Fathers in jail -- they want to get out and be the kind of dads they never had
Last month at Aramark Canada Ltd., the orders for Mother’s Day cards came streaming in from Ontario’s 42 correctional institutions from inmates wishing to send greeting of gratitude to the women they love. That’s 750 cards with pictures of flowers and hearts.
But now that the calendar page has been flipped and the day to honour fathers has come, that stream of cards has turned to a trickle — only 100 cards with pictures of sailboats and golf clubs. So for June, at least, the clerks at Aramark, the in-house general store for Ontario’s jailed population, can take it easy.
Intrigued? I was. So after some bending of arms and filling out of forms in triplicate, I’m allowed into the Don Jail near Broadview and Gerrard to nose around.
Although it’s by no means the Four Seasons, at least from the outside it’s not the nightmare Hollywood has led me to expect. A security officer at the door buzzes me in, and I join the other visitors sitting in the waiting room. And I could really just stop here, because one look around confirms what I learned from Aramark. There are about 20 older women visitors, but only one older gentleman sitting off in the corner with his wife.
“On any given day,” says guard Jim Aspiotis, “the number of mothers visiting as opposed to fathers is 7 to 1.”
The elevator door opens on the fourth floor, and the reality that this is jail is brought home. There are bars on the cells, and men in orange jumpers stand on the other side. The cells have no windows, and the toilets are exposed, beside the narrow bunk beds. Maybe Hollywood didn’t do such a bad job after all.
Boy, the men are young — from 20 to middle 30s. I know it sounds naive and silly, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact that these men are actually locked up, behind bars, like animals.
I talk to some prisoners through the bars, and they complain of the conditions: the cold, the mice, 36 to 46 men crammed into an eight-by-30-foot common room, and 20 minutes a day outside in the yard.
“Tell the taxpayers,” says one, “that we prisoners have to pay for our own cigarettes. They think they pay for them.”
It’s like the UN in here — whites, blacks, Asians, natives — but they share a common link, according to the jail’s chaplain, George Addison, who’s been ministering to their spiritual needs for the past 15 years.
“The men have had some truly miserable family backgrounds, abusive, absentee and alcoholic fathers. And at the Toronto (Don) Jail, we have people going through huge personal crises — they’ve just been arrested, they’re awaiting trial, they’re waiting for transfers, they’ve just been convicted — and they start looking back on their past, and invariably their fathers come up. It’s a given.”
On the other hand, says Addison, “The mothers are always there for their sons, unlike the fathers, and often are the last link the men have to the outside world.”
Security guard Aspiotis agrees. Any “your Mama” jokes will go down with a resounding thud — the sound of the joker’s body hitting the ground.
Nevertheless, in Ontario’s nine detention centres and 26 jails, any visiting that’s done between Mom and her boy is by phone through three inches of plexiglass. “The roughest part for the inmates,” he continues, “is when they go to court and have to sit sometimes four feet away from their mother and can smell her perfume but can’t talk to her or hug her.” The fathers are almost never there to be hugged.
The first inmate I interview is Robert Wade. When we sit down for a chat in a meeting room just outside his cellblock, I can’t help but see the similarities between us: our age, our colour (we’re both black) and our interests. He wants to study journalism when he gets out.
But the similarities get a little harder to see when Wade starts talking about his criminal history. “I’ve been here awaiting trial for the past 14 months on robbery charges, but my first conviction was in 1991, and since then I’ve been convicted 13 times for robbery, fraud, weapons possession, drug trafficking I’m sad to say.”
But Wade’s been addicted to cocaine since he was 15, and it’s to that he chalks up his criminal career. “As a sober person I could never put my hands on somebody or break into somebody’s home,” says Wade. “The funny thing is, my father actually got me hooked on the stuff. We’d get high together, get drunk together, whore women together and pull scores together. He was the epitome of the urban American gangster — a career criminal, a drug addict and a wife- and child-basher.”
Out of fear for her life and those of her children, Wade’s mother fled her abusive husband when Wade was five, and worked two jobs to support the family. But as a teen, Wade sought out his father and re-established a relationship. He rues that day.
“My father encouraged everything that has put me in jail. Even when he was dying of liver failure brought on by hepatitis, the partying never stopped. We were still doing crack and chasing whores. I wanted to get close to him. Still, I can’t say he loved me or was any kind of dad for me.”
Oh, I hear you, reader, and at this point in the interview I do search his face for signs of deceit, but I can’t find any. I almost wish I could. Yet Wade blames no one but himself — certainly not his mother, who still believes in him, or even his father, who “believed in nothing”– for the track marks on his arms or the over 40 offences on his record.
“I came in here 14 months ago with a grade 10 education and I’m going to leave with a diploma,” Wade continues (he earned 97 per cent in his OAC English course). “This is the longest I’ve been sober since I was 15. Now I can’t imagine going back to that lifestyle. I don’t want to be the kind of father that mine was.”
Wade is the father of a 16-year-old who was born when Wade was in grade 9, and it’s for her sake as well as his own mother’s that he’s determined to beat his addiction and stay out of that revolving door. (Seventy to 80 per cent of sentenced Ontario inmates are repeat offenders.)
“The things I hate my father for are the same things I’ve been doing,” says Wade. “I’m tired of shaming my mother and my daughter. I want to be something, somebody.”
But at the jail where Wade will likely serve the remainder of his term there are no rehabilitation or educational services on offer, and the ministry doesn’t pay for drug rehab until after conviction and placement in one of its nine correctional institutions, explains a spokesperson for the Ministry of Corrections, Ross Virgo. I wonder if Wade can really make this his last time in. (Show it can be done, Rob!)
At the John Howard Society in Toronto, which works for the rehabilitation of inmates, parolees and probationers, I speak with acting director Mary Roberts. “Many of our clients come in requesting female counsellors, because in their homes the mother was the dominant caregiver and they’re only comfortable dealing with women,” Roberts says.
Mothers struggle with the decision to take their children to see their incarcerated fathers, says Roberts. “They tell the kids, ‘Daddy is in a logging camp up north,’ or ‘away on business.'”
But even should the mothers want the children to maintain relationships with their fathers, many men are too embarrassed to have their children know, says Addison at the Toronto Jail. “I feel it’s better that they tell the truth and let the children come to visit. Do they want the children feeling abandoned by their fathers, as many of the inmates felt abandoned by theirs?”
It’s easy enough to receive visits if you’re serving time in one of Toronto’s four correctional facilities, but although 50 per cent of crimes are committed in Toronto, 90 per cent of the ministry’s institutions are elsewhere. “Transportation is a concern for many of the inmates’ families, and the government’s move to ‘super-jails’ in Lindsay, Penetanguishene and Maplehurst will worsen the situation,” Roberts says.
Steve B is waiting to be moved from the Don out to a correctional institution in Guelph. He doesn’t get visitors — his mom’s too sick, and his father well.
When he was arrested in February and charged with drug possession and trafficking, he was sleeping under the bridge at Mount Pleasant and Bloor. “So actually,” he concedes, “this isn’t so bad.”
Like Wade and most of the other 36 guys in his unit, B is a drug addict with a long history of incarceration, mostly on drug-related and violence charges, during his short life. “In the last 10 years, I’ve been out for only seven months. I’m 34.” And, also like Wade, he’s determined to make this his last time in.
Unlike Wade’s father, his was never in jail, “but he was extremely abusive,” say B. “The physical abuse went on for years until I was removed from the house by the Child Protective Services. Then I started living on the street. Anything was better than home.”
I believe every word he tells me –you just have to be here — and I wonder what kind of abuse makes living under a bridge in February look good. I don’t want to ask, but I catch a glimpse of it in his eyes.
In the time he was out, short as it was, B fathered three children by three different women. I ask him if, like his father, he has been abusive. “No, no, I love ’em. If I see somebody in the street hit a kid, I will clock ’em so hard.”
B thinks he can be a good father if he can stay sober. That’s one of the reasons he’d like to be transferred to Guelph, where they have drug rehab.
“The last time I got released I ran into a friend and before I knew it I was using dope again.”
For now, his kids are absent a father and they don’t know where he is. B wants it that way.
At Big Brothers and Sisters of Canada, national director Michael McKnight’s work is helping kids like B’s. “Child development research indicates that one of the most important factors in healthy child development is a positive adult role model,” says McKnight, “somebody who can provide guidance, support, unconditional love, some of the things a single mother might find difficult to provide because of the challenges of bringing up children single-handedly.”
Now, McKnight’s ever so careful not to blame single mothers — that would be tantamount to saying motherhood ain’t so good, and neither is apple pie. But he does say this: “When a good match is made through Big Brothers, there are several benefits. The boys stay in school longer, they’re more likely to graduate, and 78 per cent of those boys from a social-assistance background no longer rely on welfare and income support when they become adults.”
There are 6,600 children in Canada — many of them young offenders and court-ordered participants — matched up with big brothers. But there are over 4,000 on the waiting list. McKnight cautions that “volunteering is a commitment of at least a year, and any problems the little brother is facing can be exacerbated if the big brother pulls out, just as his father did.”
Red Heatherington is the last of the inmates I speak with at the Don. After five hours of listening to one heart-wrenching story after another of abuse at the hands of the one man a boy’s supposed to trust, I’m relieved to hear that Heatherington’s father at least kept his hands to himself.
“My mother and father divorced when I was five. He was a severe alcoholic,” says Heatherington. “I met him again at the age of 11 — only once. It was my mother who raised me, although I was always causing her grief and never listened to her.”
Heatherington has been in and out of jail for the past 10 years, mostly for drug charges, and as an HIV-positive gay man isn’t considered one of the boys. But some inmates have it worse — the pedophiles.
For them, jail means constantly having to look over their shoulders, and, in fact, they’re routinely isolated from the rest of the prison population to ensure that they don’t get a sharpened spoon thrust into their stomachs.
I ask a security officer why the other men, who have committed every conceivable crime from rape and armed robbery to murder, refuse to abide the presence of these prison pariahs.
“So many of them have been abused themselves as children,” she offers as an explanation, “and a lot of them have kids. If they can eliminate a child molester, they see it as one less kid that’s going to get hurt.”
I guess that’s the one thing a father’s supposed to do — protect his children.
Oh, and before I forget, the men inside wanted me to pass on their wishes for a happy Father’s Day to their mothers.