We continued our conversation.
Since he had been in prison for so long, steeped in the criminal culture, he could answer questions about the nature of someone who would murder our daughter better than any one else had been able to so I persisted. Finally he said. "I know what you need. You need to meet my friends in the Lifer's lounge - people who are serving life sentences."
I agreed. The date was set. I drove to Stony Mountain Institution.
Rene was already at the security desk – waiting nervously, as I knew he would be. I was processed quickly – much more quickly than usual. Staff all seemed to be aware of Rene. He had a unique authority in prison.
Then I went down the hallway. My eyes were on Rene, following him. I had no idea where we were going…. I expected to enter into the dome that would lead us to the prison cell area. Instead, we took a side door, a nondescript door, down a flight of stairs that opened to a large room.
It felt like a lounge – minus a well-supplied bar. There was a counter for coffee and refreshments in a room of chairs and sofas. Through the one door, I could see a pool table and through other, weights for training.
I was invited to sit on a chair as the lifers sat down on the sofas and chairs around me.
That’s when I noticed the escort guards leave through a side door. I felt alone – very alone.
Rene sat directly opposite – positioned himself so that he could see both my face and all the faces of the lifers. He introduced me and reassured me that I was safe in that lifers’ room – probably safer than I had ever been. Then he gave a short description of why the meeting had been planned.
Rene then turned to me. “This is the one rule. You can ask any question you want from any one of the guys - and they have promised me they will answer."
I was ready with my answers but I stalled, there were two men sitting behind me. “I hope you don’t mind,” I said, “but I would really like these two gentlemen sitting behind me to join the circle – so they will be included.”
Slowly – very slowly – they got up and moved their chairs into the circle. It was a big African American and his rather quiet sidekick.
Rene smiled. “Thank you, guys! And I want to congratulate you, Wilma – not just anyone can move those guys.”
The group broke into nervous laughter.
My first question was: What did you do? In other words, I was asking them for their prison ID. What were they in for?
They said that it was generally against their code of anonymity in prison to respond, but they would do it for me.
The Lifers' president started. “Believe it or not, I am falsely accused. I didn’t kill the man I was accused of killing.”
“Then you aren’t a lifer?” I asked. Thinking – this is great. Here I am with these convicted lifers, and they are all going to deny that they killed someone. It’s going to be one huge denial – and what is the purpose of that?
“No, I’m not a lifer. But I am a member here because I was convicted of murder – and I have often wanted to kill someone. I understand killing.”
The next to speak was a young Indigenous man who said he had killed his common-law wife. He explained that he had come from a violent background, and thought he needed a gun to protect himself, and was surprised that he had used it in a rage.
Next to him was a man who said that when his companion abused and hurt his two-month-old daughter, he flew into a rage. He didn’t know why – but in therapy realized that he had been abused as a child and was really killing all of those who had abused him. He couldn’t make it out in the world – he was institutionalized. He deliberately drank so he could come back to prison to be in his comfort zone. He had been in prison for 25 years.
Next was a good-looking, young, Romeo-type man who said he had killed his wife in broad daylight – a brutal killing on a prominent street in Winnipeg – because he felt that his wife was making out with a friend.
Then there was an Asian man, with glasses, who said he had been suffering depression because his marriage of 13 years had failed, and he had set fire to his in-law’s house, badly burning the family – and killing one. He had been picked up by the police the very next day. Everyone knew….
Then there was an exceptionally friendly man with a small frame. He said that he was a survivor who had lived on the street and had fallen in with drug dealers to survive. He had entered into prison because of drugs. But once inside, he had fought to belong. When someone called him a goon, his honor was at stake and he killed the man. His second killing was in keeping with the first. He didn’t know that he had options. He didn’t know that he could walk away from an insult.
The next was a balding, American soldier-type. He said that he had killed his best friend when they had fought over a woman in a bar. There had never been any intention to kill, but the anger had escalated so that when his friend pulled out a weapon, he killed his friend in self-defense. It probably could have been a tossup as to who would have been killed – he had just been the better fighter because of his training in the army.
Then there was an African American man – the one who had not wanted to sit in the circle. He said that he couldn’t look at himself for six months after he had killed a man – except to wash his face. He was in because of a drug-related killing. He said that he was too proud to commit suicide so he hurt and killed others instead.
Then there was a studious-looking man who said that his entire family were teachers, and he had never fit in. It was a strong, patriarchal family where everyone was assumed to be strong. Keep the family happy and never show anger. He hadn’t been strong. He had never shown any anger – and then he had, in a fit of rage, killed his wife.
I counted them - there were ten men in the room, including Rene. These were men who had killed, men who had wanted to kill, and men who had tried but failed.
A long time ago – eleven years before – I had admitted to wanting to avenge Candace’s death and kill ten murderers – now I had met them. I had sat with ten violent men, and I had not wanted to kill any of them.
In fact, I felt something akin to compassion.
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”- Henri J.M. Nouwen