The Sunday Edition

Why The Sunday Edition recorded a concert at a maximum security prison - Michael's essay

“We deprive people of their liberty and send them to jail AS punishment, not FOR punishment. Like every closed community — whether a seminary, an army unit or a police force — the idea of incarceration is to break down one's individuality.”
A classical concert helps restore dignity at Millhaven, Canada's most notorious prison. (Laura Prosser/CSC)
Listen4:49

For the past ten years or so, I have been corresponding with a convicted murderer in a maximum security prison in upstate New York.

Chas was serving a life sentence for killing a man whom he said had infected his girlfriend with AIDS.

He was 22.

He had heard an episode of The Sunday Edition broadcast out of Montreal. He decided to get in touch with me.

When Chas first wrote, he had been in prison for 26 years — a quarter of a century locked in a cage.

Over the years, he wrote in censored details about prison life. He wrote about the violence, the absolute control of his life by strangers, the social and cultural deprivation.

But most of all he wrote about dignity, how every element of the dignity of his person and his personality was systematically leached from his consciousness over the years.

After a decade, he even began to doubt his own humanity and all the things that make us human.

Because my letters to him were heavily censored, I was very careful not to say or do anything that might lead to a loss of privileges.

After a decade, he even began to doubt his own humanity and all the things that make us human.- Michael Enright

I once sent him a CD of the program. It was destroyed. A deputy warden sent me a note calling it a Class 1 weapon.

Chas was parolled last year. He is now in his 50s. I haven't heard much from him since. He wants to work on behalf of inmates and the recently released; help them to find jobs and re-integrate into society.

In the doing he is recovering his dignity — even his humanity.

Nelson Mandela once said, "No one really knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."

I have seen the inside of most maximum security penitentiaries in the country, and to me they are hellholes.

Some are 100 years old or more. Rehabilitation is an evanescent dream. Often, they are universities of crime.

We deprive people of their liberty and send them to jail AS punishment, not FOR punishment.- Michael Enright

Prisons are necessary. People who commit crimes must be punished.

Beyond killing someone, there is nothing worse you can do to another human being than deprive him or her of their freedom.

We deprive people of their liberty and send them to jail AS punishment, not FOR punishment.

Like every closed community — whether a seminary, an army unit or a police force — the idea of incarceration is to break down one's individuality.

Everyone must conform to an expressed syllabus of rules, many of which were dreamed up 200 years ago.

There are many rules, but they all are directed to the same end — reduce what is human to that which is administratively convenient.

There are some very violent men in Millhaven; some should stay there for a very long time.

Sooner or later, most of these men and women will be released into a world which is unlikely to welcome them.

Howard Sapers, the former correctional  investigator, has been on this program many times. 

After years on the job, he has concluded the system is badly broken, perhaps irreparably.

Our final hour this morning is very special. Last month we took our microphones into Canada's most notorious prison, Millhaven Maximum Security Institution near Kingston, Ontario.

For more than four years Dmitri Kanovich has been enlisting classical musicians to play for inmates in Canada's prisons.

A piano trio played selections by Ravel, Beethoven, Schubert and others to about 35 inmates in the prison gym.

It was a moving experience for me and our crew, as it was for the inmates. One told me the performance spoke to his dignity.

Writing about his prison experience in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", Oscar Wilde reflected on what happened when his eyes met those of another inmate.

"I never saw a man who looked with such a wistful eye,
Upon that little tent of blue,
Which prisoners call the sky."

I hope our visit to Millhaven enlarged that little tent of blue, if only for a moment.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay. Click here to listen to The Sunday Edition's one-hour special about Millhaven, which includes music and reflections from musicians and inmates. 

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