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Neil MacLean is on tour with his book Serving Life 25: One Guard's Story.
We later spoke over the phone. He was easy to talk with and more than willing to swing for the fence with any pitch I threw at him.
You'll get the full meal deal of stories from MacLean's book: Serving life 25 when you buy it. The interview I did is just a teaser but by purchasing his book, you'll be supporting a great local author and in exchange be taken on a roller coaster ride into the hell of Canada's, China's, the US and England's penal systems. So don't look for any giveaways about the book in my interview with him, but after you read about it, you will run out and buy it like Canadian singer Jan Arden did.
If someone was thinking about committing a crime they need to rethink that. MacLean, talks about things like "garden variety killers" as if they were chips and pop inmates. But there are some things deeper and darker than that...
Below is our conversation.
Places to Purchase Serving Life 25: One Guard's Story
Buy via Mail: Harrison Lake Publishing Inc.
P.O. Box 30, Harrison Hot Springs, BC V0M 1K0 604 316 7659
Connect Facebook here
Print books and Kindle are available on Amazon here.
On Kodo here
Barnes and Noble here
Voice: The idea here is not to reveal what's in your book. If you don't want to answer questions you don't have to.
MacLean: No. Go right ahead.
Voice: When you wrote this book, did it dredge up bad memories or anything like that?
MacLean: No actually it had the opposite effect. I was really surprised it had a healing effect. We were laughing about stories and shaking our heads. I interviewed 104 people for this book sat down with a contract killer. Sat down with a sex offender and types like that. I remember one guy I sat down with, he was a contract killer and I said to him 'I hated your guts. 'Oh, I hated yours too' and we had a good laugh over that. so time is famous for healing an rehabilitation. I can give you a couple of things. One about Canada's first helicopter escape. That happened in Kent.
Voice: Yes. I wanted to ask you about that but first what about your wife, Joyce, how hard was this on her during your 25 years?
MacLean: She was there for the last 13 of it and she's been very supportive. She has been listening to all my stories and she's become a bit of an expert on procedures given that I'd been talking about them and so I give her a lot of credit for putting up with me listening to the stories.
Voice: So you'd come home after a bad day and she'd listen to you.
MacLean: Some people didn't bring stories home, some people do and I would talk about my day events.
Voice: What do you think inspired you to write this book?
MacLean: It started off with a diagnosis of PTSD and my psychologist as part of my homework told me to write some notes down of the more troubling incidents so all these stories of all these riots and hostage-takings and murders became notes and then stories and then manuscript and then a book. So that's how it all started as kind of a homework assignment from my psychologist dealing with my PTSD.
Voice: How did you come up with the name of the book?
MacLean: Well. I did 25 years, so that's a very common term, serving life 25. It's the time we do in order to retire. The 25 years we turned it into a catchy phrase and then used the term: One Guard's Story. Guard is not a term we normally use, I know that you use correctional officer, but back in the day they called us "guard". To me it was kind of a badge of honour to be called a guard. It was old school and I just came up with the term 25. "Us" we're both doing time. Murderers would be doing 25 years, so were we.
Voice: So that's what they got when they murdered someone, 25 years?
MacLean: Yes, First Degree murder.
Voice: Did you write this book, or did you have a ghost writer?
MacLean: I wrote it myself.
Voice: How long did it take you to write it?
MacLean: Well, it wasn't a book that I was writing, it was just stories that took two years. When I started off to write it started off as a newsletter and I didn't like the format it was difficult juggling the format around with pages, so I flipped from a newsletter and when I started out it was very angry. So I looked at it and thought 'okay,' and kind of toned down the anger and it just sort of morphed into what it is today.
Voice: Who designed your cover?
MacLean: It was a young lady down at Hallmark promotions. I sort of threw the idea at her and my publisher couldn't quite hit the nail on the head so I just happened to chat with this lady who was designing our golf shirt and she came up with this. So the font: Serving life to 25, represents the crumbling walls of our system and then underneath that we have a blue line drawn and the blood red handcuffs represented the 'blood red fight' to carry handcuffs. We had to take it to court then the guard tower represented out history and that was the case and was the history of guards, regretful staff.
Voice: Have any other guards bought your book?
MacLean: Oh, they've been selling very well. I'm really surprised. It's not selling Hillary Clinton "well", for it's own bit it's sold about 1500 books since it's been out, if you don't go with a traditional publisher, they will get the big sales going, put your book across the country, they'll print thousands and thousands of books and I didn't want to do that. It can take up to two years once you negotiate with a traditional publisher and I didn't really want to sit around for two years and wait. So it's not in the traditional book stores. It's on Amazon, Kindle, Kobo. I just wanted to get my story out. It wasn't about making money or getting copious amounts of books out there it was just telling my story and having some fun talking with officers about the different stories.
Voice: Are sales snowballing or did you think it was going to snowball?
MacLean: They took off far more than I expected them to and I haven't done that much. I have done five months of libraries and guest speaking and a criminology class, lectures. I'll be sitting at the A&W in Agazssiz and someone will come up and say 'hey you know' or I'll be at McDonalds in all the prison towns is where I've been the most successful and right across the country on Amazon focuses in on where you sold your book and what city or what region. so it's been very interesting from that standpoint. My wife's father is ill, so we decided to cancel our Cross-Canada tour for now. We're winding it up now . I've got a couple more presentations to do. The book was well-received by correctional officers because it's down-to-earth and it's in my opinion accurate and it talks about all the events.
Voice: In layman's language so everyone can understand it?
MacLean: Yeah, pretty much. I talked about the nicknames, you know: skinner, Chester the Molester all the nicknames and how it works.
Voice: Were you ever a guard at Kingston?
MacLean: No. I did tours though. My time has been pretty well in the Fraser Valley at Kent, Matsqui, Mission and Mountain.
Voice: Oh, they're all different, Matsqui is different than Mountain?
MacLean: Matsqui is kind of the original general population (GP) prison. Mountain, even though they don't like it, it's kind of like a sex offender protective custody (PC) prison. Of course Kent is the Maximum Security Prison and Mission was another programs-oriented mixture of different populations there.
Voice: You said publishers didn't want to touch this back east. Do you know why that was? I thought you mentioned that when we met that you had too much problems there and had to go publish the book yourself?
MacLean: No. I went too go to the traditional publisher route but I found out there was too many delays, too many controls, and I wanted my own story. They have kind of tendency to swoop in and edit the book the way they want to and no, strictly, the book was done in Victoria and it was a self published book so I had more control over everything.
Voice: You mention US prisons, did you work there?
MacLean: No what I did was part of my not wanting to go crazy with boredom, I came up with these prison tours and I organized prison tours down the West Coast down the US and as I got into my career I toured the world. I went to China and England and Italy, so I saw the different prisons. But down the West Coast, we started with Walla Walla and Neil Island and Pelican Bay and San Quentin and Folsom and Alcatraz and Corcoran Bay and ran into Charlie Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.
Voice: Did you meet those guys?
MacLean: Well, we didn't meet them per se, we walked up to them and they told us to eff off and then they ran back into their cells. So we saw their cells and we learned about them a little bit. Charlie was a jerk.
Voice: You saw the jails in China, how bad were they?
MacLean: They were pretty bad. They're warehousing and no-rights and in a lot of respects family has to being their food into them and if they don't then they don't eat. It's just a tougher environment. Same in the US. The US is warehousing their inmates. At San Quentin they had 4,000 inmates when we were touring down there and we were told that on Monday they were bringing in double the population. Just huge. Huge populations. Up here, we'll have say 400 and down there, there are 4000. And in the federal system we have 14, maybe 15,000 federal prisoners. In California, they have 132,000 state prisoners. So you look at the different populations and you go 'holy cow'. So they do a lot of warehousing and we do a lot of programs.
Voice: So I made note that were were just over 40,000 adult offenders incarcerated in Canada how true do you think that is?
MacLean: I would say that there's federal and provincial inmates on parole so I wouldn't be surprised if it's close to that.
Voice: You say the system is troubled, why is that?
MacLean: Well first of all, we're setup to fail because we're dealing with some of the worst offenders. I mean, one example—without saying any names—an inmate on my caseloads killed his six children and I thought, well, how do you fix that? In my opinion there's nothing to fix that.
Voice: They can't be rehabilitated right?
MacLean: Exactly. We have a contract killer who kills twelve people and then goes out for out for dinner after each event. That's kind of difficult to fix. So it's a troubled system. Also the media doesn't really understand what we do that go and sometimes for "leads" kind of attitude. You know, the Hollywood version of what goes on in prison.
Voice: You say you moved around to different institutions, was that your choice, or did they assign you to new institutions.
MacLean: I started at Kent and I did nineteen and a half years there and I kind of never let the dust settle. I always moved around and took a promotion and took different prisons. So I was always learning, so that was one of the great things. I saw one, two, three, four different prisons as Correctional Officer One (CO 1) and then Correctional Officer Two (CO2) and Correctional Manager level, and Deputy Warden so I had lots of opportunity to learn.
Voice: Well you called this a privileged journey, how come? It's got to be the most dangerous job other than riding around in an army vehicle in Kabul?
MacLean: It was privileged because the money was good, it's a closed environment. Correctional Services of Canada does not open it's doors and tell their stories. They have a tendency of being misquoted or we have bad stories so we don't go running to the media and say "Look what's happened today" because it's usually bad. So to be included in that, to be around to witness it was very exciting for me to see some of the horrendous things that I saw and it's like 'holy cow'.
Voice: Was there any guard killed that you know of?
MacLean: No, I've seen guards assaulted. I've been assaulted, I think every prison guard gets assaulted at differing levels during their career and it can be a very dangerous job. Dynamic security is really big here. We talk with them and try to settle things down.
Voice: Why did you drop the broadcasting? Was the money better?
MacLean: Broadcasting didn't pay very well and corrections started off I think around $23,000 a year so I kind of looked at that and went 'holy cow I hit the mother lode' and the money has always been good. I won't criticize that and a lot of opportunities. I talked with a lot of young recruits and I tell them, 'yes, it has it's bad moments but there's so many opportunities: you can be a CO1 for life or you could be a CO2 you can learn case work, you could become a drug dog handler, you could be a squirrel at the institution, you can go up and be the warden, in fact a commissioner started off as a guard. I think he got his education along the way
Voice: What kind of education do you need?
MacLean: I don't think you have to have much more than a grade 12. So you could go off and do whatever you want to do and they give you the training, give you the opportunities.
Voice: So they put the killers and child molesters apart? The killers don't like the child molesters and the rapists?
MacLean: Well, you can have killers on both sides. You can have your regular garden variety killers, bank robbers, armoured car killers, robbers. That would be the GP inside. They're the stand-up cons. They think they are. Then you have the PC inmates which are the sex offenders, the rapists, the killers of women, the cops and the rats, that kind of thing.
Voice: You got to boss people around all day, did that get to your head? You had the power and because of that, did they threaten you?
MacLean: It wasn't about the power. I think people that went after power usually got in trouble. It's about the responsibility. It's a huge responsibility and you have to learn how to speak properly. I remember yelling at one 'go to your room'. Well that sentence alone, I realized what I had said was too late and it had already gone away, but boy he was pissed because I was treating him like a little child. So you have to be very, careful what you say and how you say it. You have to treat them with respect and you have to be firm. It's a PhD in life studies.
Voice: Well you're confined alone with them sometimes weren't you?
MacLean: Oh yeah. Lots of times. sometimes you have partners. Sometimes the partners go out and do other duties and you're stuck alone. The numbers were smaller but all you need is one inmate who's mad to ruin your day.
Voice: So a rat would be someone who's on the guard's side, is that right, they'd rat people out inside?
MacLean: Oh yeah. If they were found out, their lives could be in danger. A lot of times the inmate will start over on the GP would be your garden variety killer, and then he gets into drugs and then he owes people money so in order to get out of trouble, they'll rat somebody out and then he'll get found out and then he'll have to go PC.
Voice: Do you think there was an excess violence dealing with inmates who went wild? How did you deal with them? Did you use Tasers on them or use pepper spray or anything like that?
MacLean: Oh yeah. We have a range of tools and we have to be cognizant of the range (cell blocks). We would not shoot an inmate for screaming. We might pepper spray him. We have to make sure the crime fits the punishment so to speak. We have handcuffs. We have OC spray. We have guns all over the prison different patrol posts. Most of it is verbal intervention.
Voice: There was a lot of noise I assume. You had that cup thing banging on bars, people yelling and screaming, was that hard to get used to. I guess you're glad to be away from that a now?
MacLean: I'm glad I'm away from it. It's very unnerving when things go sideways. They slam doors and we get behind things because they could get violent in a second and then they start burning (mattresses) and throwing chairs. We have several layers of security. We have an office door. We have a fire door. We have cell doors. So we have an ability to lock the place down very quickly. We're in danger's way but we always have a lot of safeguards. A lot of weapons that are overlooking our shoulders.
Voice: How do you break up fights? Do you pepper spray them. You want to go home at the end of the day in one piece?
MacLean: Yeah. We don't normally go running into a fight because they could have shanks (sharp weapons) on them. We'll use warning shots. We'll use deadly force. We don't use pepper spray from a distance.
Voice: Deadly force, you mean shot with a gun?
MacLean: Yeah. We have guns all over the place in the prisons. It's actually quite amazing, everywhere you look. If you ever take a tour of a prison, every corner you walk down at one end there's a gun post, at the other end there's a gun post. You walk out into the courtyard and there's a gunwalk up top overlooking and if you go inside the units there's a bubble in there with a gun. So there's guns everywhere.
Voice: Did you ever guard women convicts?
Voice: I asked you this when I met you, there's guys that want to be in there, they want to be in jail, is that right?
MacLean: I think there are. The difference between the provincial system and the federal system we get the bad bad guys that are doing longer sentences. The provincial system is two years. So you're going to get impaired drivers, drug users. When you hit the federal system, that's when you hit the really bad guys. The gangs and the drug dealers, and the murderers. So it's different. I don't want to put our provincial system down but in part dealing with a lot of garbage. It's not a matter of if there's going to be a murder, or if there's going to be a fight, it's just a matter of when.
Voice: You always worked in federal institutions?
Voice: Did inmates ask to be in solitary confinement?
MacLean: Oh yeah. That's an interesting phrase, solitary confinement. We don't have solitary confinement in Canada. That's a misnomer that the media has run with. We have segregation. We have disciplinary segregation and if you think of what is solitary confinement, you can look to Hollywood. Have ever toured Alcatraz?
Voice: Not other than the Burt Lancaster movie.
MacLean: Yeah, well a good example. Alcatraz has solitary confinement. They have two doors to a cell. It's completely dark. You're given bread and water and virtually no time out of your cell. That's what solitary confinement is all about. In segregation in Canada, you can have a job on the tier. You can be the tier cleaner. You can take your educational studies in your cell you could have a TV set. You get out for one hour of fresh air. You can also get out and clean your cell. You can go do a laundry. You have your meals delivered to you. They follow the food guide.
So this whole image of solitary confinement is kind of a a misnomer because everyone thinks we have solitary confinement in Canada. We haven't' had it since 1980. There's only a few prisons that have the cells but they're not in use. It's just a media think. Even in court challenges it blows me away. Lawyers are talking solitary confinement, we don't have it. An inmate can go into seg (segregation) anytime he wants and he can leave—there's some restrictions on when they leave it but they get phone calls, they get legal visits, medical visits, they get handcuffed and they get taken down to the visits and correspondents behind glass. So it's really unfair to a system when we talk about solitary confinement versus seg. A lot of the inmates run to seg because they sit around and they play cards and then they gamble and then they can't pay their debt.
Voice: What do they gamble with? Cigarettes or something?
MacLean: Stuff from the canteen, chips, cheezies, sexual favours.
Voice: What about these transsexuals? Were they a commodity in there?
A. Of course. Of course. They would be be doing favours and they were being forced to do stuff and it was very tragic when you see a transsexual go through.
Voice: Were they put into GP?
A. Normally. We did have some. We had one lady who was quite hilarious....
Voice: They have to work in order to buy stuff from the canteen. Chocolate bars, cheezies and whatever, what do they work at?
A. They have a wide range of jobs from being a tier cleaner to a kitchen worker. Corcan which is contract work for tee shirts, underwear, they get a little bit more money. They range from zero pay too $6.90 a day and that has to pay for a bunch of stuff.
Voice: So they can add it all up and have $30 at the end of the week for things from the canteen?
A. Yeah and they buy all kinds of junk. In a lot of respects they're like children and they'll go buy a bag of cheezies and chocolate bars. Some of them will eat them, some of them will trade them away.
Voice: They're allowed to smoke in there?
MacLean: Not any more. They haven't for a few years now.
Voice: So these guys are arrested and they're going through withdrawal. Did you have some kind of harm reduction program there?
MacLean: No harm reduction but yeah, we'd get them from withdrawal from drugs and we've got them for withdrawal from tobacco. Tobacco has become the new currency and they drop it in, they smuggle it in, they fly it in with a drone, they hollow out a dead bird and they put drugs in they and they throw the dead bird over the fence. There's all kinds of alternative ways they bring stuff in.
Some would be in assessment for 2-3 months. So by the time they came to use, they were either off the drugs or settled into routine. But a lot them go on the Methadone program so that kind of settles them down a little bit.
Voice: How about suicide. Was that a big deal? Was there a lot of guys doing it?
MacLean: Yeah. I wouldn't say a lot. Christmas time. Lots of troubled souls who couldn't take it and would kill themselves.
Voice: What about seniors? Guys in their 70s?
MacLean: Oh yeah. At one point we had a seniors division because the population was getting older and older. We had one guy I think he was 84-years-old. Just a nice old man. He had guns and bad things. So if you get convicted when you're 60 and you're doing life then you're going to be in jail for a long time. There's still the young punks. We have a good selection of older people as well.
Voice: Are they allowed to listen to the radio, read newspapers, watch TV and anything like that?
MacLean: Oh yeah. They have TV's, not so much radios. Now that you mention that I can't really say radios. It was more TVs and they can visit each other on different tiers. They go to different social things at night. They go to school in the daytime. They can be a gardener. They can take their grade ten and get paid for it, and they play baseball games at night, work out in the gym.
Voice: What about the internet? Do they have access to that?
MacLean: No. A lot of these inmates will abuse a privilege and can you imagine a sex offender or a pedophile getting on the internet?
Voice: I wondered about that and thought that maybe they had some sort of parental controls or something like that?
MacLean: We've never allowed it. As you go down, you go from a maximum to a medium to a minimum, you have a tendency of adding more privileges. When you're working say at Mission minimum, they, can actually go out during the day on a pass down to the mall, they can go to a movie but they have to work their way down there, and you see this all the time. A killer start his time off at 15-20 years later he's worked himself down to a minimum. People are shocked that they have a killer out. But they have to behave. They have to take programs. They have to show that they are learning, if they aren't they don't go.
Voice: Did you ever hear about women meeting prisoners and marrying them?
MacLean: Oh, absolutely. One of the stories in my book is about Greg Williams. Did a pen pal with a lady in England at some point she sold all her antiques, came over here to Kent and was killed during a Private Family Visits (PFV)...
In my book I a talk about a situation at a Christmas social where a convict, with all kinds around, and he stabbed a woman 28 times and she survived so that's in there and quite a few details about that. One of the stories I like to talk about was the near-sighting of Elvis aka Morris Bates...
Voice: You talk about some escapes in your book, without getting into the details, were there any guys who tried to scale and were shot?
MacLean: No, not at Kent. We had a con in the box escape. That was a pretty cool story. So that was a very interesting a tragic story. We've had guys cut the fence line and get through, the helicopter escape. The box escape we had three of them at Kent...
Voice: How many chopper escapes have you had?
MacLean: One. Kent was the first one in 1990 and then I think they had one in Quebec a few years ago. The helicopter escape was probably the biggest story in my book. A neat thing is—and I say this cautiously—have the time or the column space or to really delved into a story. They tell their 750 words and they do the best job they can. What I've done is I've got a lot of the reports "Freedom of Information" requests, my personal memory, interviewing retired officers and i got a lot of the little tales that make a story a little bit more interesting because I had more time and more space to tell the story.
Voice: What's a "goof" is that a guard?
MacLean: No. It can't be (laughing). A 'goof' is a term kind of strangely, I could never understand it. In the US for example the word "goof" means absolutely nothing. If I called you a goof, you'd think it was something like stupid, or that he's an idiot. But in prison, a 'goof' can get you killed. That usually means low-life sex offender deviant. So if you want to call someone a really nasty name in prison, you'd call them a goof. It's actually dangerous.
Voice: What's a Motorola slap is that when you hit someone with a radio?
MacLean: What happened was there was an inmate coming back...it was my first proof that I can do the job...
Voice: I read on your website about a cemetery. Is that on the grounds at Kent?
MacLean: That's at the BC Pen...
Voice: The BC Pen, isn't it closed?
MacLean: It was closed in 1980. It's in New Westminster. You can still go down there and you can and see the main gate and they have different things that are still there. They have a monument. They have the old town bell and the BC Pen cemetery. I got involved in a committee as a Chairman. There's approximately 48 inmates buried there...
Voice: If an inmate dies in prison does he go there?
MacLean: No. What happens is that he would be released to local authorities and family picked him up and if nobody claimed him it would just be life if nobody claimed a homeless person and they'd be cremated.
Voice: Were there any mass escapes or riots at the BC Pen?
MacLean: Yes. That's what caused the closure of the BC pen was just riot after riot. The Mary Steinhauser incident is in the book. The neat thing about the book is that I interview a lot of key players and talked to a lot of sources and I just had the freedom to just do my research. So for me, there's a lot of detail in the book. Talking to Mary Steinhouser's sister and talking to some of the old guards that worked there and doing research and getting a report. So there was lots of different avenues to get this information. It was very interesting to go online and do some research and follow up with people...
Voice: What's the Kent Triathlon? I see you have a tee shirt there?
MacLean: That's the run climb and slide. Take off at the San Francisco Alcatraz tee for the run, the climbing the fence.
Voice: Drugs. How did they get in there?
MacLean: They got in there from the visitors suitcasing them in their rectum or such. They brought them back out or bring them in. They would throw them over the fence. Run up to the tree line and when the mobile (patrol vehicle) would go by and throw it over and hopefully the next day they world come by and pick up the drugs...
Voice: What about guards? If a guard did it, it may be to get the prisoners to back off?
MacLean: I don't understand why anybody would do it but sometimes they did it because they were pressured, they were threatened with violence and sometimes they were just stupid and it happens all over the world. It didn't happen as often with us, but it did happen...
Voice: You get checked when you go in, don't you?
MacLean: Oh yeah. We have a metal detector. We have a frisk search that we go through everybody's bags.
Voice: When you go through as a guard in the morning, what sort of thing happens there?
MacLean: They have the same: metal detectors. We will run it through the metal detector and if anything pops up, just like the airline. We have a drug machine and we do samples but we run it through the x-ray machine, then we run it through the metal detector and if it pops up, we'll open up the suitcase or whatever they're brining in their backpack, briefcase but that doesn't stop them from coming in you can e ar something on your jacket and we wouldn't catch it .
Voice: Do you have a drug-sniffing dog?
MacLean: We have dogs and when they're on duty they will sit when they smell drugs but that's usually used for visitors and inmates coming in.
Voice: Did you have bands, music, people going through there?
MacLean: Not really, no. We have back in the day we had some in BC Pen. Folsom had Johnny Cash.
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