After the hearing, my mother and I sat in the breakout room across the table from the Parole Board of Canada’s Communications Officer, a gentle woman who had escorted us through the process.
Next door in the boardroom, two parole board members, both highly skilled in risk assessment, were deciding on the outcome of three applications made by one incarcerated man, the man who brutally murdered my father in the middle of the night, in my family’s home, when I was eleven years old.
“Do you think he’ll get it?” my mother asked. “Oh, I hope he does.”
I knew what she meant: she hoped he had improved enough that he could reintegrate into society, be a productive member. I too hoped that my father’s meaningless death would at least open up space for this offender to become a different man. Different than the twenty-three year-old who broke into my home to steal something.
One could hope.
“He’ll get the first two applications,” I said to my mother. I reasoned that his request for work releases and visits with his counsellor would be supported; it seemed a logical extension from what had been granted at previous hearings. “But he won’t get day parole,” I said. That was too much of a leap.
Isn’t parole parole? I’d asked myself years before, wondering about differences between escorted and unescorted temporary absences, day and full parole. As a registered victim of violent crime, I felt that I had to learn these terms, learn what was happening to the person who destroyed my world. Each year, as we came closer to the twenty-fifth anniversary of his incarceration, I learned more.
That day, I sat at the hexagon-shaped table in that stark multi-purpose breakout room. I took in the locked cabinets, the bright prairie sun of Drumheller shining through the window, the therapy posters hung on the walls and thought about the series of questions the parole board officers had asked at the hearing, along with the offender’s responses.
“Why did you go toward the noise upstairs instead of leaving the house?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why did you pick up the kitchen knife?”
“I don’t know.”
My gut wrenched as I heard the unforthcoming and unprepared responses. I listened to his high-pitched voice and realized, once again, that there may never be answers.
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to leave the house with something.”
He did leave my house with something. And at every parole hearing, each time I saw him sitting with his back to me, I stared at his forearms placed on top of the table, the hand that held that fateful knife, the back of his balding, closely-shaved head, and his running shoes firmly planted on the floor. Each time I saw him, I was reminded that he was here and my father was not. It was a certain resignation where, in his presence, I would slowly close my eyes, lower my head, and say to myself, “You’re okay. You’re just here to witness.”
“Do you think he’ll get it?” my mother asked again.
“He doesn’t have a good enough plan.” I said. “He needs a social worker in there.”
I was disappointed. I assumed there would be people to help him through this predictable application process. And then I laughed at myself. I was sitting in a prison, wishing the man who murdered my father had better support.
“Don’t you think it’s a little absurd that we’re advocating for his release?” I asked my mother. “He murdered dad.”
But I did sit there hoping that he could better explain himself next time, let down that our collective tax dollars seemed to be housing him, funding parole application hearings, but not actually rehabilitating him. Rather, it seemed as though we were all just riding out the sentence’s terms.
“Tell us,” the parole board members had said in the hearing, in and amongst their hours of questions. “What do you think are the long term effects of the crime on your victims?”
I didn’t like how, implied in their questions, we were his possession, his victims. This was the first and not the last time I wanted to speak up, to ask them to reflect on their syntax and the consequences for my identity.
“He’s not there for Christmas,” the offender paused. “Or birthdays.” Full stop.
My heart sank and I wanted to interrupt the questioning. How about the fact that I cannot contribute to my father’s life? That I can’t go to him for advice? That he can’t hold my future babies and teach them everything he knows. I could feel the questions almost leap out of my mouth. Indignation rose in my body and I wanted to yell. But I was not allowed to speak unless I had given them a vetted Victim Impact Statement one month before, a statement that would have left no room for my new questions, let alone a conversation. How unfair that he could see my words in advance but I could not see his. No, I must sit there against a wall. I must not disrupt the proceedings, lest I wished to be removed. And so I sat, silent, waiting to be somewhere else where I could be heard and they continued their questions.
“What will you do if released on day parole?”
“I think I’ll go to Calgary,” he said, tentatively.
“Do you know anyone there?”
“Maybe I’ll contact a friend of my family’s.”
“Have you contacted them already?”
“Then what will you do in Calgary?”
He couldn’t respond.
“Calgary?” I said to my mother in the breakout room. “Why didn’t he say Drumheller?”
I couldn’t imagine why he’d go back to the city of his crime and not stay in the town where the prison is located, where he’d developed job and volunteer connections, where he’d made friendships with people willing to give him a second chance. I needn’t have worked in social services my entire adult life to know that his responses weren’t going to slide. They hadn’t prepared him for his release, hadn’t helped him answer the most predictable of questions.
“I wonder if he’ll get it,” my mother said yet again, thankfully interrupting the train of questions that circled my mind.
“It wasn’t a good enough plan,” I responded. “They won’t approve it.”
The Communications Officer escorted us back to the boardroom where we listened to the decision. The unescorted temporary absences – for work and counselling – were approved. But sure enough, his application for day parole was denied.
As they finished up the proceedings, I wasn’t quite sure what I was more disillusioned by: that he continued to not understand the gravity of his crime; that the prison hadn’t helped rehabilitate this woefully unprepared man; or that I didn’t speak up, despite being told I was not allowed to.
So I sat there, stroking my left hand with my right thumb, waiting for the moment I could leave, go to a place where I could speak again.