Phyllis Taylor is the author of The Prison Lady, a memoir of her journey alongside prisoners. The following is an excerpt from her book.
By 45, Manny, a great-looking Portuguese career criminal, had spent two dimes (ten year sentences) in the Kingston Pen. He was fond of boasting that he knew the most infamous Canadian serial killer-rapist, Paul Bernardo. Apparently, Manny and Paul had spent many hours whispering through the air ducts while in solitary confinement. I feel quite confident that an evocative education was had by all, but Manny made it clear that he was not a fan of serial killer Bernardo.
In fact, Manny much preferred the company of David Milgaard. You remember David. In 1969, he was a carefree teenage hippie just passing through Saskatoon when nursing assistant Gail Miller was raped and stabbed to death in a back alley. With sketchy forensics and unreliable witnesses, David was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Twenty years later, his case made national headlines as he became one of the most famous examples of wrongful conviction in Canadian history.
I would say that in preferring David over Paul, Manny’s inmate preferences make him a rather wonderful judge of character.
Upon arrival at OCI for my first presentation, Manny met me at the Control Desk and escorted me to an assigned meeting room. Inmate Manny proudly explained that he was now a unit head and had applied to assist with my presentation requirements.
Before class, Manny would set up the seating configuration, arrange the handouts and help with the projection equipment. Then he would prepare for class by positioning himself in his favourite seat – directly in front of me.
Shortly after I began at OCI, Manny remained after class one day having decided that we should get better acquainted. I noticed that despite Manny’s rather gravelly deep voice, he was exceptionally well-spoken.
“I hear you do competitive public speaking,” he began.
“Yes, since I was a kid. How about you?”
“We have Toastmasters here.”
“Are you a member, Manny?”
“Yes, I’ve won several contests. It’s awesome. Many of the guys find it a great release. A wonderful way to tell our stories and sort of like a support group.”
And there it was. Manny and I had discovered a common interest, which gave birth to an everlasting friendship. Every week, Manny would sit himself down in front of me to observe my pubic speaking skills and then stay for an after-class chat. After Manny left OCI, ‘after-class chats’ would evolve into life-coaching sessions.
Flatteringly, some of the men vied for these time slots, so I turned them into small group discussions. Of course, priority would still be given to someone who requested ‘alone time’.
During Manny’s tenure, it was amazing how easily he shared with me and even more amazing how easily I shared with him. I was comfortable with personal confidences and would tell Manny everything – including when I decided to leave my husband. Manny got my whole divorce saga long before it went live, and so did the women of Vanier.
My friendship with Manny underscored trust, respect and confidentiality. For me, it was an opportunity to redefine friendship and learn how an inclusive and non-judgmental platform could create an exceptional bond. Working with Manny opened a natural gateway to personal discovery. As I began to acknowledge my own painful childhood and humble beginnings, I came to understand that an unreasonable, demanding and abusive father had undoubtedly left scars. Scars that were deep enough to manifest in some troubling behaviour that needed to be addressed.
During this time, and because of my work in the prison system, I reached out for professional counselling. Today, I continue to work on areas that are in need of some extra oil and a bit of lube. I believe that seeking therapy is not a shame, but needing therapy and not seeking it, well, that might be.
Through therapy, I learned that the key to developing a meaningful relationship is authenticity, where actions are congruent with beliefs and desires, despite external pressures to conformity. I understand now that opening myself up to those who have earned the right to hear my story is a powerful bonding mechanism and a vulnerability that encourages the kind of closeness that heartens and deepens a relationship.
In the spirit of friendship and bonding, Manny described his past to me. He was also a victim of his childhood. He rarely spoke of his mother, except to describe her as quiet and very kind. But he often described his father as a frighteningly disfigured man who took his anger out on both Manny and his younger brother, Gabriel.
“Me, well, I never had it too good,” Manny said, trailing off and looking into his lap.
“My dad was a vicious guy. We used to hide from him. He would drink – heavily. Never happy. Always looking to pick a fight or hurt someone. Me and my brother lived in fear of getting battered,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper.
“Tell me more, Manny,” I encouraged, without expression.
“Late one evening, Dad came home and I knew he’d been drinking. You could smell him down the hall. And he was stumbling.”
“Yes,” I whispered.
Manny sat with me for a time looking pained, shamed and shaky. “Dad was an angry drunk. He had no love for no one. He always hid his gun, I never saw it. But that night, he came into our bedroom and ripped the sheets off our beds.
“Gabe and I were huddled together, wailing in the corner. We were crying and screaming. We were hysterical. When Dad was drunk, he was angry. But this time was different. He had his gun with him.
“He began hollering. Swearing. Gabe and I were terrified. I knew something would go wrong. I just knew it. Gabriel, who was eight, screamed, ‘Daddy, go to bed’.
“A few seconds later, he shot Gabe. Right in front of me. One bullet, just one bullet, and Gabe was gone,” Manny said as a single tear slid down his cheek.
Manny sat in silence for a while, just staring at the wall, reliving his most painful memory. We were both still and I was speechless.
Manny was 10 when Gabe died. I don’t know what happened to his Mom, but Manny was put into foster care, and Gabe received a public health funeral. As is often the case, foster parenting is worse than natural parenting. So, with a continuum of abuse and nowhere to go, Manny turned to heroin, before long, like many others before him.
At 12 years of age, Manny became a heroin addict and a very disturbed young man. He sought a life of crime and never even imagined another way. He hated life and he hated people. Except for Angela.
Deeply in love, Manny and Angela had married in their early twenties and meant every word of their vows. Through 10 years of incarceration at the Kingston Penitentiary twice, and an additional two years at OCI, Angela never stopped believing in Manny. She supported him emotionally, arranged whatever treatment she could from the outside and looked after the finances by working as a caregiver for the elderly. She waited, looked forward to Manny’s release and never wavered for a moment.
Studies show, and I decidedly agree, that when an inmate has someone on the outside rooting for them, believing in them, loving them, it counts. If an inmate has assistance in transitioning back into society, they have a much greater chance of getting their life on track and reaching their healthy goals.
My unexpected confidant and I were deepening our relationship, and I didn’t want our friendship to end with Manny’s release. As Manny was leaving OCI, I asked what he was most looking forward to.
“I’m looking forward to normal,” he said looking up, imagining freedom. “You know, just being able to bend down and touch… even touch a blade of grass. For me, that’s special.”
Manny added great depth to my understanding of gratitude. He taught me how a “normal day” is a clear blessing. When the time came for Manny to leave prison, we were both saddened at the thought that our friendship might end. For safety purposes, volunteers are strictly forbidden from seeing prison folk on the outside. Accordingly, we are not permitted to provide personal information to prisoners.
So, as Manny was leaving the prison, I handed him my phone number and told him to keep in touch. I had a responsibility to do my job.
While serving his sentence at OCI, it became abundantly apparent that Manny (formerly both a Federal and Provincial inmate), had transformed himself into the kind of person he was meant to be. Manny had learned values and earned the respect of everyone. I believe with all my heart that OCI provided Manny with an opportunity for change. I had faith that Inmate Manny would become a law-abiding citizen and a good friend. And I was right.
After Manny left OCI, we would meet for coffee every Monday on my way home from prison at a Coffee Time, located in one of Toronto’s seediest hoods. Remarkably, I felt safe in prison and creepy in the coffee shop. But I fondly recall that with little money and much dignity, Manny always insisted on buying my coffee. Our friendship continued to thrive and, months later, Manny introduced me to his beautiful wife Angela. Two people believed in Manny now, but one had waited 22 years for his release.
When we would meet, I would always have a hidden agenda. I would casually bring up Manny’s job search efforts, modern marital challenges, family responsibilities, living arrangements, finances, temptation to use, transitioning back into society and getting his driver’s licence reinstated. Sorry, Manny, it was all a setup!
As Manny was realizing freedom, he was thinking of ways to earn a respectable living. But he had no idea where to begin. Still, with the motivation of independence and the wheels of creation rolling, within six months Manny had established himself as a gardener and was beautifying some pretty respectable grounds. With his wonderful smile and a marketable personality, the gardening jobs were growing and Manny was securing a nice bit of yard work.
One fine day as Manny, Angela and I were sitting down for coffee, Manny announced that he was starting a business.
“Gee, Manny, I think you’re already in business,” I said.
“No, no. It’s a business where I can hire people. I want to hire ex-cons. Give others a chance, at least get them started,” he announced, beaming with pride.
Manny and Angela were both smiling. It was the smile of immeasurable excitement. And I was bursting with pride. As if Manny were my own son, I endorsed his idea, but I cautioned him to be very selective with his employee picks.
Manny was destined to become an outstanding, upstanding businessman. One who would provide countless opportunities for other ex-cons, affording them a chance to turn something pretty shitty into something special. Ironically, Manny had one critical rule for his employees: you do drugs, you go home.
As Manny began to acquire gardening projects, he also started to secure other work orders, too. There was snow removal, handyman gigs, house painting and the basic mechanics that he and his crew could handle with their collective skills and a determination to make their newly found freedom matter.
Today, Manny has a thriving business, employing only the finest. Manny’s crew looks up to him as they learn that that life can be a bowl of ethics.
I couldn’t be prouder of Citizen Manny.
People are genuinely curious about my work in the prison system. “Aren’t you nervous working in a prison? Isn’t it scary? Don’t you fear for your life?”
I smile and say, “I feel safer in prison than I do in a shopping mall. It’s simple. I love my guys and they love me back. Why would anyone hurt me? I help these guys. Often, I’m the only person who provides a safe space, unconditional respect and a reason for hope.”
But I do have a few rules for my audience and these rules are reinforced every week. This is my narrative:
My Confidentiality Greeting
“Good Afternoon, Everyone. For those of you who are new, my name is Phyllis. Thank you for allowing me into your home. I believe that I am on sacred ground when I am here with you. My goal is to create a safe space for everyone to share their thoughts without fear of their disclosure ever leaving this room. Please share feely today.
All heads nod.
“Together we create a bond of friendship, of trust and of love. Regarding friendship, I’m your friend, too, but I’m only here once a week. When I leave, I ask that you be kind to one another. For me, this group forms a village, a village culture that has respect and kindness at its core.
All heads nod.
“Together we learn and together we exude respect. I have a zero tolerance for anyone who shows a lack of respect.
“Your respect for me is deeply appreciated. But I ask that when one of our guys has the courage to speak, it, too, is revered. We show everyone 100 percent respect. And you will thank me. You will thank me when it’s your turn to speak.”
They know the drill. They’re already nodding.
“So, if I hear laughter or whispering or if you so much as roll your eyes when a friend is speaking, I will invite you to leave.
All heads nod and we begin.
If I remove anyone from my class for disruptive behaviour, they are at risk of losing their placement at OCI. This would mean that they could be transferred to a high security prison to serve out their remaining time. No one wants that.
I’m frequently asked if my work actually makes a difference. I have no metrics, nor do I have reliable markers. But I believe that much of my stuff sticks. My in-prison friendships seem to validate this belief. Call it intuition. You just know when something feels right.
And I’ve seen it work.
When Phyllis isn’t speaking, writing, or attending courses, she can be found counselling others in her capacity as a Certified Life and Mediation Coach.