Criminals have been much in the headlines this month. A week ago, the body of convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, was found hanged in his New York City cell. A few days earlier, corpses of two teenaged murder suspects were discovered beside the Nelson River in northern Manitoba, dead by suicide. The latest in American mass shootings, this time in Dayton and El Paso, left one assailant dead by police bullets and the other in custody.
I have had some personal brushes with bad guys. As a youngster living on Whitmore Avenue in Toronto, I was proud of the little backyard playhouse our dad built for my brother and me. We busily stocked it with old furniture, a scattering of favorite comic books and an antique wind-up Victrola record player. One morning a few weeks later, we discovered our dad’s handiwork had been burglarized. Police soon caught the culprits, a neighbourhood gang of youthful delinquents.
Shortly after moving to my grandparents’ farm in North York, I was frightened by news of a dramatic 1952 escape of the notorious and murderous Boyd Gang from the Don Jail, escapees who were now suspected of hiding somewhere near our community. For the next week, I was understandably fearful of venturing into the hay barn after dark. On September 18 of that year, the gang was tracked down by police, while hiding in a barn near Sheppard and Yonge Streets. Far too close for comfort!
Despite my negative encounter and near encounter with bad guys, I later found myself sitting anxiously behind a desk, in new suit and tie, awaiting my first-ever real live client, a newly released inmate fresh out of Kingston Penitentiary. It was the fall of 1962 and after several weeks of classes in my first year of grad school at the University of Toronto, I was somehow deemed ready to meet and offer wise counsel to a parolee.
“Matt” was understandably more nervous than me. After ten years in prison, he was determined “to make it” on the outside. As a student in my first practicum, I was mandated to help him become rehabilitated. Knowing Matt had a wife and three kids, I began the interview as follows:
“I guess you are really happy to finally be home.” It seemed the right comment to offer under those circumstances. Matt dutifully replied:
“Yes, it is a great feeling.” The interview then proceeded uneventfully and we set up a second session.
Later that day, my supervisor scanned my written word -for-word transcript of the interview and exploded in anger:
“Why in hell would you automatically assume that he was `really happy` to be home? He has just spent ten years in an institution where his life is planned and rigidly structured from dawn until dark. He has
been living in an exclusively adult male world and suddenly he is thrown back into a family with a wife who has carried the parenting load on her own all that time and now expects him to act like a father. He’s also surrounded by three adolescents likely clambering all at once for his attention. Does that sound like an automatic, easy re-entry into civilian life?”
Once calmed down, my supervisor explained that Matt would feed me whatever answer he thought I was looking for. After all, I had the power to return him to jail. I quickly learned to practice asking more neutral, open-ended questions before our second interview so that my client would feel free to be more honest about his adjustment struggles. “Matt, how is it going so far?” Somehow Matt survived my “help” and never returned to incarceration. Somehow, I survived my rough start as a rookie parole officer and eventually graduated from the University’s Master’s programme.
Much later, while living in Peterborough, I was invited by the warden to teach life skills courses to inmates housed in Warkworth Penitentiary, a medium security prison about an hour’s drive away. Some of these students easily qualified as bad guys, including murderers and rapists; many had been behind bars for decades. Despite initial anxiety about being locked in with these carefully selected men, I discovered that they really were motivated to acquire some tools to help their reintegration back into civilian society.
In a subsequent year, I ventured by invitation into an even tougher place, Millbrook Reformatory. This was a maximum security prison for inmates serving ‘two years less a day” sentences. Although not lifers as in Warkworth, these men were sent to Millbrook after being labelled “unmanageable” in other Provincial jails.
Again, I was reassured to see how determined my pre-screened students were to attain life skills. Most had never learned how to create and maintain a budget, how to communicate to build family relationships, how to parent, how to cope with anxiety without resorting to drugs or alcohol to get through the day.
Bad guys made the headlines in the news this month but I certainly know from personal experience that many offenders do have a residue of good in them—maybe even those kids who stole my wind-up antique Victrola.