Saturday, June 13, 2015

Remembrances and coincidences

It's been one week since we attended a remarkable remembrance event for a dear friend. It's a matter I mostly want to keep private.

But another remembrance that came to my attention this week is one that I think deserves a more public commemoration.

It was an item that caught my eye mostly by accident. Though I often scan the obituary pages (usually on my way to the day's Sudoku), I noticed a name I hadn't seen nor heard mention of in years: Mary Steinhauser. The announcement was a remembrance item, commemorating her death forty years ago on June 11, 1975, when she was caught in crossfire (or as we may now identify it, by the hideous oxymoron, 'friendly fire') during a hostage-taking incident at the British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster.

The institution's been closed since 1980, mostly excavated and re-invented as a subdivision, though remnants of the old BC Pen linger.

The penitentiary was well known for its practice of holding inmates in its SCU (Special Corrections Unit), where prisoners were confined alone for over 23 hours a day, with only the rarest access to the outdoors. Because the SCU was on the top floor of one of the buildings, it became known as the Penthouse. Prison humour, always the darkest, is often enduring in its irony.

Steinhauser was a social worker -- or, to be more accurate, a classifications officer -- who worked at the prison. She was known as an advocate against the practice of solitary confinement and was viewed by some as being 'on side' with the men, a situation that may well have contributed to her death.

Although the full report stemming from the official inquiry into the incident does not cite the names of any of the hostages (it names only prisoners and those who were called in as negotiators), we know that the single resulting death was that of Steinhauser.

I'll admit to having had greater than average interest in the story, both because I admired Steinhauser (and Claire Culhane, a peace activist and another prisoners' advocate of the era) and because I knew someone who was a brother to one of the hostage-takers. All I can find to substantiate my memories of the event is the Wikipedia article on Steinhauser. It portrays her heroically, as being the only hostage who chose to stay in the room with the prisoners who'd taken charge, standing for what she believed to the end.

But now here's where the coincidences come into play. Reading this morning's paper, I found a hopeful article about rehabilitation activities in U.S. prisons. Instead of the continuously more punitive measures which are being undertaken in our overcrowded prisons, gardening is being encouraged as a way to give men meaning in their lives -- and to save money by providing a source of food for the prisons.

Only then, when I turned the page, an even bigger coincidence presented itself, this time on the too-familiar obituary page. Former prison guard, Albert Hollinger had died. It had supposedly been bullets from Hollinger's weapon that had killed Mary Steinhauser. And here, within a day of her death's anniversary, was his death.

Details of his obituary made it seem as though he'd suffered his own difficult times in life, alluding to PTSD.

Coincidences, remembrances. Lives intertwined. May all of them now rest, in peace.


Janet Vickers said...

Thanks for remembering the heroes in our society. I really admire the people who stand for what they believe in.

hg said...

There is a fund one can donate to, the Mary Steinhauser Memorial Bursary for Aboriginal Students in Arts and Social Sciences at Simon Fraser University: