Freedom, but the Peter Principle…

By Colin McGregor    

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills

                                                                       – William Wordsworth

I have been asked to write an article about my first year in an apartment, fully paroled, after 29 years in prison and a year and a half at a halfway house. My mind hearkens to the Peter principle.

The Peter principle is a management concept developed by Laurence J. Peter, who observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a respective level of incompetence”: employees are promoted according to their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer proficient, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate into another.

In jail, after over two decades in medium security institutions, I spent five years in minimum security, a prison without a fence, before being granted parole. For some of those years I had access to passes to the outside world, day passes – which meant parts of over 300 days spent doing community service or attending self-improvement  events. I attended twelve-step meetings and church services, picked up garbage from the sides of highways, painted walls in a church building, helped a food bank distribute food, and a myriad of other functions. I carried all these day trips out without incident, while still teaching and tutoring at prison school.

I still remember my first trip out of jail in over two decades, as if it was yesterday. I went to a church bazaar to mop floors and clean shelves. The thing that surprised me the most was all the people carrying around a little black rectangle, talking into it, tickling it, as if their lives depended on it. Now that I have a cellphone, I understand why. But that is the single biggest difference between the world in 1991 and the world of today.

Having been granted day parole, I then spent a year at a halfway house, and looked for a job. I found one at the Café Graffiti. The parole board was impressed enough to let me get my own apartment, which then meant I spent five nights a week in my apartment I Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and two days a week at the halfway house in Mercier, a few Metro stops away.  

That worked out well enough, and I wasn’t fired from the Café Graffiti, so I was granted full parole. I had passed another hurdle, and that is how the parole system works. Now as a man serving a life sentence I will never be off parole. I will always have to see a parole officer and a psychologist and tell them what is up with my life. I will always have to do that. Happily, they tend to receive my writings well.

But I am like every other citizen living alone with his own apartment at age 61. I have a studio apartment 45 minutes by public transit from my apartment. I eat at a food bank several days a week, making my salary stretch out a bit. To this point everything is going well. But do I have the skills to make it living alone?

I survived my first crisis – an ice storm that put my power out for three days. Shivering under blankets, I got through it.  

I wonder if I have reached the level of my own incompetence. If I have not gone beyond where I am comfortable. Jail is cruel and harsh, but you never feel alone there. You are always supervised. Now I know I am not innately criminal, that when not supervised I won’t turn around and rob a drugstore.

But this is how the Peter principle works: In their 1968 best-selling book The Peter principle, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull give various examples of the Peter principle in action. In each case, the higher position required skills that were not required at the level immediately below. For example, a competent school teacher may make a competent assistant principal, but then go on to be an incompetent principal. The teacher was competent at educating children, and as assistant principal, he was good at dealing with parents and other teachers, but as principal, he was poor at maintaining good relations with the school board and the superintendent.

I was a very competent prison inmate and, despite the difficulties of living at very close quarters with 20 other men in a small house, a decent halfway house resident. But do I have the skills to live alone in the large Quebec society?

There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to do it. If I don’t drink alcohol, I think my chances are good. Not to drink is one of my parole conditions. If I set foot in a bar, or drink a nice Molson Export, I risk going back to prison. And waste my life, because I’m an alcoholic. Alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. I must avoid it, to retain my freedom.

Can I be a competent citizen? Or have I risen to the level of my own incompetence, having acquitted myself well at every other preceding level? The only solution is for me to never let my guard down, to work hard at my job, to be decent to others, to give people the respect they deserve. Because anyone who can operate a cell phone deserves my respect. That’s not easy stuff when you’ve come out of the caveman days of the 1980s, when we actually had to dial our telephones. Really, I’m not kidding. Actual round dials.  

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