“Stand up,” the judge said. I refused. What was the point? I already knew the sentence he was about to hand down: mandatory life. The year before, high on speed, I had recruited a friend to help me handcuff and kidnap a fellow drug dealer. We drove him to farmland outside Toronto where I shot him five or six times and hastily buried him. It was September 1, 1978, and I had just turned twenty-two. The following morning, the farmer who owned the fields noticed tire tracks. That night, his daughter discovered the hole and its contents. I was arrested three weeks later. When the jury returned with a guilty verdict for first-degree murder, I couldn’t even pretend to be surprised.
At Kingston Penitentiary, I was assessed, deemed a serious threat to public safety, and herded onto a bus to Millhaven Institution. Every inmate on that ride was quiet and anxious. A maximum-security prison, Millhaven housed more than 400 sadistic malcontents: murderers, bank robbers, mafia dons, and motorcycle gang members. The most depraved element, however, didn’t always wear prison greens. The Millhaven Max, as it was known, was home for years to a gang of guards who, seemingly for fun, would set attack dogs on inmates or beat them near death. Cell ranges were constantly bombarded with tear gas, forcing men to breathe into any clean pocket of air they could find.
There was no shortage of horror stories. The most infamous involved the “christening” of the prison in 1971. In leg shackles and handcuffs, the first inmates assigned to Millhaven were escorted, one by one, to the front of a long corridor. Before them stood a gauntlet of guards. Shuffling as fast as they could in leg restraints, while protecting their heads with bound hands, inmates were pressed forward against an onslaught of blows from clubs, fists, and steel-toe boots.
That’s not the welcome I received, but there was little doubt that Millhaven, sitting on hundreds of acres at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, had been built to house the worst felons in Canada. Row upon row of barbed wire glistened atop two forty-foot-high fences spread twenty-five feet apart. At the front entrance, a pillar of concrete rose to a platform supporting prison guards in all their gear. A display of fully loaded assault rifles, sidearms, binoculars, and radio transmitters met the frightened eyes of those who entered and those fortunate enough to leave. Night and day, dark-tinted security vehicles patrolled, circling the fencing, watching and waiting for any sign of escape.
After being ushered in through the front doors, we were placed in an anteroom where our shackles and handcuffs were removed. Prison guards then escorted us to a large metal grill barrier that opened electronically, sliding sideways to allow access to a hall. The corridor was clean; at its end, another grilled barrier whirred, sliding open. We now stood in a dome-like space secured by a gun tower that controlled the corridors and the three living units.
Each of us was issued two sheets, a blanket, a pillow with case, two face cloths, and towels. We also received institutional clothing: shirts, pants, socks, briefs, a jacket, shoes, slippers, and T-shirts. I was led into unit A, which consisted of five ranges, double-deckered so as to be A1 and A2, B1 and B2, and so forth. The second-floor ranges all ran off stairwells that sat in front of the unit’s control tower. Armed prison guards had electronic control of all doors and barriers. I was placed on C2. Every range had some fifteen cells on each side. Between the ranges, at the front of the stairwells, were common-room areas separated from the control tower by bulletproof glass. I stood with my bag in front of the cell assigned to me. The door opened sideways with a bang. I entered my new cell, and the door promptly slammed shut.
The door was solid, save for a small unbreakable observation window at chest level, a thin slit down one side, and another gap at the floor. During lockdowns, men would “fish” between cells, passing cigarettes, lighters, dry coffee, sugar, magazines, notes — whatever could fit through the cracks. Sometimes string would criss-cross the hallway floor, allowing the man in the last cell to receive a confidential note from the man in the first cell. The operation would take time, but time was one thing we all had.
No sooner had I made my bed and sorted my clothing than the motor on the door whirred again. Every cell door clanged open: it was suppertime. I watched as men in prison clothes, the odd one in sweats, meandered past my door. Some glanced my way, but most did not. I had learned long ago that looking in another man’s cell was prohibited and that staring at a man you didn’t know would be interpreted as a challenge.
I followed the crowd down the stairs. Standing in the food line provided me with my first look at my neighbours. They were all older. Some were overly muscular, a few just plain huge. Some muttered a few inaudible comments to one another in my direction but otherwise appeared totally uninterested in me. I accepted their indifference. It wasn’t personal. By suppertime, each of them would know my name, my crime, and my sentence. The more persistent would uncover my criminal record, my past associations, my hometown. There are few secrets in prison. I would learn about each of them as well, but for the time being I was just careful not to disrespect anyone.
I didn’t want new, fast friends. Given my age, those showing interest would be “chicken hawks”—men offering gifts and protection in exchange for companionship and sex. I also knew not to converse with the guards. Prisoners, particularly in maximum security, were paranoid about snitches. Talking to guards would get you killed. We had few rules at Millhaven, but they were non-negotiable. Each man prided himself on following the code to the letter. To his death, if need be. We had little else.
The daily routine seldom changed, except when there were lockdowns or full-scale disruptions. Lockdowns, where each inmate is confined in his cell, for hours or even days, occurred after a violent event: murder, attempted murder, or gang fight. Major disruptions involved aggrieved prisoners blocking cell doors, range barriers, common-room doors. Such riots were rare and happened only when prisoners felt their rights were being violated or ranges were being “unnecessarily” tear-gassed.
Millhaven Max was also a breeding ground for seemingly random violent assaults. My second day at the penitentiary, for example, I was walking with my supper tray when an inmate told me I didn’t have to eat in my cell but could sit in the common room and watch TV. Having been confined all morning, the idea sounded good. After I found a seat, a prisoner burst through one door. He looked terrified as he raced past my table and out the other door. When I turned my gaze back to the first door, a huge man stood there, naked, save for a calfskin loincloth and different coloured paint smeared on his face and chest. He gripped a knife-shaped piece of metal. He scanned the room then raced out in search of his prey. I finished my meal in my cell.
And then there were the prison breaks. One summer’s day, I went out to the yard for my usual afternoon walk on the weekend. After about an hour, a prisoner I knew approached me.
“If you’re not busy, I was wondering if you could help me out with something,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” he said, motioning for me to walk with him along the path. We got to an area between the tennis court fence and the tall fencing that cordoned off the yard. The path had a small rise, and in the middle of the rise was a circular three-foot heavy metal lid resting on a concrete sleeve, which extended into the ground. On the court side of the rise, the ground had been removed to bare more concrete a few feet wide by a few feet deep.
“Do you think that if I got you a sledgehammer, you could knock that concrete out?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “But if you want, I’ll give it a try.”
He smiled. “Okay, just walk another lap, and I’ll meet you back here,” he said, departing toward the gym. I walked the lap, thinking this might be a good way to ingratiate myself and make a friend.
When I came around the path to the rise, he had already returned with a sledgehammer. “Thanks a lot, kid. I’ll be back,” he said, handing me the tool.
So I stood on the lid and swung away at the concrete. It took a lot of swings before it began to break up into pieces. After a half-hour, I had a hole the size of the dug-out area. I slowly knocked off the rough edges, making the hole look nice. My friend came back. “That’s perfect.” he said, taking back his sledgehammer. “Thanks a lot.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what exactly do you need this hole for?” I asked.
“Oh,” he answered, “we’re leaving.”
I didn’t understand. “Leaving?” I asked.
“My friend and I are following the pipe all the way past the fences, and we’re gone.” He chuckled.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“No. No, I’m not. I can’t take you with us, but if the guards don’t find this hole, feel free to use it,” he answered seriously.
“Sure,” I said, still taking in the situation. I had just stood in plain view of everyone in the yard, making this hole, and not one person had paid any mind. Not even the guards in their towers.
I went back to my unit on the next changeover. I never did see anyone go down into the hole, but at supper count, two men were missing, and we were now in lockdown. From my cell window, I could see the yard, and more specifically, the rise in the path. Guards combed the yard with their sniffer dogs. Finally, one of the dogs walking over the rise started pawing at the loose ground. Then he started pawing faster. The guard pulled the dog away, bent down, and then called to the other guards. They were staring at the hole. A few minutes later, they opened another metal lid farther down and closer to the fence line. They began firing rifle shots into that hole, into the drainage pipes. I lay back on my bed and listened to the radio.
A few hours later, our doors opened. The institution had resumed normal operations. Captured that day, the two men were thrown in isolation and released about a month later. When he saw me again, my friend said, “That fucking pipe never went anywhere but to a bunch of smaller pipes a hamster couldn’t fit through.” And then he shrugged. I took it as a lesson and rarely did anything for anyone in there again.
Once or twice a year, we received prisoners on interprovincial transfers. Men came in from New Brunswick, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta, or British Columbia. These men would usually settle in without fanfare. Of course, a few brought baggage with them—past conflicts with other prisoners. Upon recognizing them, their adversaries would strike quickly.
I was in the gym one evening when I noticed a newcomer from the East Coast. He was sitting on one of the chairs strewn around the area. A man standing to his right drove a sharp metal shank deep into the side of his neck. The victim slumped over onto the floor. A huge pool of dark blood began to form. I later heard he had raped a young inmate down east, and that youth had matured into an adult at Millhaven. Prison justice.
But sometimes, payback could be just as brutal for much smaller sins. One incident involved a man named Willy, who, for a few weeks, occupied the cell next to me. One night, after lock-up, Willy kept talking with one of his buddies down the hall from his cell. That sort of thing was usually frowned upon, but no one seemed to complain. I slept in the following morning. Willy’s voice woke me up. He sounded alarmed. I rolled out of my bed and into my clothes. Then I walked out on the range, looking up and down. Men were walking with their breakfast trays. Everything seemed normal. I went back in my cell and washed my face. Then I went over to see Willy.
He was near his cell door, kneeling on one knee. His left arm, resting on the toilet seat, seemed to be supporting his weight. His eyes were wide open, but unseeing. He had a massive gouge right through the centre of his naked chest. I ended up hearing different stories about what happened, but only one made sense: a psychopath didn’t appreciate being kept awake.
I stuck to a schedule. Monday to Friday—work, exercise, sports, shower, and sleep. I focused on one thing: getting into shape so I could adequately defend myself. Each day, I got a little older and a lot stronger. In 1983, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered a new trial, and I pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. I applied for parole and was released in 1989. But for seven years, I lay on that hard bed every night and stared up at the ceiling. I never wallowed in self-pity. I simply endured.
This is adapted from an unpublished manuscript called Wasted Time.
This appeared in the January/February 2016 issue.