As much as our culture disciplines deviance, it’s celebrated ad nauseam in the arts. Call it a result of escapism or a quest for enlightenment, but it is impossible to deny the success of crime shows and film studies of misanthropes. What’s perhaps most interesting about this tendency, however, is that people are interested in the fictional rule breakers; there is little consideration for the real perpetrators. In this interview, Charles Spearin talks about time he spent volunteering in a Toronto prison and how he values that breed of interaction.
Charles Spearin: I had some friends who did some volunteering at a local jail in Toronto. They would go once a week to the Quaker meeting group, and they would get together with a handful of prisoners – maybe a dozen or so – with no guards in the room. I went a bunch of times, and it was pretty friendly.
Truth.Explosion.Magazine: Can you say for our readers which prison that was?
CS: The Metro West Detention Centre in Toronto.
TEM: Okay. Now, that’s not max security or anything, right?
CS: No, it’s like a temporary…you know, people are held there for two years or something. They’re not supposed to be held there for more than two years, although sometimes it happens.
TEM: So not really the most hardened criminals, I’m assuming.
CS: The group of prisoners that we would deal with were called “protective custody.” They’re the ones who would get in trouble with the other prisoners either because they were snitches or because they were pedophiles or rapists and basically they were sort of in danger of being attacked by other prisoners, so they would be put into this special group.
TEM: I see. What’s it like in there?
CS: You go in there, and it’s just like every other prison story you see in the movies. You go through, a door clangs behind you, and you’re in this little isolated spot for a second and they scan you, and then you go through another door and you’re let through another door…and eventually we’re in the hall and it’s all painted sort of with an industrial beige.
TEM: What’s after the hall?
CS: We have to wait in the hall for the security guard to let us into the chapel. So all of the prisoners come, they line up; they’re all wearing their orange suites. We go in, everybody comes and sits in a circle, the guard leaves, and we’re left there for half an hour.
TEM: And what goes on in there?
CS: Basically the idea I guess was to sort of treat them like ordinary people. The idea was that, if you treat people with respect, eventually they would find their own basic goodness or sanity within themselves. So they have to be treated as adults and healthy people, and then they’ll eventually come to be that way.
TEM: Sounds like a good strategy. You said you got introduced to this through friends. Were they around when you went?
CS: When I went it was me, this one girl – a friend of mine – and there was an old guy that had been doing it for decades, and we would just talk about life or whatever. People would bring in books, people would bring in quotes…
TEM: How do the prisoners respond?
CS: Some of the prisoners were really thoughtful, some of them were really intelligent, and some of them were really confused, obviously. You know, one guy was in there because he had set somebody on fire and he had anger issues and he had to deal with all this stuff, so he talked a lot about anger and that kind of thing. It wasn’t therapy, but it was just kind of shooting the shit.
TEM: Just letting them vent.
TEM: What would you talk about in there?
CS: Most of the time I’m just trying to think what I can say to these people, like how to start a conversation. I’m really curious about what they did to get in there, and it’s rarely a chance to sit down with each one individually to say, “Why are you here?” because it’s not about that, it’s more about talking about current events and that sort of thing. So I’m always wondering what I should say. But yeah, the first couple times there were some sort of intimidating guys, to say the least.
TEM: Really bulky, bodybuilding types and such?
CS: Yeah there were plenty of those guys. There were also some transvestites and some skinny guys and some nervous guy who I think was in there for…he worked in a restaurant and he was in there for poisoning peoples’ food or something like that.
TEM: You said you would be asked a lot about current events. Did you find yourself having a lot of reoccurring conversations, or were people all over the map when it came to the talks?
CS: People were really into reforming themselves. There was one thing that one guy said to me…he said “People come into jail and half of them get worse, and half of them get better.” I thought that was a kind of interesting thing to say, because when you’re in jail you make a lot of connections and you can kind of end up furthering your career as a criminal very easily because you’ve got all these new friends that are kind of in the same business. And then there’s other people who really do wanna change their lives, and it’s hard when you get a group of fourteen guys…it’s hard to tell which ones are which. A lot of them just wanna get out of the yard and away from the noise and sit in the chapel quietly for a while, and this provides that opportunity.
TEM: Do you feel like you dealt primarily with people that wanted to reform themselves in the program you were volunteering with?
CS: I got the sense that some of them really, really wanted to change themselves. One thing that was just surprising was that a lot of them talk about how lucky they were. Like they would talk about how prisons were in different countries and stuff like that and how so many other people had it worse in the world. Which is a pretty amazing thing, you know, you think that being in protected custody and prison would be kind of hitting rock bottom…but a lot of these guys had a sense of really kind of trying to appreciate their lives.
TEM: Any notable experiences you can tell me about?
CS: One time we got there and we were all waiting in line and the guard came to open the door, and he didn’t have a key with him. I was the only one [of the volunteers] there – I was the first one there – so I was standing there with a good fourteen prisoners all in their orange suits in the hallway and the guard left and it was just us there in the hallway. And one of the guys at the front of the line, who was kind of an older guy that I’d seen regularly – him and I had had a few conversations – he looked at the door, and he tried the handle and it was locked. And we waited and waited, and then he took off his glasses, and he jammed the arm of his glasses into the lock and opened the door.
TEM: It actually worked?
CS: Yeah! And we were standing there and I said, “You know, I think we should probably wait for the guard to come back,” and he’s like, “No, no, it’s okay.” And I’m like, “Uh…I really think we should wait for the guard to come back.” So I had to close the door even though we could get in and we had to wait for the guard to come back and let us all in.
TEM: How fast would you say that this prisoner was able to hack the lock?
CS: About five seconds. Apparently he was a professional “B and E” guy or whatever.
TEM: Were you feeling some anxiety at this point? That’s not exactly the most comfortable situation to be in, arguing with a prisoner with no guards around.
CS: I think the main thing…I wasn’t really worrying for my life or anything because some of my friends had been doing this for a long time and I kind of did think that they were basically ordinary people who had some issues. It was just funny standing there. We had to wait for the protocol. So we had to close the door again, and wait for the guard to come back and let us in properly.
TEM: So about how long was it until that ended up happening?
CS: Well we were standing there for about ten minutes in the hallway, which is an awfully long time when you’re there by yourself with fourteen murderers, and rapists and pedophiles and whatnot, and you don’t know what to say to them.
TEM: I’m hoping it went without incident though.
CS: Well, everybody laughed. Everybody could see that it was kind of ironic that they were standing out there, not allowed in because they had to get a key, and we had a master lock picker at the front of the line.
TEM: And of course it’s even more ironic that you’re in a prison and this guy’s managed to pick a lock with his glasses.
CS: Yeah, and that’s the thing. Those orange suits don’t have any pockets. It’s not like he pulled out his credit card and slipped it into the lock, he just took his glasses off and in five seconds he opened the door.
TEM: Lickity-split. So you guys had to wait ten minutes for the guard to come back. How’d you fill that time?
CS: Well there were some awkward silences as well. You know, I had to try and cool everybody down, say, “You cant go in,” and “We have to wait for the guard to come.” Everything has to be done by protocol in prison.
TEM: Are any of these guys pissed off that they have the means to get into this room but they can’t because of that protocol?
CS: Well that’s all they ever do – wait. And I’m sure they were pissed off, but they’re always pissed off.
TEM: Alright, so once you’re finally in the chapel, how does everything go down?
CS: Basically everybody files in and the guards leave, and we all sit in a circle, and one of us starts by saying something, but it’s a tradition in the Quaker meeting to have a moment of silence at the beginning of every meeting, because the Quaker religion is not a particularly “preachy” kind of religion.
TEM: How’s that?
CS: If you go to a Quaker service, there’s no priest, there’s no pastor, there’s no deacon or whatever. The community is the church.
TEM: So there’s no real authority figure present that keeps everything in order.
CS: Well there’s a moment of silence or whatever, and whoever’s in the mood to say something will stand up and start the service. So the community comes first socially in that sense as well.
TEM: Sure. Everybody gets an equal chance to think and then an equal chance to start the conversation.
CS: Yeah, everyone’s equal.
TEM: Is the entire prison a Quaker institution, or just the group discussion aspect?
CS: Just the group discussion.
TEM: Why would you say that prison outreach is important to the Quakers?
CS: I mean, the Quaker prison outreach program is very common I’d say. I mean, they have them all over the world. There’s a lot of sense that treating people with dignity and respect will result in them having a breakthrough [with the prisoners] and that [the prisoners] will start to reciprocate that to the rest of the world, and that’s sort of the idea. And they’re really against incarceration in general.
TEM: And what was your personal attraction to the program?
CS: I basically did it because I had two friends who were doing it and I kind of wanted to know what was going on inside prisons, and I wanted to do some volunteer work as well. Like, I had done a little bit of volunteer work with my aunt.
TEM: What did that involve?
CS: She does these Out of the Cold things in downtown Toronto. In the winter time there’s a lot of homeless people so she does this soup kitchen kind of thing, and I would get up at 4:30 in the morning with her and go down to Bloor Street and make breakfast for seventy-five homeless people and you know, that’s like capacity crowd there. And you know, I really enjoyed doing that – you know, I got some satisfaction out of it – even though it was early in the morning and kind of hard work. It kind of gave me a healthy perspective on things.
TEM: Did it feel like it was almost a natural next step, from working with one marginalized group to another?
CS: Yeah! It was very natural. Like, it wasn’t a plan. But you know, I didn’t think, “Oh, now I’m gonna do prison work and after that I’m gonna go to Africa and start a hospice there,” or something like that. It’s not a plan, right? You know the opportunity comes up and [volunteering in a prison] sounded kind of bazaar and different enough that I was into it. And you know, it sounded like it kind of actually had the right intention to try and make the world a better place to a small degree in a simple kind of hands-on way. And that appealed to me.
TEM: And with prisons, especially with the one you were volunteering at – where the inmates are only going to be there temporarily and they’ll be going back out into the rest of the world – the program at least has the intention of making the world a better place on a larger scale as well.
CS: Yeah, I mean ultimately. It’s not just them that need to be reformed, if they’re gonna go out into the world they’re gonna be affecting lots of different people, so you can at least in some way help them be ordinary people again and you know, hopefully they’re not gonna fuck up anybody else’s life.
TEM: And as somebody who’s allowed to participate in the community outside of the prison, by going in there and bringing back stories from beyond those walls you sort of de-stigmatize the inmates’ realities and you’re doing work to make…I won’t say “normal society,” but this community a better place.
CS: Well I mean, there’s a pattern I kind of noticed. There’s the people who think about themselves a lot of the time, self absorbed people – I mean there’s a lot of self-absorbed people in prison, you know? Naturally when you’re in prison you have time to reflect. But some of these guys would talk about wanting to be made of steel, so like a brick wall. But they would find ways of showing their soft side in the weirdest ways. Like they would write poems. They were the sappiest, drippiest, most god-awful…like a six-year-old girl would write, you know? And some of them would talk about their girlfriends in the sappiest kinds of ways. So they have this tender, romantic heart in them that they’re ashamed of or something like that. So they have this front on them where they have to be like…ultra-violent and ultra-cold to everyone and it’s funny. You can see them struggle with that dichotomy a bit. It’s sort of a personality trait that I noticed. It’s not for everbody in jail…there’s a lot of people in jail who are – from what I can tell – perfectly normal people. And when you look at their record you think okay maybe they’re not perfectly normal on the record, but socially they’re normal.
TEM: Overall, how would you rate the experience? I don’t want to sound like a survey or whatnot, but did you get what you wanted out of it?
CS: I really enjoyed it. I mean I think about going back. I mean, like I’ve been touring like crazy for the past eight years basically, but when my life kind of settles down for a bit…I have no idea when that’s gonna be, but I’d love to get back into doing some more volunteer work. But you know, whatever comes up, I don’t have a plan. But I could go back to the prisons or volunteer at a hospice in Toronto or something like that. That kind of stuff is satisfying for me. Ultimately because…like the world’s kind of a fucked up place and you can sit back and think…you know, “The world’s fucked up’ and you can sulk about it, but because the world’s so fucked up you also have so much more that you can do, like there are so many problems in the world that you can either get depressed or think that you have a lot more opportunities to go out and change things. And that way you can at least feel better about yourself, that’s how I look at it.
TEM: Do you feel like there’s a responsibility we all have to help with that?
CS: I don’t think it’s a responsibility, no. I think it’s healthy. I think, if you feel it, then you should do it. But I don’t think anybody can be guilted into it. I mean you can try it and start to realize it, but there is a satisfaction in making a difference in some sense. I don’t know how to put it. Like, you eat food, and you have so much energy in your life and most of the time you’re not doing much for yourself – most people, but not everybody – but to go out there and actually do something is actually really satisfying. I don’t think it’s a responsibility, but I think it’s really healthy and it’s really satisfying.
TEM: Thanks a lot, Charles. I have one last question. What is the “truth” about Charles Spearin?
CS: The trick is, is that there’s two truths. There’s a relative truth and there’s an ultimate truth. The relative truth is – this is a Buddhist philosophy I’m throwing at you – the relative truth is a truth that has a false, basically. Like, up is up, because down is down. There’s no up if there’s no down. Right? Ultimate truth is like direct experience. When you hear the sound of a car going past, there’s no false about it. The truth about me is that there is no me. When there’s an experience, there is just an experience – there’s no collaboration, there’s no me experiencing something. At that instant there is only the experience. And that’s kind of the ultimate truth. The relative truth…yeah there is a me, and I could give you lots of relative truths about me, but I don’t think they’re as interesting.
Interview and Intro by: Tom Beedham