The Fieldstone Review

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison by Stephen Reid

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison. Stephen Reid. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-927068-03-8. List Price $ 18.65.

Stephen Reid is a man who struggles to feel at home in the world. Early in this slim volume of essays reflecting on his life as one of Canada's most notorious — and notoriously recidivist — criminals, he describes himself as being plagued with "a sense that I am as separate from this world as a switchblade knife."

Small wonder; most of Reid's sixty-three years have been spent in some of the toughest maximum security prisons in Canada and the US, and much of that time has been spent in solitary confinement. Even when not physically removed from society, it seems Reid could at best only occupy its margins. He has endured a childhood of sexual abuse; all-consuming addictions to morphine, heroin, and cocaine; and a fugitive existence of assumed identities and always looking over your shoulder.

The bulk of Reid's criminal activity was carried out in the 1970s and '80s when he was part of the infamous Stopwatch Gang, the most successful bank robbers in North American history. The three-member team were so dubbed because they were able to pull off precision bank and armoured vehicle heists in under two minutes — the stopwatch one of them would wear around his neck a reminder to keep things moving. They prided themselves on never firing a shot or harming a single bank patron or employee. All told, the gang stole about $15 million dollars, racked up nine escapes, and made the Most Wanted list in two countries.

Currently Reid is serving his third life sentence, for a cocaine-fuelled solo hold-up gone wrong in Victoria in 1999. Desperate to pay back a $90,000 drug debt due the next day, Reid's attempt was a cock-up from its drug-addled conception to its ignominious denouement in the apartment of a senior couple he'd taken hostage. As he notes wryly (one of many surprising flashes of humour), he spent four and a half minutes in the bank, "long enough to apply for a loan." This latest incarceration is surely the hardest to bear. It comes after thirteen years of "a publicly redeemed life," which saw Reid become a father and work and volunteer in various capacities for prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration.

In the prologue, Reid looks over the dark, frigid waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait off Vancouver Island, his view from the rocky peninsula that is the site of the William Head Institute. He tells us the area was where the pre-contact Scia'new would send wrongdoers, not to punish them but so they could "find a new direction." This question of the purpose of incarceration — is it to pay a debt to society or to find a way back into it? — is one Reid will loop back to periodically throughout the eighteen essays, but always with a light touch. He's never polemical and never self-pitying. Indeed, he declares he's not looking for sympathy, "not even from myself."

What he is looking for is a way to take full moral responsibility for his crime, but in a way that goes beyond merely accepting culpability. Reid wants nothing less than full restoration, no matter the price: "I am determined to go wherever I have to go, to take it as deep as it is deep, to do whatever it is I have to do to become whole, to never commit another offence, to never again get addicted." It is this painful and courageous journey to which we are privileged to bear witness, in spare, philosophical, and often disturbing prose. Over eighteen essays, most of them brief, Reid brings his incisive intelligence to such topics as the paucity of quality prison literature in Canada, the brutality of the US prisoner transfer system, the salvation of prison libraries, and the accounts of wrecked lives he hears while in the Intensive Therapy Violent Offender Program.

The heart of the book, and its longest essay, is simply titled "Junkie." It is a devastating account of the double betrayal of innocence perpetrated on Reid by the local doctor of the small Ontario town he grew up in. For years, starting when Reid was 11, the doctor would ply him with shots of morphine and then abuse him. At 14, Reid finally left town. But the psychological effects of his defilement and "the lie that the key to the gates of paradise was a filled syringe" would haunt him for decades to come.

Not once does Reid blame his criminality on his scarred childhood and the addictions it bred. Nor does he feign ignorance that there is any link:

Prisons are about addictions. Most prisoners are casualties of their own habits. They have all created victims — sometimes in cruel and callous ways — but almost to a man they have first practised that cruelty on themselves. Prison provides the loneliness that fuels addiction. It is the slaughterhouse for addicts, and all are eventually delivered to its gates.

Surprisingly, Reid's opinion of Corrections Canada is somewhat positive — though one wonders if the book was written taking into account the Harper government's recent transformative and retrogressive omnibus crime bill. He commends initiatives on Aboriginal inmates' culture, prisoners' voting rights, behaviour therapy, and library programs. No doubt compared to the US system, Canada's comes off as eminently enlightened. Yet the old tension between the proper role of "corrections" is still apparent, witness this absurdity: a young Native offender Reid knows wanted to make financial restitution to his victim but was turned down by Corrections Canada because there is no official process to do so without a court order.

Although the word "Buddhist" is in the title, the specific references to Buddhism are few and fleeting in the book. But it's clear that Reid has benefited from more than a passing acquaintanceship with the Buddha's teachings on equanimity — the ability to find emotional balance no matter what your internal or external milieus — as the only true path to freedom.

The epilogue finds Reid once again on that rocky peninsula. He recounts some of the more memorable escape attempts into the powerful Pacific Ocean below him, many ingenious, all of them unsuccessful. Then he describes the October day he was raking leaves in the prison garden when he came across something half-buried: "a small dirt-and-rust encrusted crowbar." Holding it, he realizes the tool is from the most recent escape attempt, a few years previous. It had been smuggled in, used to pry open the wire fence of the exercise yard, then tossed to where it lay until Reid found it. After a moment of hesitation, Reid decides to bury it. Over time the spot becomes his refuge, a place he can "cultivate a vacuum, a place of stillness and safety where nothing moves and no one gets hurt." It turns out the only true escape is internal.