There was a thunderous clamour that ejected me from my comfortable serenity. Such noise usually meant a conflict was in progress between two of my charges who were trying to beat each other into submission. Sprinting from the office, I kept an eye for some sort of trap or distraction, while trying to locate the combatants. More loud crashes and several shouts drew me to the main dorm area where I encountered a small huddle of about 6 boys. They were gathered around a large First Nations boy, and a smaller Asian boy. Struggling and red faced, they were both yelling much more than they were inflicting any harm. Not much was actually occurring when I stepped through the crowd. They seemed happy to extricate themselves from each other.
I was a Correctional Officer, basically a jail guard, at a maximum security prison for teenage boys in southern British Columbia. The prison wasn’t your typical borstal with thick cement walls and razor wire fences. It was a cluster of quaint huts surrounding a main building with a large gym accompanied by a few outbuildings a short distance from the centre. The development was located at the top of a hill that divided two lakes. One lake was much larger consisting of about 20 kilometers of gleaming azure water. The small lake was, similarly, very beautiful and situated amid a luxurious forest of Western Cedars but less than a hundred meters across. The site could have been a resort where tourists paid huge fees to enjoy peace and stunning vistas. This was, however, a jail for the most serious offenders in British Columbia, aged 14 to 18 years.
It was about 8 PM on my second night of a 48 hour shift. My job was to keep the 8 boys in my cabin occupied and under control. A shift usually meant long hours of immense boredom, interspersed with sporadic moments of intense anxiety. This was one of those anxious moments.
I stepped between the two combatants and directed them to follow me to the office. Several other staff members arrived a few steps behind, as I had pressed an alarm button when the first noise interrupted my boredom. Down to the office we trudged, the three of us, while another staff watched the remaining residents.
This was a minor altercation as, luckily, no one was hurt. The First Nations boy wasn’t a fighter and the Asian boy was much smaller, albeit, much more dangerous. It appeared to be just one boy trying to best another in some sort of disagreement. After a brief review, the boys would spend some time in a cell to cool off before returning to their rooms. They would have to explain their actions to the camp director in the morning and would likely lose some privileges.
Although such occurrences were a fairly common event in camp, life at our little haven was generally calm. There were school teachers during the daytime that provided educational programs and work crews for those who did not attend school. Conflict usually arose during the evenings or on weekends when life was a little less structured. A gym and crafts room tried to fill some of those hours with basketball or floor hockey games serving to dispel some of that youthful energy and anger. These were kids that had, very likely, never had structure in their lives. They were from throughout British Columbia with such diverse backgrounds as small First Nations villages to inner city gang members. Their common distinction was violence. During their young lives they had committed a violent act, possibly many, and, on occasion, murder. They were considered a danger to others yet compliant enough to survive outside the more secure walls of an urban correctional centre.
The camp’s wall was the 50 or so kilometers from the closest community and only a boat or a four wheel drive vehicle on a very rough road connected the camp to the rest of the world. A few of the boys had tried to escape, but life wasn’t so bad for them at the camp. The food was pretty good, at least compared to where they had come from, there were no beatings (by staff at least), and a punishment for bad behaviour was seldom more than being confined to barracks for a few hours.
As it turned out, if removed from their homes, peers, and/or substances, they were usually just teenage boys. They liked to play sports and compete in almost anything. If they were not in the gym they were playing board games. I had to quickly brush up on my crib and chess skills to even compete. Some were very skilled at both. Many had never had a positive role model and just spending time with them while not seeking anything in return was enough to gain their trust. Our shifts were 48 hours in duration whereby we worked, played and slept alongside these youth. The sleeping was in separate accommodation of course.
Most of the staff treated the residents fairly and justly thus, in turn, earned their trust and respect. I was somewhat of an anomaly as I was not from the institutional environment and had been parachuted into a position that was fairly senior. My fellow staff members didn’t know me and, consequently, harboured some level of distrust. Likely acquiring some sort of influence from my peers, the residents did as well. I, initially, was confronted with a significant challenge to even remain in the camp.
This alienation, combined with leaving my home community and driving for several hours to spend three days per week in a dangerous setting with 30 or more violent offenders, caused me to have second thoughts about my job choice, however temporary. Luckily sport had always been a significant factor in my life and was, similarly, a strong force in the lives of these youth and, generally, the staff as well. To begin my redemption, so to speak, I volunteered to take a group of kids for a basketball game in the gym most evenings. There would usually be one or two staff and 8 or 10 kids. The other staff member would seldom participate in the game as maximum security basketball is full contact and these kids were generally bigger and stronger than this puny runner. The camp weight program was very popular.
Jail basketball can be very violent and many of these young men had questionable anger management skills. You can imagine what kind of basketball we played but, luckily, I had some basketball skills and could play at a level similar, or better, than most of them. There were usually several young men who were excellent basketball players and enjoyed a game played with rules. Consequently peer pressure would overcome and we would manage a reasonable game, albeit accommodating a few angry outbursts and several scrapes or bruises. I actually enjoyed the exchanges, however violent, and gained some credibility with the residents for even trying to play.
I gained a little more credence by joining in the work crews and taking them to the weight room regularly, while a further major influence on my survival occurred during the summer months. There were two beautiful lakes within walking distance of the camp, but swimming was not allowed without a certified lifeguard. There were only a couple of staff with this designation and when they were not on shift many hot and beautiful days would be wasted. You can imagine 30 macho and angry young men confined to a single location on a sweltering summer day with nothing to do. Prison riot shows come to mind. I, consequently, earned my lifeguard’s certificate and became very popular with staff and residents alike as I could take 12 kids to the lake for a swimming session keeping almost half the camp empty for a whole afternoon. It allowed for a very nice and quiet day for all concerned.
These were still kids, however, and violent ones at that. On one sunny afternoon I was leading a group of young men to the lake with a fellow staff member bringing up the rear. As we emerged over the rise above the lake I could see a family had settled in for a little picnic on our dock complete with boat, young daughters, a lunch, and beer. Directing my group to wait, I descended the hill and informed the apparent leader, a middle aged man, that this was a correctional facility and he was not allowed on our wharf. He took exception, arguing that he had paid his taxes and was allowed in any government facility he desired. As the discussion wore on, I became aware of a disturbance behind me. Turning, I noted two residents in full combat and my co-worker trying to separate them. Leaving the aggravating trespassers, I ran up the hill to contribute my assistance. After a couple minutes we separated the combatants while an engine roared at the dock behind us. It seems the trespassers had thought better of having their picnic on our wharf amid such felonious villainy. Everyone laughed. I was unsure if the brief and harmless altercation had been devised by the combatants to offer a convincing argument for our trespasser’s departure but, either way, we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon swimming and sunbathing.
The final inspiration for my eventual acceptance in youth prison occurred on an outing with a group of boys. We were two staff and about 12 boys driving in a large van through the local community. We were on our way to a weekend of camping in a more remote location. It was always good to get some of the residents out of the camp during the weekends to divide and conquer, I guess. As we passed through town the biggest and baddest of my burdens, and de facto leader, saw two pretty maidens walking down the street minding their own business. He suddenly began bellowing and whistling at the young damsels. The entirety of my charges followed in chorus. While continuing to drive, I dangerously turned around and shouted, demanding their immediate silence with my words particularly directed in the face of Mr. Big and Bad. I guess my exuberance was somewhat excessive as everyone responded with the requested silence immediately. A calm descended over the vehicle but also it became apparent anger was seeping towards the front seat….my seat. Not a further word was spoken until our arrival at the campsite. As we disembarked the vehicle Mr. B & B confronted me, literally in my face….and his face was about 6 inches above mine. Thinking back, I must have experienced a moment of temporary insanity as my assailant could have broken me with two fingers. I planted my face in grim opposition to his in complete defiance and told him to get firewood. To my amazement, he turned and retrieved the firewood. For the remainder of the trip, and the remainder of his stay in our custody, he was my servant, friend and protector. No other resident would dare offer the slightest opposition to me or they would answer to my guardian. Life was good!!
Many of my memories of this time were positive, even though I had initially considered my year as a sentence on some level. Eventually overcoming the challenge of my alien status, I developed close relationships with my team-mates and many of the boys. About 6 months into the experience, I began to notice very little conflict with any of the residents during my shifts, especially with my guardian present. Our days were spent in the usual camp activities with boys coming and going as their sentences started and expired. There were, however, large blocks of time when I was just being a guard. This can be very boring. Luckily newspapers were delivered to the camp daily and I would read each paper cover to cover, even the classified adds. My crib and chess skills improved dramatically.
At other times I marvelled that I was being paid to swim, sunbathe, go camping, or even play maximum security basketball. We did earn our money occasionally, however. Many of the residents were challenging young men and provided a constant struggle, whether conflict with peers, anger issues, refusal to do anything, or possession of contraband. Although I had never seen a staff member assaulted, one was always careful and I always had a feeling that I needed to watch my back. There were, of course, no drugs or alcohol allowed and smoking was prohibited. This was a bit of a contradiction; however, as those staff who smoked would not be denied their vice. Consequently, the staff smoking area was a very popular destination for cleaning crews or brief resident absences.
Although many of the residents were living a much better lifestyle than in their former lives, they longed for home and, most likely, girlfriends. During my year at the camp there was only one incident of residents attempting to escape. No doubt having watched too many prison escape movies, two young men left shortly after dark one evening and embarked on a forest expedition. As stated, camp was about 50 kilometers of wilderness from freedom but this, apparently, did not deter our young adventurers. Police were notified, a search crew was initiated, and the roads were blockaded near town. The escapees managed to make it through the night but were found walking along the road about 20 kilometers from their destination very tired and hungry. They did not put up a struggle when taken to jail in the city, but they never returned to camp.
The year eventually came to an end and I returned to my former job in the community. A part of my town job was to help very similar young men and women avoid spending their teenage, or any years, behind bars. I often wonder what became of many of these young men, especially my guardian, as they returned to the community and reached adulthood. Hopefully they left their mistakes behind, learned some lessons from their stay as a guest of the Province, and were able to enjoy a better life as adults.