Thursday, October 9, 2014

Who I am, What I do

I have had a lot of support from my friends and family since I began getting serious about writing, for that I am eternally grateful. Ever since I was a kid I enjoyed writing short stories, and to be perfectly honest it was the only thing I've ever felt I was any good at. 
I was a nervous, awkward kid. I was extremely self-conscious and clumsy. As a young man I tried working a succession of different jobs but discovered I had difficulty working with people, I often felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I was certain I was being watched or being talked about. Paranoid, I guess. I felt like I couldn't do anything right. As a result I was often impatient and hostile and consequently, never employed for any significant length of time.
I was frustrated and always broke. I had to do something with myself, but what?
And then it came to me. 
I'll be a gangster!
Like a comic book super-villain, I thought I'll Show them! I'll show them all!
All that was missing was the maniacal laughter.
 Being a gangster in a small town is a bit like being a celebrity in a strip club. Not an A-list celebrity like Brad Pitt or anything, more like a troubled former child star like McCaulay Culkin or Corey Haim.
Things did not go smoothly. Despite my enthusiasm for my newly chosen profession, I was terrible with money, I drank and did too many drugs and most importantly I didn't particularly like beating people up. I got arrested a lot and wasn't making any real money. I didn't meet too many stand-up guys in the dope game, but the few I befriended became like my brothers. They displayed an almost saint-like level of patience with my many fuck-ups. Although I don’t see them very often anymore, many of the guys I met back then remain my friends to this day.
I was also fortunate enough to have a brilliant criminal lawyer who almost always managed to beat the charges against me. The very few times he couldn't get me off the hook altogether, he negotiated plea deals for very lenient provincial jail sentences. Over a span of nine years, various police investigations resulted in just over forty criminal charges being laid against me and my friends. Although we did do quite a bit of time in pretrial custody, up until 2007 there were very few convictions. I was only personally ever convicted four times.
When I finally did get the hang of it and became somewhat successful at the whole gangster thing, I found myself bored and unfulfilled. At some point I made a subconscious decision to sabotage myself, going right off on drugs and getting myself deep into debt. Just when I was at my lowest, when my friends had enough of me and I couldn't get any more underworld credit and hit rock bottom, I was miraculously and mercifully arrested. 
This time the cops had had enough of me and my friends' shit. They pulled out the big guns both literally and figuratively. Using a draconian and blatantly unconstitutional section of the criminal code of Canada designed to prosecute outlaw biker clubs and the mafia, the police charged myself and about a dozen other men, most of them friends but some I'd never met before in my life, with conspiracy to traffic drugs and organized crime. The cops had pulled out all the stops. Instead of using the local federal crown attorney, they elected to fly in special prosecutors from Ottawa. They even had us escorted from the bullpen to the courtroom by the tactical unit, mean-looking jack-booted grunts who were armed to the teeth and dressed all in black. None of us had been violent with cops before or charged with resisting arrest. By this time we were veterans of the court system and had done absolutely nothing in the past to warrant this level of security. Hell, we were on a first-name basis with court security staff. It was a pure dog-and-pony show. It was theatre designed for the sole purpose of making us look like monsters in the courtroom and tainting the media’s perception of us, along with (I suspected) any potential judge that might preside over our trial.
To say I was happy to be arrested would be a major understatement. I was fucking ecstatic. I waived my right to a bail hearing. I didn’t want bail. I wanted to sleep, and sleep I did…for about a month.
It was during that last stint of pretrial custody that I began writing again, stupid little horribly offensive stories that would make the guys on my range laugh. I really liked the reactions I got out of my fellow inmates and re-discovered the talent I had for spinning a good yarn. I remembered the pleasure I felt in creating fiction and the focus and peace of mind that came with the process itself. It gave me confidence and a sense of self-worth.
After twenty-two months of custody for some of us and heavy bail restrictions for others, we finally had our day in court. On March 10th 2007, the crown agreed to withdraw the gangsterism charges and my friends and I in exchange for guilty pleas to the two conspiracy charges. I was sentenced to a few months of house arrest and time served for my period of pretrial custody.
During my time in jail my first girlfriend understandably got sick of my shit and found another man. I met someone else too, fell in love and had two baby girls.
I made the decision to try and write professionally shortly after my release, and whenever I put a pen to paper or sat down at a keyboard I would invariably write about my time inside. I found myself wanting to record the things I learned while in custody, not only about myself but what I learned about the unique social interactions that I believe were created by the concrete and cast-iron environment of jail.  I feel compelled to write about the kinds of men I met as an inmate. They weren't animals. They weren't incorrigible. Angry, disillusioned and addicted maybe, but very few of them were mean-spirited or beyond redemption. If the goal of incarceration is punishment tempered with rehabilitation, the system is failing miserably.
These days I try to stay quiet, but I still cheer for the bad guys in the movies and maintain a healthy suspicion of the police. I sincerely question anyone’s motivation for wanting a career in law enforcement, because I firmly believe it’s rarely out of a purely altruistic desire to help people and protect society. Call me a skeptic.
I believe my time in jail gave me a deeper understanding of the true nature of freedom and the unshakable opinion that the correctional system is broken. I write my truth in fictionalized stories in the hopes it will give folks who have formed narrow opinions based on the preconceived notions and the stigma society has attached to prisoners and about ex-cons another viewpoint.
I'd also like to reach people still going through the correctional system with the message that while they might have made poor choices, they're not worthless and that it’s possible to be caged like an animal and still remain a human being.

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