By Art Martens
On a dark night last December, I was standing uncertainly at the front door of Lukas, my cross town neighbour. Before ringing the doorbell, I hesitated. Was I foolishly venturing too far into unfamiliar territory? I had never met Lukas, but I knew he was known in the community for racing around town in his car at night, laying long black strips of rubber, waking citizens from their peaceful sleep, and terrorizing anyone still on the streets. A lot of townspeople wished he’d go away, or be put away by a judge. Until recently he had been pretty lucky, but now the law was closing in. He was awaiting a court date for several serious driving infractions and had already demonstrated a lack of respect for conditions imposed by the judge.
I was acutely conscious of the chasm of values, experiences and lifestyle between us. Also, there was the matter of age. Lukas is only 20. My hair is as white as the snow on the mountain tops surrounding Hedley. Would he resent my unannounced intrusion into his life? Would I be rebuffed?
In one hand I held a small plate of Christmas cookies Linda had baked that morning. I hoped they might momentarily distract him from the chasm. I pressed the doorbell. A dog yelped excitedly, then the door opened.
I introduced myself and, holding the plate toward him asked, “do you like cookies?” Accepting the plate he said, “my grandpa loves treats. He’s here for a few days.”
I had anticipated suspicion, but he seemed surprisingly mellow and receptive. There was no edge or even a hint of hostility. Enboldened, I asked, “would you want to chat sometime?” “Anytime,” he replied, opening the door wide and motioning with his hand for me to come in. We talked for about 20 minutes, mostly about what had already been reported in the local media.
A couple of weeks later I had a conversation with Marvin, the grandfather. I learned Lukas had been very close to his mother until she passed away approximately half a dozen years ago. Losing her was a devastating event and his life began spiraling downward,
I had one more visit with Lukas. A few days later he was picked up by the police and will be in custody until his court date.
My experience with inmates in provincial and federal prisons causes me concern for Lukas and our community. As a society, our response to individuals like him suggests a lack of understanding, wisdom and creativity. Too often we fail to provide counselling and other assistance when they are young and likely less hardened. Courts impose probation, order community service and possibly sentence them to an all too brief program of rehabilitation that has inadequate resources. Then comes jail time.
I’m reminded of Simon, a 34 year old inmate I interviewed as part of a research project at Matsqui Institution. Like Lukas, his early associations and activities had pushed him to the periphery of society. Between brief jail terms, he managed to get married and father 2 sons. When he lost everything in a poker game, he had to tell his family they no longer had a home. Not having good work skills he fell deeper into a life of crime. By the time I met him he had become a hard core con, talking out the side of his mouth the way prisoners do in movies. All contact with his family and the outside world had been severed. When he was released on parole, he drifted back to his criminal associations and haunts in Vancouver.
Prison inmates are shaped by a subculture that makes them even less prepared to participate in the life and economy of mainstream society. Upon release, they frequently return to the community they had come from. If Lukas is placed in jail will he, like Simon, become steeped in criminal values, culture, attitudes, and lifestyle? This would be detrimental to him and also our community.
I’ve observed many times how difficult it is for anyone who has done time, even adolescents, to re-enter mainstream society. The younger and less experienced in criminal associations, the greater is the possibility of snatching them back, before the chasm becomes too wide and we can no longer reach them. Lukas will almost certainly return to Hedley. As individuals and as a society, we’d be wise to look for a more innovative response.
Source:: Living Significantly