Life After Life

Something as simple as the warm sun streaming through his car’s windshield is enough to bring a smile to the face of Yves, even when he’s stuck in bumper to bumper traffic.

After spending the past 25 years in maximum security prisons across Canada, the 53-year-old Quebec native still marvels at his shiny new driver’s license. It is a veritable ticket to ride the roads of freedom.

"I drove here," he says, laughing as he looks around the room. "People must like me because they keep honking at me."

Yves is one of four men sitting at the front of the conference room at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey to talk about a life spent in captivity.

Short and stout, he sports a neatly trimmed white beard. Faded prison tattoos sprouting from beneath his jacket are the only clue that this soft-spoken French-Canadian has seen into the heart of darkness.

But there are no equivocations on this night, no pretences or pretensions. Yves, like the three other guests, is a convicted murderer.

The men have served their sentences for their crimes, but their mental anguish will likely linger to their graves.

Yves was just five years old when his mother died and he was placed in foster care. He speaks in whispered tones about this time in his life.

"In the foster house, the abuse started physically, emotionally and sexually," he says, breathing deeply.

When he was first arrested and sent to juvenile detention at the age of 11, Yves was actually happy. He wasn’t sexually abused in detention. He felt safe.

The abuse had far-reaching implications on his life, however, as he acted out violently and became involved in criminal activity. His first trip to an adult prison was in 1982 at the age of 20. He was 130 pounds soaking wet and was placed among imposing men with big muscles that were covered in tattoos. Many of those men were doing life sentences for murder.

Yves admits he was terrified. "So, what did I do? I became what I feared." In 1989, a 210-pound, tattooed Yves received a life sentence for killing a fellow inmate.

Kole Logan is 59 and in May will have been out of prison for four years. At one time, however, the transgender ex-convict was one of the most dangerous women in all of Canada.

In 1995 he was sentenced to life for second degree murder. Rubbing a hand over the white wisps of hair on his head, Kole won’t elaborate much on what happened.

"Problems happen sometimes when you associate with the wrong people," he says, shrugging.

Kole readily admits he got "caught up in a bad situation" in the drug trade. But at the time, he says he didn’t care about anybody but himself.

"Life changed drastically for me," he recalls of receiving his life sentence. "I left my family behind."

The first three years were the hardest, just knowing he’d let a lot of people down who loved him.

Kole never did adjust to life behind bars. Not that it would be easy under the best of circumstances, but just as he would get used to one place he would be transferred to a new prison, often across the country.

Early in his sentence he was sent to the women’s range in the notorious Saskatchewan Penitentiary for Men where he met a fellow female inmate named Sonja.

They became good friends inside, sharing support and looking out for one another. One day she learned the two were going to be transferred to different prisons further east. Sonja had other ideas.

"She’d just had enough," says Kole, recalling the memory with evident discomfort. "She didn’t want to go back east. She wanted to be with her sisters. She wanted to be with us."

The next morning the bars to Sonja’s cell were covered up. Her friend knew the choice she’d made.

Although the men take responsibility for their crimes, they say the penal system made it difficult to rehabilitate. If anything, the rampant drug and alcohol trade inside, as well as the violence, made things even worse for these men.

Ron, now 42, began his life sentence for murder in 1994 at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary for Men. He says he had lost all hope for himself because of the verbal and physical abuse doled out by the prison guards.

"When you’re belittled on a daily basis by your keepers… years and years of that and you kind of start to believe it," he says.

What’s the point? Why should I try? These questions were answered one day when his fellow inmates reached out to help him. They urged him to become the opposite of what the guards accused him of being.

"’Why don’t you just try,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of guys who will help you.’" Ron stopped arguing with the guards for two weeks and soon realized the harassment stopped. It was the beginning of a radical transformation in his life, one that has brought him back to the land of the free and the living.

"I realized I can change for myself and feel good about myself," he says.

South Surrey resident John Unrau compares Ron’s story to the great South African activist Nelson Mandela, who famously forgave his captors after spending 27 years behind bars. It was this change in attitude that Mandela attributes to being able to walk free without still feeling imprisoned in his mind.

Unrau works with a Christian outreach agency called Man2Man, visiting prisoners at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre to counsel and offer support on getting out of prison and into their new life.

A former hospital chaplin in Richmond for many years, Unrau draws upon his experience to act as a facilitator in groups ranging from three to 20 prisoners who can talk about their hopes, fears and dreams in a safe and secure environment. Sometimes the prisoners talk about their crimes, others protest their innocence, while some complain about the conditions.

"There are others who said, ‘If I hadn’t been put in jail I would be dead now.’ Because their life was just out of control," says Unrau.

Prison can be a time of deep reflection for many prisoners to look at their lives. Many will come to the same conclusion as Kole, Yves and Ron did.

I just don’t want to do this shit anymore.

Being in prison, that’s hard. But getting out, now that’s even harder. Some have been behind bars so long that the world has left them for dead.

Unrau says he met a prisoner who went to jail for 26 years at the age of 19. When the prisoner was finally released, he was dropped on a street corner in Vancouver and told to report in once a week.

"I said, ‘Well what kind of support have you got?’ And he said, ‘I’ve got a girlfriend and I’ve got a dog. That is it.’ So you know for many of them, it’s very lonely. They don’t have anybody."

Many ex-convicts leave without any skills or education and their only opportunities come in lowpaying construction jobs. It’s difficult not to fall back into familiar habits.

Unrau says the prisoner is now back behind bars and doesn’t expect he’ll ever get out again.

"You hear many of these stories and it just tugs at my heart. It just makes me so sad that these guys are just ruining their lives."

Kole’s big change came in 2000 when his father died and he was forced to deal with the grief. He began to realize what it’s like to feel the pain and loss of somebody close.

"I can only imagine what it was like for the people I hurt," he says.

When he left prison after 16 years behind bars he felt like the world had passed him by. But he’s trying to make amends and now serves meals to the homeless and elderly on the Downtown Eastside, insisting prisoners can "correct ourselves."

"I’m not creepy. I’m not a monster. I’m just a human being. It took me two minutes of my life to get to prison and it took me 20 years to get back here."

Adjusting to life on the outside was a bit of a shock. Kole said when he went to get a new family doctor there was an awkward conversation he’d sooner forget.

"He said, ‘who was your previous doctor?’ And I said, ‘Oh, so and so from the prison.’ He asked me why I was in prison and I told him it was none of his business."

But the doctor kept pressing for information, so Kole told him in blunt frustration, "I was in prison for murder and now I’m out."

Kole was told to leave. Yves says he won’t be going back to prison but at one point he wasn’t sure he even wanted out.

"I’d like to say that I was more scared of getting out on parole than I was when I went into maximum security," he recalls about being paroled 14 months ago.

He might never have gone free if not for the fact his younger brother Luc wound up in the same prison.

"When I realized that what I was doing was affecting Luc, that had quite the impact on me," says Yves. "Because it’s one thing to mess up your own life but it’s another thing to mess up somebody else."

As he came to terms with the fact he’d influenced his brother down a dark path, Yves began a soulsearching struggle to come to terms with the other lives he’d ruined, including the families of his victims. Worst of all, despite the fact this former 130-pound boy had become the most fearsome inmate in the prison, he realized deep down he was still terrified.

"Then you start thinking, all you did was for nothing," says Yves softly. "All the violence for nothing."

Ron has accomplished some amazing feats since being paroled on Oct. 18, 2010. Hired to become a youth worker in an "at-risk" Aboriginal program supported by the Vancouver Police, he attributes his rehabilitation to his fellow inmates who gave him hope and encouraged him in support groups like the ones Unrau facilitates.

In 2009 he nearly relapsed when he lost his brother and parents all within a short time period. But he was determined to make it.

"It’s not over yet. Not by a long shot. It’s a long journey for all of us. This is the human side of the monsters you see in the media. Our blood is still red, we shed the same tears."