Thursday, January 25, 2007

In prison – again

Near the end of last October I was lucky enough to be part of a group of a dozen writers who spent a Saturday and Sunday meeting with inmates of Matsqui, a medium-security penitentiary in Abbotsford, BC. The men are part of an ongoing writers’ group led by Surrey’s Ed Griffin.

Yesterday’s visit was different. For one thing, there were only two of us, Mary Reid and myself. Rather than attending as part of a pre-arranged retreat, we were going on more of a fact-finding mission. And we weren’t going back to Matsqui, we were going to William Head, a facility on Vancouver Island near Victoria.

The day was gorgeous – one of those perfect days I can only call ‘pre-spring’ – it felt as though everything was just on the brink of bursting into the new season. It was a joy to be in such a beautiful setting, on Canada’s western shore, looking out across to the water to the peaks of the Cascades. I could only think, if you have to be in prison, William Head is at least a very beautiful place to be.

Wally, our guide, was both patient and knowledgeable. We visited a number of facilities there, including the Native Centre, where the men make drums and other traditional objects. We learned a lot about the place, including that the site used to be a quarantine station for new immigrants to Canada. What stories must be hidden in the little cemetery there!

But the real purpose of our visit was not to see the facility. We wanted to find out about writing programs there, in hopes that we could help provide some liaison between the two institutions, especially as many of the Matsqui writers have occasion to move on to William Head. We knew that the inmates at WHI have been producing Out of Bounds, a small literary magazine for many years, so we anticipated that there must be some ongoing writing programs there.

The men were warm and welcoming, and seemed genuinely interested in meeting with us – we’re pretty sure they liked us for more than the Tim Horton’s doughnuts we brought. We spent the morning in dialogue, learning about the kinds of writing they’re interested in (everything from writing better letters to exploring fiction and poetry). But we were surprised to learn that currently there isn’t a writing program there.

Mary and I came away from our visit with a lot of new information. Both of us hope we’ll be able to get some meaningful workshops going at William Head, as there’s a group there that seems ready and willing to learn and to share.

By the way, there’ll be another writers’ retreat taking place at Matsqui this spring. If you’re a writer who’s interested in participating, please let me know. It’s an experience I’m sure you won’t soon forget.


Jenn said...

Very cool. I actually lived near WH prison when I first moved to BC. Their theatre program is well-respected, so I would love to see them get a serious writing program off the ground. And it's true, that if you've got to be in prison, I can't think of a nicer place.

Pat Buckna said...

I used to work at Matsqui in the late seventies. I was a hobby officer and my job was to drive into Vancouver and purchase art supplies - wood, paint, cross-stitch and embrodiery thread, etc - on behalf of the inmates. I also got to perform a concert with an inmate band backing me up - intense, and loads of fun. I'd be interested in going back sometime to talk about writing.