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Poetic justice

Book provides creative outlet for aboriginal inmates at local correctional facility

Dorian Geiger
The Sheaf (University of Saskatchewan)

SASKATOON (CUP) –– It’s rare that people can tap into the artistic dimensions of a prison inmate’s mind.

Now Creative Escape: Stories and Art from Prison, a publication from the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre, is altering this reality.

Creative Escape began in 2010 as a writing contest for aboriginal and Métis inmates at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre. Since then, its contributions have been transformed into a 27-page booklet of vibrant writing and art.

The content ranges from the harsh street life of Saskatoon – drugs, violence, and gangs – to the sorrows associated with being locked away from loved ones.

Given the colourful array of artists the contest has unearthed, SPCC First Nations and Métis community and cultural co-ordinator Diann Block says she is planning to make Creative Escape an annual publication.

“They can be honest on paper and get their feelings out,” said Block. “I encourage the men to journal as well. It’s hard for many of them, as there is no personal privacy. Projects like this give the men positive recognition – they are used to only getting negative recognition.”

“7 Eleven Stranded,” a poem by inmate-writer Cory Cardinal, was the contest’s first place winner. Cardinal presents his work through the eyes of a homeless panhandler outside a bustling Saskatoon 7-Eleven.

“I long to sit / At the table of plenty / And eat the delectable food / Of wellbeing / I crave for a drag / From the cigarette of happiness,” Cardinal writes.

The striking juxtapositions in the next stanza are the most poignant component of his work.

“Instead … I pick the butts of anger / And grind passers for change / So I can phone / Pride my only friend / But only depression is home / And hangs up on my only call.”

Reached via email from the SPCC last week, Cardinal said his contributions to Creative Escape “came from the worst time in my life but brought the absolute best out of me.” Cardinal describes himself as “a poetic street soldier who has triumphed over the toilsome gutter of street life.”

“Right now my life is very turbulent. I am a very transient individual. I struggle with a lot of dysfunctions; my writing is a reflection of that. Deep, painful, poetic,” added Cardinal.

There is more to Cardinal’s background than just a life of crime – he’s also a talented, resilient writer.

Prominent aboriginal authors Maria Campbell, Tomson Highway and a myriad of others overcame similarly difficult circumstances in their literary journeys. Cardinal could very likely fall into this category too.

The momentum behind Creative Escape has been mounting; the work has even found its way into the hands of Saskatchewan’s minister of justice. In the isolated setting that engulfs Cardinal, prison bars weren’t enough to keep the buzz surrounding the project out of ears’ reach.

“I am surprised it got the reaction it did. I was hearing about [Creative Escape] from Prince Albert to Regina.”

Cardinal’s poetic voice is one of many featured in Creative Escape. Illustrations of wildlife also nicely complement the poetry. A series of hand-sketched portraits depicting a dazzling female stranger locking eyes with a male companion are among the most moving of the book’s art.

Block believes Creative Escape is of paramount importance. The initiative diminishes the stereotype labeling the inmates as one-dimensional, immoral individuals. Creative Escape personifies their existence amidst a justice system that has forgotten them.

“The general public need to see inmates as people, not just as cons. We have so many talented writers, artists, craftsmen, etc. in our centre, each with a unique story to tell,” added Block.

The SPCC has begun a lending library and currently Block is trying to recruit experienced writers and poets to come work with inmates directly. Block is optimistic the program will see considerable growth in years to come.

“I would love to see a project like this at all of our adult and young offender facilities in Saskatchewan and across Canada,” she added.

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