P&A PT. 5 - Doing Time

Change yourself, some say, and then your circumstances will also change…. Unfortunately the circumstances will not oblige. Capitalism, racism and inhuman technocracy quietly develop in their own way. The causes of misery are no longer to be found in the inner attitudes of men, but have long been institutionalized.

Jurgen Moltmann

When I graduated from teacher’s college, teaching opportunities at high schools were few and far between. A buddy of mine suggested I apply for a position at the Barton Street Jail, which was where he landed with his degree in Kinesiology. He’d had his sights on becoming a physiotherapist, but then he and his wife learned they were going to have a baby.

I could see him working at the jail. He was a guy who wasn’t shy about flexing his muscles. Apart from the urge to arm-wrestle someone every once and a while, crosswords were more my cup of tea.

The Barton Street Jail was hiring. My buddy said the pay was good, maybe I’d forget about teaching, what did I have to lose? I didn’t have a ready answer, and so I filled out an application. It seemed to me a long shot: I couldn’t imagine why the Barton Street Jail would hire someone whose thing was English literature.

A week or so after I presented my application, I was told the interviews were to be held on-site. My application hadn’t been an exercise in futility. It hadn’t been simply a thought experiment. I would need to step inside the Barton Street Jail, and that realization filled me with dread.

I didn’t make it past the second interview. I never found out why. I’m guessing my attraction to crossword puzzles may have been a factor.

The Barton Street Jail, unlike some other jails and prisons in the province, wasn’t a tourist attraction. It wasn’t a place visited by the curious and staffed by enthusiasts of local history. The Barton Street Jail was in use, and it was operating as a maximum security detention centre. It was occupied by prisoners and patrolled by guards. Here, the metal doors and the metal bars made certain tomorrow would be a repeat of yesterday. Behind those thick walls, men and women were serving time. This isn’t the description you’re likely to get from the prisoners themselves. They tend to reckon their predicament a little more existentially; they describe it as “doing time” or “stacking time.” Human existence doesn’t get much closer to the bone than that.

Fights aren’t uncommon behind bars, as most of us know. Most of these fights would be loosely identified as contests between individuals or gangs, as struggles to stay in the ring. I won’t argue with that, but I wonder if there are times when a prisoner might be fighting for another reason. Doing time is no way to live, and I think everybody grasps that on some level. When a prisoner does, fighting may well be his way of pushing back, his way of defending himself against the quashing effects of doing time. The fight of one literally kicking against the dying of the light.

South of the border, the death penalty is still legal in thirty states. Phrases like “serving time,” “doing time,” or “stacking time” don’t apply to prisoners on death row. On death row, it’s merely a matter of time. Here, in solitary confinement, the condemned do nothing but wait. Their capacity to act with some measure of significance sinks to killing time until there’s no more time to kill.

There may be people who think that anybody who believes they’re doing time or thinks they’re just killing time probably deserve to feel that way. I’m not one of them, and that’s because I think the apprehension of “doing time” and of “killing time” are not limited to those behind bars. I think they occur wherever and whenever tomorrow becomes simply a repeat of yesterday, wherever and whenever human beings fall under the impression that their lives make little or no difference, wherever and whenever one’s existence hardly casts a shadow. Based on my experience, I’m making the audacious suggestion that the tragic perception of “doing time” also afflicts those living in poverty.

Yes, some thrive despite poverty; and, yes, some manage to escape poverty. The more general experience of those living in poverty presents less cause for hope.

More often than not, poverty curtails freedom, dissolves dreams, and dries ambition. Lives that may have once rippled with expectation and hope turn inward and stagnate. Some, in an attempt to escape the impression they’re doing time, strut down the sidewalk like they’re on a mission, like they mean business like everyone else.

Doing time is no way to live. If society really wants to put an end to this hopelessness, if we really want to see more people escape the prison of poverty, then there will need to be fewer bridges (and buses) to strip malls and high-interest loans, fewer enticements to buy junk, food or otherwise, fewer reasons to borrow from the money-lenders; and more bridges to the doors of affordable housing; accessible, steady, full-time employment; and a living wage.

Awaiting each man, woman, and child taken out of the isolation and confines of poverty and moved into the mainstream of society are the vitally important experiences of visibility, inclusivity, productivity, and hope. The greatest of these is hope.


The Poverty and Its Associates - P&A series is being written by Len Van Harten and the posts don't necessarily reflect the position of the London Poverty Research Centre. Len lives in Thorndale, Ontario. He has worked in group homes, in classrooms, and in nonprofit housing. He believes that if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying close enough attention to the world around you.