Taking a sip of white wine, Geoffrey James told me about meeting the prison librarian while in the prison shooting photographs for his new book “Inside”. A very pleasant woman close to retirement, the topic of Paul Bernardo came up.
I asked why? “Because,” Geoffrey said, “the media somehow got a hold of the idea that Bernardo was working in the library and created a mild regional and institutional disturbance. She was astonished because nothing could have been further from the truth.”
She explained that Bernardo spent a good deal of his time writing “grievances,” not a particularly unusual activity for longer-term residents.
Those incarcerated in Canadian prisons have rights (so to speak) and one of those rights is to formally complain about anything that may be amiss or awry (in the prisoner’s judgment) to do with their treatment by the prison. “It’s a Canadian thing.”
For instance, if a prisoner is well-behaved and orderly it is that prisoner’s “right” to have a job. Prison jobs pay a pittance – the Harper government recently changed the daily wage from $7 to $5 – but, of course, it’s not about the money.
On the inside, having something to do, anything, is better than nothing. Inside or out, idle hands do the Devil’s work. Bernardo had not been assigned a job in the long years since he was incarcerated – for life – in 1995. And he wanted one. It was his right.
Prisoners’ grievances can, and occasionally do end up in a federal court if the correctional bureaucracy is particularly recalcitrant and unreceptive. Grievances get lost.
As is often the case in bureaucracies that set up systems for communication and petition, his first two or three attempts were rebuffed. He appealed.
Just before the matter was going to be elevated to an outside court, the prison gave him a job. The gate keepers had no appetite for airing such dirty laundry and bring Bernardo’s name back into the press which it would have done had some intrepid ink-stained wretch found Bernardo’s name on some federal court’s docket.
Regardless, the fact that Bernardo was given a job got out. There are gremlins everywhere; completely skewed, it got out.
On August 13, 2013, CHCH-TV a local Hamilton-based station, finally gave Paul Bernardo what he’s always wanted: a taste of the kind of hysterical attention that has followed his ex-wife Karla. Since Karla left Paul nothing has gone right and now he’s doing life in the big house in a 6′ x 8′ closet-sized cell 24/7 365 per, on the seg row in whatever federal prison he’s put in.
The 2:51 second CHCH-TV item went like this:
Nick the News anchor: “Sadistic killer Paul Bernardo may be staying in a maximum security prison. But according to what Donna French has been told, the man who tortured and killed her daughter Kristen, is living a cushy life behind bars.”
Then, over a series of fast cuts of the killer and his then wife Karla in the back of police cars, being escorted by police hither and yon, stills of the young victims, a clip or two from Paul and Karla’s voluminous home videos, the usual visual accoutrement and bric-a-brac of the psychopathic sex killer programming unfolds for 15 – 20 seconds to reporter Lauran Sobouran’s breathless voice-over:
“Bernardo is one of the most despicable criminals in Canada he drugged and sexually assaulted his sister-in-law Tammy Lyn Homolka and with the help of his wife Karla he tortured and strangled Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. The heinous crime spree would have continued if Karla hadn’t started talking when he nearly beat her to death. Bernardo was declared a dangerous offender the public led to believe he would be locked up for life.”
Cut to (CT) a close up (CU) of Donna French, Kristen French’s mother with a police car (inexplicably) in the shot:
“I was sure that he would be in solitary confinement forever. They wrote us a few months ago… it hadn’t just happened it had been a couple of years I believe… ”
(While Mrs. French speaks the camera closes in first on her right profile and then switches to the left. An old television technique to maximize the viewer’s sympathy and accentuate empathy.)
V.O. (Voice Over)
“Donna French was shocked to learn that Bernardo is now out of solitary confinement working in the prison library… Donna French is upset, people in St. Catharines infuriated”
CT medium shot of a person in a St. Catharines mall identified as “Catherine Pickenuck” “infuriated”:
“He should be locked up for 23 hours a day, what he did to those girls (her voice-breaking…)”
CT a younger, attractive, animated woman with sunglasses probably in the same mall identified as “Jody Curry” “Bernardo should be locked up”:
“What he did to those girls was horrendous… There’s no way he should be sitting in a library or restocking shelves. It’s awful I even get choked up (fanning herself with her right hand like an actress who has just received an cherished award,) I grew up in Scarborough so I remember, it’s awful” (breaks down in tears).
Because she is attractive and animated and cries on cue Jody gets the lion’s share of the airtime in this two minute and fifty-one second piece.)
VO: “20 years after the Bernardo/Homolka crime spree people react like it happened yesterday…”
Cuts to a couple of other woman in the mall parking lot who have very similar opinions to Catherine and Jody.
CT medium shot of reporter Lauran Sobouran standing in the Grace Lutheran Church parking lot. The church sign behind here says “May Jesus Bless Richly Lyne and Craig.”
Lauran Sobouran holding the microphone: “Now, the anger and raw emotion is still so intense for many in this community that they can’t even drive by the Grace Lutheran Church parking lot where Kristen was abducted without all those nightmarish memories coming back to them.”
CT a still visibly upset Jody Curry: “If you remember (pause) it was an absolutely horrific thing, (pause) you know we weren’t even allowed to walk in the street…Why should he get anything?”
In direct contrast to this remarkable bit of fetishistic television, Paul Bernardo’s status as a completely isolated segregated prisoner had not changed and it never will.
Unlike many prisons in the United States, no prison in Canada has ever lost a “skin beefer” (con-speak for convicted child rapists and killers. Cons don’t make the fine distinction between teens and children the FBI Behavioral Unit does.) Since the 1972 riots in Kingston Penitentiary, described so graphically by ex-con Roger (Mad Dog) Caron’s influential 1978 memoir Go Boy! Memories of a Life Behind Bars no one has been killed while incarcerated in a federal penitentiary.
Because their mandate is to isolate these offenders and keep them alive, in the true British tradition to bureaucratic fidelity, our Correctional Service has been exceptionally good at keeping prisoners such as Paul Bernardo, The Shoeshine Boy killer Saul David Betesh and most recently the cross-dressing murderer, ex-Colonel Russell Williams alive.
Bernardo, like the rest of his sort, spends at least 23 hours a day locked in a 6′ x 8′ closet, isolated in a special unit Mrs. French called “solitary confinement” with the few other segregated or isolated prisoners they have in the system.
After all these sorts of criminal are the rarest of the rare and Canada only has a total of around 10,000 people held in federal penitentiaries at any given time so there might be ten to a dozen lifers such as these. They were not all housed at the Kingston facility but probably the majority was.
Just to clarify another media myth while I’m at it, no prisoner in Canada has access to email or the Internet and especially those held in a Segregation Unit. A television, sure. Of course the toilet is en suite as is the mounted steel slab that functions as both couch and bed, a table and a chest of drawers, all firmly fixed to the floor. But that’s it. If the individual can afford a computer then they will have one. There’s no wireless in the Big House, at least not in Canada. But be assured with the bare necessities of life in that cell there is barely room for the prisoner, let alone one 6 feet tall with a computer.
I reiterate, Paul Bernardo and the few others held in segregation are completely isolated at all times from all other inmates; they see no one except the correctional service officers assigned to the segregation unit.
If anyone at CHCH-TV had bothered to check they would have discovered the “job” Paul Bernardo was given was that of prison “book reviewer.”-The task of “evaluating all of the books in the prison library fell to him. Hence the librarian’s detailed knowledge of situation.
But Mr. Bernardo did not get to go the library to do his job. The library is accessible to the general population so it is completely inaccessible to any “seg” prisoners. It took them a while to come up with but in the end the correctional services bureaucrats were quite pleased with themselves. They had devised a job for Paul Bernardo for which he did not have to leave his chair let alone his cell.
The books, a few at a time, were brought to Bernardo by a guard. When he finished reviewing those, a few more were delivered. And so began another lonely enterprise in absolute futility that ostensibly would go on forever, like his incarceration in virtually total isolation, until he died.
Except it didn’t.
When they closed the prison, Bernardo lost his job. And there is no guarantee that his new stewards will be as innovative as the former. Or, perhaps they have already given that job to one of the other seg boys moved to the maximum facility at Millhaven with Bernardo. I don’t know. Nor do I care.
The librarian pointed out the almost inconceivable tedium of Bernardo’s claustrophobic existence to Geoffrey.
She explained that sometimes the guards forgot, or were too “busy”, to facilitate the hour-a-day that Bernardo, and his confreres, were each supposed to get, alone in the exercise yard.
It’s hard to contemplate, she said; living in a closet-sized cell. Seeing only the same few guards day-in and day-out. Reviewing stacks of old used books for a few dollars a day. If you asked her, a person would be better off dead.
Bernardo probably agrees. Betesh did, way back when and yet he’s still around lost somewhere in the catacombs of dim institutional memory and bureaucratic efficiency.
Bernardo and his plight really have absolutely nothing to do with Geoffrey’s project and had the media not made such a ridiculous spectacle of itself Bernardo’s name might never have come up. But the librarian was clearly struck by the strange incongruity of it all and what seemed an infinite capacity on the part of the media to get it wrong, damn the consequences or cost.
In spite of the fact that my biography of Paul Bernardo in Invisible Darkness is the most comprehensive and complete in existence, Geoffrey well knows I have never had any interest in Bernardo. To me he was never more than the Ken on Barbie’s arm. Geoffrey told this anecdote because it illustrated an increasingly dysfunctional legacy media that he knows is something in which I have an abiding interest.
My pitch to the publishers for a contract and advance to write Invisible Darkness ” was very short.
In one paragraph it posed only two questions: “What was the pretty young wife doing all the while her husband was out raping and pillaging? That and how they eluded discovery for such an extended period of time.
When I sent the my “pitch” out on a quiet Sunday afternoon to half-a-dozen publishers – by fax – in early 1993, email was the purview of academia and the military. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, and no texting.
After reading a long front-page story of Bernardo’s arrest in a newspaper in which the fact that he had a young wife who was from St. Catharines was buried deep in the copy, I had absolutely no idea how far-ranging and truly bizarre the answer would be. (To be continued)