' to LGBT folk when they were in trouble and needed spiritual advice so I was called by one of the male nurses at the Vancouver Detention Center. I agreed to go visit the prisoner.

The Vancouver Police Department had a new Headquarters and the cells in there were state of the art. However, to go in to see a prisoner, was daunting. I had to wait for a loud buzzer to sound and a door opened. I walked forward into an anteroom, the door behind me CLANGED shut, a moment later another buzzer sounded and another door opened in front of me closing after me with the same CLANG.

I was in there to see him more than once and, one time, I waited in the anteroom with one of Vancouver's 'characters' - Harry Rankin. Harry was well known for his adversarial work on behalf of the underprivileged and as a 'left-wing' City Counselor. It was a pleasure to meet and to chat with him.

The fellow accused of second degree murder was found guilty - I was in the courtroom - and was sentenced back to prison. He asked to be sent to Archambault Prison near Montreal. I never saw him again.

One evening I went to the Shaggy Horse and was accosted by a couple of young men who were friends of the murder victim. They berated me for daring to visit and to befriend his killer. I reminded them who I was and what I did to earn my living. They did not accost me again.

April 27, 2015-------An addenda

Two weeks ago one of those 'prisoners' was in touch by email and then in person. He, his current boy  friend and another friend visited Toronto and he let me know so we visited. It is now more than 30 years since we met so - instead of a teenager -  he is now a mature man - but still full of braggadocio. As I expected, his current partner is a young man. Also, they were accompanied by another gay friend.

During the evening before they left to return to their homes we sat together on the patio of one of Toronto's gay bar/restaurants. Yes - he is the same 'kid' whom I befriended all those years ago and it was great for us to be able to reconnect. 

No comments:

Post a Comment