Symbols and signs converse with one another. A crucifix adorning a baptismal font communicates that “death and new life are found in this place.” This back and forth is a mystical, sometimes haunting exchange that can reveal our graced and grace-less nature. The conversation of two such symbols reverberates from one of our prisons in Saskatoon.
The Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC) is a forensic hospital. Its mission is the treatment of mentally ill federal prisoners. In the course of the several years I spent as chaplain at the centre I came to know many of the patients who live there. An astounding number of these people repeatedly slashed their arms with any number of sharp objects from razor blades to glass. With time, slashed arms came to symbolize a deeper reality, but what message did they convey? From a psychiatric viewpoint, I knew that slashing one’s arm can communicate self-loathing and it is often a cry for help but, in itself, this diagnosis is disconnected from our public sentiment concerning prisoners.
The psychiatric centre is built in the form of a hexagon. In the middle of the hexagon there is a courtyard and at the centre of the courtyard there is a fountain. Everyone from Carl Jung to William Wordsworth looks favourably on a fountain. Water, a powerful symbol of life, springs up from the depths — sparkling, bubbling and cheering those in its purview. The fountain at RPC has been shut down and boarded up.
The demise of the fountain was, in part, related to a barbecue that got out of hand. Photos of a nude prisoner bathing in the fountain made their way to the press who decried RPC for pampering rapists and murders. What can one say about that? Well spinning a story is fairly easy where prisons are concerned. Very few of us spend time in our prisons and, like convents and monasteries, the unknown lends itself to conjecture and yarns of all sorts. What interests me is the malevolence that is the axis on which these story spin.
By malevolence I mean the permission we give each other to hate those who are accused and convicted of crimes. This permission to hate rails against the thought that an inmate might, on occasion, have a good time. The prospect of a courtyard with a fountain in a prison offends the oh-so-righteous heart.
If you will, indulge a little imaginary exercise. Picture a very large brick fountain with a circumference of more than 40 feet and a column-like spire that is about 30 feet high. Boards cover its base forming something of a platform or a stage. In the quiet of the courtyard, the fountain speaks lovingly to those who have slashed their arms in prisons all over Canada. It says, “I . . . am a slashed arm.” Then in one voice hundreds of prisoners reply, “we are a fountain, boarded up.” Then in a kind of mantra they speak together, “Our life is emptied, drained by malice and spite, by malice and spite, by the malice and spite of the merciless.”
This little tale will likely provoke any number of questions, but one is of particular importance. In the story the fountain says, “I am a slashed arm,” but to whom does this limb belong? The fountain at RPC is the central symbol of a federal prison that is, in many ways, a flagship for Corrections Canada. Federal prisons are the hands that deal out justice in our country and the justice system is a body representing the Canadian people. The limb is our own and the message is, when we hate those who are in prison, we are engaged in an act of self-loathing and self-harming.
Surely this was the message of Jesus when he, who is Emmanuel (God-with-us), was crucified with a criminal on his right and left side. God-with-us is not just a message saying, “I am with you in all your heartache, hilarity and humdrum tediousness.” “I am with you” is also a mirror. These people crucified with me are you. Your malice is a monstrous act of self-harming. In effect Jesus is saying, “I am with them-who-are-you to demonstrate that loving those who are accused and condemned heals the whole body.”
Oliver works in chaplaincy and development for The Micah Mission in Saskatoon.