An innovative prison writing course offered at the University of Regina is giving students new insights into corrections, while examining the voices of the neglected and ignored.
Rik McWhinney’s apartment is a book lover’s haven. Shelves of books stand here and there along the walls, with more books stacked on top. McWhinney reads non-fiction – mostly histories, biographies, memoirs and collections of poetry. He has no time for genres like novels or science fiction, he says, dismissing the libraries in the prisons where he spent 34 years of his life. Those libraries were mainly stocked with paperbacks that portrayed a romanticized Old West that never existed. So, McWhinney read whatever seemed worthwhile from the libraries at the institutions where he was incarcerated, but he also had what he calls an extra “in”: “People would smuggle books in for me.”
He is currently re-reading Che Guevara’s The Bolivian Diary, an account of the revolutionary’s time spent with rebels intent on overthrowing the Bolivian government. McWhinney suggests he was born rebellious. Soon enough, he was a kid in trouble, running away from a broken home and an abusive step-father, living on the streets of Toronto. At age nine he was labeled as incorrigible and sentenced to a reform school at Coburg, Ontario. There was a lot of physical, emotional and sexual abuse there, he says, without elaborating. He graduated to a maximum-security reform school for youth, where he became even more out-of-control. A few years later he was in a federal penitentiary, where he spent most of his adult life until he was paroled in 2007. “The overwhelming majority of guys I met at reform school I met again at the penitentiary,” McWhinney observes.
During one stretch while he was on the outside, McWhinney stumbled across the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, a high-profile American social and political activist of the 1950s and 1960s. He was impressed by the directness and honesty of Ginsberg’s poetry. By chance, McWhinney bumped into Ginsberg at a poetry reading and had him sign a book. Back in prison, McWhinney struck up a correspondence with Ginsberg that lasted for several years. He also began writing his own poetry. Most of his early work was “just garbage”, he concedes, but he persevered because writing was a therapeutic outlet that served as an alternative to violence.
Today, McWhinney meets regularly with his Friends on the Outside (FOTO) group, and shares portions of his story with interested listeners. Earlier this year, those interested listeners were students in Jason Demers’ English 110 - Critical Reading and Writing course, a class focused on prison writing.
The idea for the course on prison writing originated from Demers’ experience volunteering as a literacy tutor while he was an undergraduate at Queen’s University, working with a prisoner named David at Kingston Penitentiary. “David had an unidentified learning disability. He wrote his words without suffixes, even though he articulated them when reading back his work,” Demers recalls. “He was dealing with some kind of aphasia, and I couldn’t help him. I don’t know how David is doing now, because everything was done on a first-name basis. I can’t track him down, but that experience changed me and stayed with me.”
Demers developed a working definition for the course while researching the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who had written histories of how societies have dealt with things like madness, criminality and illness. Demers also learned that Foucault had founded a prison information group of citizens who worked to bring to light what was happening to prisoners in France’s secretive prison system.
“The group didn’t have a political stance. They just thought it was important to break down that wall to allow incarcerated people to speak for themselves,” Demers says.
While some prison writings are thought of as literature – the works of Louis Riel, Oscar Wilde, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King come to mind – Demers conceived the course as a multimedia information-gathering project involving everything from poetry and essays to blogs, podcasts and interrogation videos.
“Our definition of what is English literature has expanded in the last half-century to include all kinds of cultural texts,” Demers says. “We spend a lot of time discussing what’s being said and why, developing various contexts for understanding the material we collect, but the unifying factor is taking time to listen to systematically neglected voices.”
The idea for his prison writing class came from English instructor Jason Demers’ experience volunteering as a literacy tutor at Kingston Penitentiary while a student at Queen’s University.
One of the main goals of the course, Demers explains, is to look beyond the stereotypes that words insinuate, to examine how words carry power, and also to examine the networks, practices and procedures that allow some people to define words, while others live out their effects. “The ultimate aim of the course is to hone students’ critical thinking skills.”
McWhinney readily agreed when Demers – who is a member of McWhinney’s FOTO group – asked him if he would come to a class to relate his experiences, read some of his poetry and field some questions. “I would do anything for Jason,” McWhinney says. He gave the students what he terms a perspective they won’t get from anyone else about spending time in several prisons. Most of his poetry focuses on his experiences in solitary confinement, officially called administrative segregation, and particularly his time in what was called the solitary confinement unit at the maximum-security prison in New Westminster, B.C.
Contrary to the movie stereotype, the solitary cells at that prison were not in the basement, but in a unit built on top of one of the cellblocks, which became known as “the Penthouse.”
Cells were basically small concrete boxes with no windows and only a small slot in the steel doors. Prisoners had no control over the temperature or lights in their cells, although the lights were dimmed at night. Exercise consisted of a half-hour pacing the corridor each day. “For 32 months I didn’t see blue sky or green grass,” McWhinney says.
The B.C. Penitentiary (BC Pen) experienced several riots over the years, including a full-scale riot and hostage-taking in 1976 that lasted for three days. A Citizens Advisory Committee that had been formed at the time by the Correctional Service of Canada helped to negotiate a resolution to the situation. McWhinney wrote about the struggle led by prisoners’ rights advocate Claire Culhane to end the conditions that led to the riots – in his poems Slash Solitary and Prison Justice Day.
The legal action spearheaded by Culhane and other activists resulted in a court decision, which found that solitary confinement as it was carried out at the B.C. Penitentiary constituted cruel and unusual punishment and contravened the Canadian Bill of Rights. One of McWhinney’s possessions that survived riots and his transfers within the prison system is a one-page statement titled Solitary Confinement, written by a criminologist about the court ruling and the effects that solitary confinement has on prisoners.
In response to the court ruling, McWhinney recounts, the prison administration gave the Penthouse a paint job, changed the name to SMU (Super Maximum Unit, the cosmetic change noted in Slash Solitary), installed a larger food slot in the cell doors and gave the prisoners control over the lights in their cells. Still, McWhinney notes, the self-mutilations and suicides continued. (The BC Pen closed in 1980, after 103 years in operation).
McWhinney’s experiences as an activist inmate are an important part of his story missing from his writings. When his friends finally convinced him to upgrade his education, his initial SAT assessment showed that he was reading at a second-year university level. Taking liberal arts and humanities courses with professors from Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria on-site, McWhinney was soon given a job mentoring other students in the prison.
While he was at Edmonton Institution he became president of the Lifers Group, which sponsored a team in the Special Olympics. He also initiated a one-on-one peer counselling program that empowered designated prisoners to work with other prisoners to address grievances and defuse volatile situations. McWhinney notes that prisoner grievances dropped by 60 per cent after the program was implemented. He recalls one incident where he was able to calm down a prisoner who was angry with a guard and who was threatening to vent his anger on any guard who came into his cell. The alternative would have been for guards to intervene with force, and possibly lethal results. The Correctional Service of Canada eventually ordered that the program be implemented in all of its facilities.
Sidney Lebrun was deeply moved by McWhinney’s appearance in the classroom and she strongly recommends the course to anyone. She began her studies at the University of Regina in journalism, but without a firm career plan in mind.
“In my first year I was taking a psychology class that briefly touched on corrections and justice issues,” Lebrun says. “I also began binge-watching Orange is the New Black, and so when I saw a poster about the course, I was interested.”
Lebrun says she was “immediately astounded” by the first lectures in the course, which provided a condensed history of the prison system, outlining the past and present roles of prisons in society. She recalls McWhinney’s visit to the class as an exceptionally moving morning. “The raw and honest energy in the room was humbling, and it helped to piece together all of the lessons and lectures the class had learned thus far. Before the course, I had learned something about the subject through the media and scholarly articles,” Lebrun observes, “but as the course progressed, I saw empathy and understanding fall across my fellow classmates as well. The change in energy and awareness was a key highlight I recall from the course.”
English 110 was a major factor in helping Lebrun find the career path she had been looking for. She decided to pursue a nursing degree, having heard McWhinney describe how nurses in the penitentiaries where he lived were cold, callous and borderline abusive. "I believe that if more people treated prisoners as people and less like numbers, reform within the penitentiaries would happen at a greater rate. I plan to be a part of the positive change in the system through the healthcare route," she says. (Lebrun is currently completing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Alberta. She also plans to broaden her experience through volunteer visits to prisons in the Edmonton area).
Her advice to anyone considering taking the course is succinct: Take it. Even if English is not your strong suit or if you are generally indifferent about prison issues, the course content is interesting and thought-provoking. “You will have a better understanding of society, human nature, and the correctional and legal systems that you will carry with you and that will aid you in your day-to-day life.”
Demers has offered the course twice, and it will likely be offered again. He was delighted to walk into class every week to encounter so many open minds and people who cared so deeply about other people among his students. Returning to the course theme of unhelpful stereotypes, Demers notes that he doesn’t understand the “me generation” label often attached to young people when he sees students with a genuine desire to learn about lives that are entirely different from their own. “Young people understand, perhaps better than anyone, that people are connected and we need to learn to live together,” he says.
These days, Rik McWhinny does more reading than writing in his cozy apartment, which, with an ironic twist, he calls his cell. Crohn’s disease flare-ups sometimes make his life miserable but are minor compared to the 34 years living under constant lock and key that he describes in Force Majeure.