Life of crime: One former inmate's journey through prison and back

When CBC North's Curtis Mandeville sat down to talk with his uncle about his life in and out of prison, he didn't understand the kind of person his uncle was or the life he had led. Dennis Lafferty's story, he found out, was one of alienation, struggle and a series of bad choices.

'I still regret a lot of things I've done,' says Dennis Lafferty

Dennis Lafferty lives in Fort Resolution, N.W.T. He spent many years in jails and prisons in Alberta and the N.W.T. but is now focused on staying sober and keeping out of trouble. (CBC)

The first time I met my uncle Dennis Lafferty was when I was about 11. I don't remember him before that. I later learned that's because he was always in and out of jail.

I had overheard stories about him serving time "down south" in the penitentiary. When he returned to Fort Resolution in the late 1980s, I thought to myself, "Who is this guy?" He had just moved into my grandparents' house where I also lived.

I studied and analyzed him. He looked clean, healthy and fit like a bodybuilder. He was always upbeat and joked around a lot with everyone. I thought to myself, "I want to be like him." He was like the "big city" people I grew up watching on television.

Looking back on it now, and having kids of my own, I wonder what would I do if one of my children looked up to a career criminal. I would definitely not encourage them but rather talk to them about that kind of person and the things he or she might have done.

But I didn't understand the kind of person my uncle was or what he was subjected to early in his life. Nor did I fully comprehend the nature of his crimes. I just thought he was cool.

His story, I found out, was one of alienation, struggle and a series of bad choices.

Growing up

My uncle was born in 1958. Some of his earliest memories — before he was 10 — were of frequent drunken parties.

He told me, "When you see stuff like that, you just think it's normal because you don't really know the difference."

Dennis Lafferty: 'Dad used to have a lot of parties'

7 years ago
Duration 1:02
Dennis Lafferty: 'Dad used to have a lot of parties'

One of his more painful memories is of his own siblings making him feel like an outsider.

Dennis Lafferty: 'I was treated different.'

7 years ago
Duration 1:13
Dennis Lafferty: 'I was treated different.'

My uncle said life at school was not the greatest. He said teachers there would regularly strap students for any little reason. He dropped out in Grade 11.

Becoming an alcoholic

He took his first drink by the time he was 12. He and some friends stole some homemade brew. Little did he know alcohol would factor largely in how the rest of his life played out. He became an instant alcoholic.

It quickly became clear how alcohol changes people.

"But then you don't really think too much about that. You just think of the fun you think they're having," he said.

Dennis Lafferty: 'You just think of the fun you think they’re having'.

7 years ago
Duration 0:31
Dennis Lafferty: 'You just think of the fun you think they’re having'.

At around age 15, drinking and partying became a way of life. He was involved in a fatal car crash during this time. He was travelling with his two cousins when their car flipped over on the highway. He was the lone survivor. His right wrist and forearm were shattered. A six-inch scar remains.

Dennis Lafferty in the years when he was in and out of prison. (submitted by Dennis Lafferty)

He started stealing and committing break-ins to support his habit. It didn't matter to him if he got caught. He would regularly go to jail in Yellowknife for the next few years.

One night when he was 20 his life changed dramatically. He got the idea to steal pills from the local nursing station. When he broke in, he ran into the live-in nurse and stabbed her. He was sentenced to three years at the Bowden Institution, a minimum/medium security prison in Alberta.

This first experience in a southern jail was not what he expected.

"You hear stuff about how bad the pen was and everything. How scary. But it was totally ... it was weird down there. Totally different. You have every kind of drug down there. You have homemade brew, so it's like Fort Resolution all over again," he said.

Dennis Lafferty: 'It was weird down there'

7 years ago
Duration 0:56
Dennis Lafferty: 'It was weird down there'

In what should have been a turning point in his life, prison life actually reinforced his bad habits. He worked in the kitchen and passed out yeast through the food line to make homemade brew. Like-minded criminals became his close friends.

The halfway house in Edmonton was the same. While living there, he and his friends broke into a police warehouse and ended up getting caught.

"We're staying right in downtown Edmonton on skid row, so it just wasn't far to go. And we ended up selling drugs and getting in trouble again."

Dennis Lafferty: 'We all went to the same halfway house'

7 years ago
Duration 1:01
Dennis Lafferty: 'We all went to the same halfway house'

Home to Fort Resolution

After he served his time, he moved back to Fort Resolution. That's where I met him for the first time, when I was 11.

He started a family, landed a new job and an apartment. Things were looking up but it would not last.

He began drinking again and landed in jail again on drug possession charges. His girlfriend left him and moved away with their son. He said at that point he moved to Edmonton and went back to what he knew best.

Dennis Lafferty: In the big city

7 years ago
Duration 0:57
Dennis Lafferty: In the big city

One day he was broke and was walking by a bank. He decided on the spot to rob it. He walked in and robbed a bank teller at gunpoint. He got away with some cash but later got caught.

This time he was sent to the Drumheller Institution, a minimum/medium security prison in southern Alberta, for five years.

"It was rough. There were stabbings, killings there. A lot of drugs. There you really had to chose your friends, like. I think I hung out with about four guys there out of 500 and I hung out with them for four years. We used to watch each other's back and one of my friends I was lifting weights there with, I think he had four months to go and he killed a guy over cigarettes or something."

Dennis Lafferty: 'That one is a pretty rough jail'

7 years ago
Duration 1:22
Dennis Lafferty: 'That one is a pretty rough jail'

After spending much of his life in prison, he said he didn't care whether he was in or out of prison. His friends were lifers on the inside. And he said he was getting to the point of becoming one, too.

After he was released, I remember asking him for his opinion on if I should take a job at the Edmonton Institution, a maximum security facility. I was considering it as a career. He looked over at me and said, "Curtis, I don't think you're the right kind of person to be working in a place like that."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You're gonna have to beat people up and inmates are going to try to get you to bring in drugs for them."

I let that sink in for a while and then decided to enrol in university soon after.

Getting sober

Even though he managed to get a job at one of the N.W.T.'s diamond mines and start a new family, he was still battling his drug and alcohol addiction. He lost his job due to his criminal record and once again his girlfriend left him and moved away with their little girl.

He said he lost himself and began drinking heavily again. He resorted again to what he knew best: getting back into trouble and making bad choices.

Dennis Lafferty with his son Nicholas as a baby. (submitted by Dennis Lafferty)

He landed back in jail in 2003.

But since his release from that stint, he has not gone back again. He has taken numerous treatment programs both inside and outside of jail, most recently this past fall. He said he will drink on occasion but nothing like before. It is the longest stretch that he has tried to stay sober.

Why now? He said he is not only doing it for himself but also for his daughter. He does not want her to see him getting into trouble. He also said he's tired of that life. His body is breaking down and he is getting older.

From early on, my uncle was motivated to find some escape from harsh realities out of his control. His motivation turned into substance abuse and a life of crime. He said some of his childhood friends — friends with a similar background as his — came out to be very successful people. He said the difference was that they must have focused on a career goal and stuck to it.

Toward the end of our conversation I came to appreciate him more as a person. He was open and candid about his life. I never knew he had done most of those things.

One thing that really resonated with me was that he did not blame anyone or anything for any of his actions. He took full responsibility.

"I still regret a lot of things I've done," he said.

Dennis Lafferty: 'I still regret a lot of things I’ve done'

7 years ago
Duration 1:49
Dennis Lafferty: 'I still regret a lot of things I’ve done'


Curtis Mandeville is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. He is from Fort Resolution, N.W.T.