When I tell stories from my 2 month prison stay in 2002, I’m always told that I need to write a book about it. Being convicted of contempt of court and spending 2 months in a B.C. prison was not something I’d like to repeat but I do think that I probably had the best stay in prison of anyone on the planet. The context I created for myself when I was driving there in the back seat of a sheriff’s car was “I am the possibility of contribution. Contributing to others and being contributed to by others.” That context sustained me and constantly reminded me not to fall into the familiar, comfortable mode of being “Little Miss Social Worker”. In hindsight, I now know that the social worker mode that I easily slip into could have gotten me killed in that place. Instead, I approached every interaction with staff and inmates as “What’s in it for me and how can I be generous?”
My biggest fear in facing incarceration was medical examination. You hear stories about body cavity searches for drugs and I was horrified that some prison matron was going to put on rubber gloves and examine my sacred cavities! It turned out that those searches are not done in B.C. women’s prisons. Apparently, there was some discussion about training the guards to do those types of exams and the decision was made that it was too dreadful for all concerned and that no employee would do it. Lucky for me. The only medical examination I ever had in my time there was to have my blood pressure taken by a nurse and her machine didn’t work so even that was thwarted.
I was surprised to realize that prison is actually a drug and alcohol treatment centre. Every day, the majority of women on my unit would be called to “Health Care” to be given their methadone doses or anti depressant meds. A few days after arriving on Unit “C” (apparently the “C” stands for crazy) I was surprised to hear my name called over the loudspeaker and to be told to report to “Health Care”. I got my pass from the guard and headed out through a myriad of hallways and locked doors to the clinic. This part was like in the movies where a television surveillance camera tracks your movements through the prison and doors are unlocked and relocked by remote. There’s no danger of getting lost because you’re being watched and instructed all along the route. When I arrived at the correct door, there was another woman waiting with the terrible open sores on her face that told me she was a cocaine addict. We waited in the hall together for the next instructions. Her instructions came to go to another location and I looked through the glass window of the locked office door for awhile. Everything in prison is “hurry up and wait”. It’s a meditation in giving up your own self importance and becoming one with the herd. Your opinion and desires are irrelevant and you do not have any time schedule that needs to be considered—it often seemed like I was back in high school. Now, a man was approaching the door on the office side. Not only a man, which was rare in this women’s prison, but a nicely dressed young man with a very lurching walk that i attributed to cerebral palsy. He opened the door and said in an afflicted slur of words “Hello, I’m Robert, your mental health worker”. This was a complete surprise to me, I had a mental health worker for the first time in my life and it was Robert. I followed him into his office and was curious to see what would follow. There was a glow about him and a kindness in his eyes that shone through. I couldn’t imagine what fate had conspired to bring the two of us together in this room. He began our interview. There was a long list of questions to be answered: Do you have children? Are they in custody? Level of education? Do you have communication with your parents? Married, divorced, single? Will you have a home to go to when you leave prison? On and on it went and I began to realize that the picture I was painting for him of my life must be so different from what he normally heard. Somewhere in the questions, the fact that Robert spoke differently became invisible. It simply dropped away that he had any cerebral palsy affects at all. We were two human beings communicating. When he had finished asking all the questions, I said to him “You must hear some terrible stories when you ask these things.” I knew this because the stories I had heard were absolutely appalling and I wasn’t even asking probing questions. In response, his eyes welled up with tears and he said “Gloria, it would break your heart. No one ever loved them.” It now makes my eyes well with tears as I write this. There I was in what should have been a God-forsaken place but I was with an angel in the body. As we sat there and talked together, it was clear to both of us that the only thing that separated us from the others in prison is that we had been loved by our families. Yes, life had dealt him a body that had challenges and my chosen life path had landed me in prison but those things can be risen above when you’ve been loved. And, then, what do you do with all the love you’ve been given? You have to serve others, of course. That’s what Robert does in that prison. He’s one of the several angels I met in there. I think about him often and he’ll always be MY mental health worker.