Full Parole

By Colin McGregor

The Parole Board of Canada recently gave me my full parole. A Zoom hearing, two commissioners asking pointed questions for an hour, an adjournment of ten minutes, and then, the verdict, in my favor. Decades of work to redeem myself boiled down to one report. The wheels of justice grind on.

The effects won’t be seen on the pages of The Social Eyes, nor will it be felt very strongly in my life – except that I don’t have to return to a halfway house anymore two nights out of seven. Now I am responsible for making my own food and my own bed, and paying my own bills, all week. Which is a big deal for someone who spent half his life in prison.

Freedom is something you don’t value until you lose it. At least, that is true in my case. The ability to just get up off the couch and buy a litre of milk at the depanneur is magical when your milk has been rationed for you for 29 years.

Still all the conditions of my parole remain, like barbed wire on either side of a narrow lane. If I drink alcohol, I go back to prison. If I return to Ottawa, the scene of my crapulent crime, ditto. The same regrets follow me through my days and nights as well. The same shadows cast a pall on my path ahead. I will never live down what I did.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they teach you to “not regret the path nor wish to shut the door on it.” They argue that in your past state of mind, you couldn’t be the person you wanted to be, that the disease of alcoholism limited your choices. But regret is a hard thing to shake. Look at yourself in the mirror and you may not always like what you see.

Still, I am not bitter for the time spent in prison. It was not time entirely lost, after all. I tutored in prison schools, met people I would never have met, went to church services at prison chapels, played sports in the gym and the prison yard, read voraciously. There were people behind bars that needed help, and I was put in a unique position to help them. I wrote for Reflet de Société, The Social Eyes and other publications, which opened doors for my future when I did finally get out.

Useful Changes

French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who died over a century ago, saw crime as fulfilling a useful role in society. Crime prepares the way for useful changes. Crimes are “a useful prelude to reforms.” You have to break some eggs to make an omelet, is another way of saying this. To make progress, you need originality; even the originality of the criminal.

Certainly my crime was a watershed moment for me, as it was for many. Committed when I was 29, it took me out of the world of journalism and writing and alcohol, landing me behind bars. When I think back to the pain it caused, I wonder if any changes made either to the law or to the lives of those affected were worth it.

Thomas Piketty, in his ground-breaking book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes this theory and imposes it at the international level. A society that has undergone a shock, like a war or a depression, naturally becomes nicer afterward, he argues. They take care of the least among them; political divisions disappear; the income gap between the wealthiest and the poorest shrinks; everyone pulls together to make society better. But it takes a real shock for this to happen. This theory has proved correct time and again since Ancient Rome. Think of the current political divisions, the disappearance of centrist parties, and the widening income gaps of our current society, to see what happens over seven decades of peace and prosperity.

I’d like to think that’s what happened to me. In the Middle Ages, a person who had been through no heard times in their life was seen as fundamentally evil. Today we call that “affluenza,” a word that first surfaced in American media a few years. It describes rich people who fail to recognize the consequences of their actions which cause mental or physical harm or anguish to others. It has been used as a legal defense in courts.

A shock can also be, in the long term, a salvation.

Happily, we live in a society that believes in second chances. Now the ball is in my court to not blow it.

French version on the Reflet de Société website

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  1. Libération conditionnelle et totale ? – L'actualité sociale et communautaire. Prostitution, Drogue, alcool, gang de rue, gambling

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