Doin’ time and making friends in the big house


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in May 2011

At about 3:30 on Saturday, March 26 I was released from prison. Really. It was great to smell the fresh air again, to see the horizon and not just those oppressive four walls. More importantly, it was great to know I was once again the master of my own destiny. True, some of my family had always suspected that someday I would end up in prison. How right they were. My crime… I am a writer. God, I had missed freedom.

Perhaps I should mention I had been ‘locked up in the big house’ for about three hours, give or take. And did I mention it was a women’s prison?  And I was there to do a reading from some of my books. Not nearly as melodramatic, but more accurate. As a writer, you never know where you’ll end up. That includes the Edmonton Institute for Women. The title of the establishment sounds quite refined and bookish, doesn’t it? And basically, the place looks like a large community college, surrounded by 10-foot fences topped with barbed wire.

I had been asked by the local library system if I would be interested in paying these women a visit. Evidently, the Native clientele of that establishment had a book club and had been reading my novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, and I was at the top of their list for potential visiting authors. Who was I to say no to a “captive” audience? Authors such as myself crave new experiences and this would definitely be one. So off I went to the great province of Alberta, not knowing what to expect.

So I began my adventure by going through security. During some sort of chemical swab test to see if I was carrying any type of illicit contraband, I was surprised to discover my wallet tested positive for morphine. Not a good beginning. Immediately I had visions of rubber gloves and cavity searches. Quickly, I tried to tell the security people that poppies don’t grow well in the forests of central Ontario. I don’t even like poppy seed bagels.

But the nonchalance of the woman behind the counter soon told me not to panic. She barely batted an eye. I found out later that false positives like this are quite common. It seems that practically every monetary bill in circulation has in some way come in contact with drugs, or with other bills that have been in contact with drugs. Evidently the money you have right now in your wallet probably has some sort of trace elements on it. So next, to be safe, she swabbed my cell phone.  Luckily, my cell had led a more Mormon lifestyle and was drug free. Upon my return to the real world, I immediately sent my wallet into rehab.

After that auspicious beginning, the rest of the afternoon went surprisingly well. In the gym, where I held court underneath the volleyball net, the audience of about 24 ladies were attentive and intelligent. We all laughed, had a great conversation after the reading/lecture, and my impression of “caged women” changed substantially. Surprisingly, it’s nothing like the movies.  Even one of the guards became unexpectedly delighted when I mentioned I had written for “The Beachcombers.”  I was told he had, at some point, started a Beachcombers fan Web site. All went well except when I tried to find a men’s washroom in a women’s prison. It’s just something you never really think about.

But as always, it wasn’t long before I soon put my own foot in my mouth. Asked for advice by a woman interested in becoming a writer, I told them my four rules for developing yourself as a good writer. The first one, possibly the most important, was and is: try to lead an interesting life. The more you’ve done in your life, the more you’ll have to write about. They all looked at each other and smirked. Next, I mentioned the second part of the rule. And keep in mind, I usually give this speech to high school students. I told them (again, for high school students) that if they plan to spend all of their time in one place doing one thing (I often use the basement as an example, playing video games for instance), they’re not going to have much to write about. So get out and see the world.

And this is where the real laughter started.

Looking back, they quite probably all had led interesting lives. Very interesting lives no doubt. And I had a hunch they were also quite probably going to be spending all their time in one place. Maybe playing video games, maybe not. And getting out and seeing the world would require a hack saw or helicopter.

Oh well, it did make them laugh.