Getting Back into Society

If this article doesn’t confuse you, all the better, because it sure confuses me, and I wrote it. 

It’s hard to underestimate how, when leaving prison after 29 years, you are disconnected from the outside world. After a long absence, you cease to exist, in the eyes of several federal and provincial agencies.

You basically have to jump-start your life all over again.

By Colin McGregor

Rip Van Winkle is a famous American short story written 200 years ago by Washington Irving. In it, Van Winkle, a lazy man wanders outside his village to escape his wife’s nagging. A mysterious group of bearded men offer him liquor, which he drinks, and he falls asleep. When he awakens, his beard is a foot long.

He wanders back to his village, where he finds that he has been asleep for at least 20 years. The world has changed a great deal. He has missed the American Revolution. The Inn that had King George’s face above it now bears George Washington’s. His friends are mostly dead, killed fighting in the Revolution.

His grownup daughter takes him in, and he resumes his lazy lifestyle.

I feel like Rip Van Winkle.

First of all, prison is easy. They give you a number and a little ID card saying you’re an inmate. The system takes care of everything for you. You are given a bed, and you are clothed and fed. If you need a new pair of jeans, you simply apply for a pair, and they appear at your door. You get toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, razors once a week if you want. As for health care, especially during the Covid crisis, the prison doctor comes in to the jail to see patients.

Everything from surgeries to Covid tests to x-rays is provided. They even have their own x-ray machine in prison, so you don’t have to go to a hospital and wait with normal people. You are cut off from the outside world, but really, who do you miss when everything is handed to you?

But once you step outside the not-so-friendly confines of jail, your prison number means nothing…  

You are given an ID card with your photo saying you are a federal parolee. And the Correctional Service of Canada is very good at getting inmates to apply for a health card before we are released from prison. That card is a necessity, both to obtain health care as well as to serve as an ID for all the other things you need to do to re-establish your identity.

For example, did you know that if you haven’t used your social insurance number for seven years, it goes dormant? You have to reactivate it. Not even Revenue Canada, who want your money, will recognize you as a sentient human being if you don’t have an active social insurance number (SIN).

To even get a bank account it takes a birth certificate, and two pieces of ID, and most banks don’t accept your parolee card as valid ID. It can take over a month to obtain a birth certificate. It costs about $50 to get one of those from the Province of Quebec.

Then you need that same birth certificate to reactivate your social insurance number. Everyone is born with a SIN, and it’s yours for life.

But when it goes dormant because you haven’t used it for seven years or more, you have to march down to Place Guy Favreau in downtown Montreal with your birth certificate and health card in hand and get your SIN reactivated. You have to reserve in advance to see a civil servant who will negotiate the rules to get your SIN brought back to life. Luckily, Place Guy Favreau, which is full of federal departments, is well organized, and the civil servant I dealt with was very helpful.

Then once your SIN is reactivated, it’s up to you to reactivate your Revenue Canada file. You need to send in a form and all the documentation required to Revenue Canada to do this. I sent mine in about 4 months ago. I phoned, and apparently I’m back on the rolls.

Without Revenue Canada’s recognition that you exist, you cannot receive your pay through direct deposit. You need to ask for a cheque. This is bothersome for an employer. It may make it look like the employer is laundering money!

Now I hadn’t paid federal income tax for 30 years, and I am not certain of my address when I paid it, so that complicated matters somewhat.

Then there are cell phones. The internet. And e-mails.

I was sent on over 300 day and evening trips from prison before my release. I worked on various public works projects, attended 12 step meetings and church services, did charity work and met with inmates already out trying to find their way in society. And through all those trips, I was forbidden to use a cell phone or the internet. Indeed, if I had so much as touched a cell phone or a computer through all that time, my day passes would have been revoked, and I could have found myself in higher security.

I had a lot to learn when I was released. Luckily, two good Samaritans gave me one of their old cell phones to use. But I had to painstakingly, through trial and error, piece together how to use the cellphone.

There is nothing like the outside world to teach you about responsibility. No one can be dumb and operate successfully in today’s cellphone world, just given the dizzying number of skills to master, and all the codes and passwords to commit to memory. The world of 2021 still takes my breath away.

I, like most people nowadays, live in mortal fear of my cellphone being stolen or damaged. My whole life is wrapped up in that little black slab.

Waking up to freedom after my Rip Van Winkle sleep, there are dream parts of things, and nightmares as well. But when I participate in a Zoom 12-step meeting with people from Texas and Georgia and New Zealand, no doubt this technology brings us together, makes human communication faster, and holds endless possibilities.

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