On the Mediocrity of the CBC   6 comments

Mike Erhmantraut Reflects on a Violent Criminal, and What Should Have Happened to Him…


“That’s so CBC – unbelievably mediocre.”

– Laurel R. Bauchman

Monday afternoon, about 2 weeks back… a bit after 2, finished my first guitar lesson in about 6 weeks thanks to the endless stream of confounded interruptions that is life. 54 years old and beginning to learn to play the guitar — be able to pick it up, chord along to a singer, learn some rock’n’roll and jazz licks, eventually become reasonably good at it, and thus, since that’s one long-term goal among others, when someone comes into my shop with a damaged guitar, I’ll be able to fix it, or at least refer them to someone who really can — as opposed to thinks they can…

Or even attain the Holy Grail of guitar playing: Be able to do the chord thing for a singalong at a party. Even if I am getting a bit wrinkled for parties.

I was never very good with parties. But I digress…

As I was saying.. A very pleasant Monday afternoon, guitar lesson done, off to the music store to get strings before heading home to the next broken horn, I turned on CBC because it’s been a staple of my life since I was 14… The “Calgary Bubblegum Company” (as my departed bro-in-law Eric Richard scathingly put it many years ago) bravely soldiers on, despite cutback after cutback upon cutback… and my ears were greeted with Ideas in the Afternoon; their latest intellectual consideration: A documentary entitled “Alone Inside”, written and presented by one Brett Story, all about The Evils of Solitary Confinement, and I listened, in the idle sort of way one does when one is driving down a pleasant rural road, more-or-less alone with one’s thoughts…

What follows is two weeks consideration of that documentary later…

Paul: “I’m Paul Kennedy and this is Ideas. Before her suicide Ashley Smith was shuttled between 17 different prisons and treatment centres. And she spent 27 months in segregation units: The modern equivalent of solitary confinement…”

Story goes how Ashley hanged herself at age 19, a young woman spiralling out of control; the guards stood by while watching her do it on Closed Circuit Television. Ghastly story altogether, but it served merely as a segue to the body of the documentary, and the testimony of people such as Susan Rosenberg, Gregory McMaster and Jack Henry Abbott…

One other thing though? Bitter medicine time, and something psychologists and psychiatrists don’t like to talk about, since — after all — it’s always someone else’s fault:

Ashley had choices. She took them. She was 14 when this mess began, but in most traditional cultures — even in the West, not so very long ago — 14 is considered “adult”; in any event that’s certainly old enough to know better, and to know right from wrong.

And to ask for help.

She didn’t do that though. She consistently made the worst decisions at every turn and in the end…

Thus, we come to the first of our individuals really under consideration:

Susan Rosenberg

Susan: “If one thinks about being locked in your bathroom, where you have a bathroom, and you can never go anywhere – that is the extent of your life. With only hostile and negative interactions with someone on the other side of the door who hates you, and is feeding you, or telling you “no.” That’s a beginning approximation of what it’s like, to be in solitary confinement. The size of the cell may differ — but it’s big enough for a bed, with a toilet and maybe a sink on top of the toilet. And that’s it. 7 paces one way, 5 the other… it’s all white.. It’s all brick… there’s nothing else there… it’s usually cold.”

Brett: “In 1984 US political activist Susan Rosenberg was sentenced for 58 years for possession of explosives. It was the longest ever sentence for that charge. Prior to her arrest she had been involved with political struggles against US military aggression and in support of Black and Puerto Rican liberation. She served nearly 17 years before her sentence was commuted by President Clinton in 2001.”

Susan: “Out of that time I spent the first 11 years in either lockdown, small group isolation, solitary confinement or maximum security custody.”

Brett: “In her memoir An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country she described how she spent four of those years, in a newly constructed, high-security unit. An isolation unit built in the basement of a women’s prison in Lexington, KY. She and another woman were held in solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, because of their radical political beliefs.”


Susan: “It was a prison within a prison, a 16 cell unit – all white. Had to walk down multiple steps to get into it – it was kind of like a morgue. There were cameras everywhere, electronic gates everywhere, lights on, 24 hours a day. To get to the area where there were showers you had to go through several gates, and I was there with one other woman for the first three months the prison was in operation, and we were never allowed out of our cells without being handcuffed and chained – even to pass through one electronic gate after another to get into the shower area which was behind a locked gate. I lost 20 pounds in that unit.”

“We began to not be able to see, we began to have this White Vision kind of blindness – where you never see past 6 feet, and what you see is white, you literally lose the capacity to see colour, and it has a very big impact on your — literally — your vision.”

Brett: “Solitary confinement didn’t just have an effect on Susan Rosenberg’s body, it increasingly took a psychological toll:”

Susan: “You spend all your time trying to keep your mind going — if you have a book, if you get a letter, that really helps.”

“But if you can paint or draw — have anything to occupy your mind — or else you go blank.. And you sleep  or you know, you ask for psychotropic drugs, so you can just.. Drain away the hours. It’s an endless suffering, that has no meaning. There is no way to access meaning, as a human being, in that situation.”

Quite a story. Excuse me while I go tune up my violin. And I’d kinda like to know how many artists shipped to Birkenau were allowed to bring their watercolors with them…

That said, compare this story of The Evils of Solitary Confinement in your minds, Gentle Readers, to stories about the Soviet gulag or Nazi concentration camps or even contemporary third world prisons: You’re housed. You’re clothed. You’re able to stay clean. There are no vermin — apart perhaps, from the other prisoners. You have access to doctors and dentists. You’re fed, reasonably well. Sure, your freedom has been taken from you. You’re forced to wear chains outside of your cell or when being transported. But: It is a prison, not a spa resort. It is meant to be a place of punishment. It is not meant to be pleasant. It is the kind of place the average person has enough sense to know to take some trouble to avoid winding up in, and, in a democratic country, it’s actually fairly easy to do this: Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal; don’t hurt other people, avoid the people who do do these things, I can almost guarantee you’ll never wind up in prison, let alone Solitary.

And, may I point out, ever so gently, it’s not as if the Gestapo broke down Susan’s front door at 3 o’clock in the morning to place her, an innocent victim, into Solitary Confinement, because she was a target. Also, while I imagine the FBI (which did arrest her) is likely not the most benevolent group of people either (it is after all a police force) it is not the Gestapo, it is not the KGB; if they’re looking for you, it’s because you brought it on yourself, not because the government is out to get you.

So it was in Susan’s case, when I read up on it:

  • Brett neglected to mention that at the time of her arrest, Susan had not merely “been on the lam” for two years, she was also, for those two years, on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List”.
  • Or that she’d been involved for much of the ’60s and ’70s — while I can barely remember those heady days, they were something — involved with groups like The Black Panthers and Black Liberation.
  • Brett also kinda forgot, I guess, to mention that “the supply of explosives” was in fact, 740 pounds of dynamite.
  • She also glossed over the fact at the time of arrest, Susan was in possession of a cache of assault rifles as well.
  • Brett didn’t mention, that although Susan wasn’t tried, she was accused, of driving the getaway car from the robbery of a Brinks truck in 1981, during which two police officers and an armored-car guard were killed.
  • Nor that Susan was sought after, as an accomplice in the 1979 prison escape of one Assata Shakur.

Can’t quite put my finger on it, but for some reason I think these factoids are germane to our consideration of why she was sentenced to 58 years imprisonment, and wound up in solitary confinement.

Could the judge who sentenced her have been some ugly Anti-Semitic White Supremacist Asshole, who was out to make an example of her and acting with vindictive malice?

Or is it, as I more rather suspect, being very likely in possession said factoids, being moreover a sober and restrained professional, he/she was thinking of the need to place an individual with a demonstrated track record of dangerously irresponsible behaviour somewhere she wasn’t so likely to hurt anyone? And that her jailors were thinking the same thing?

Could be.

Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about Susan’s colleague Assata:

“… is an African-American activist and escaped convict … In May 1973, Shakur was involved in a shootout …  during which New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster … [was] killed… Between 1973 and 1977, Shakur was … charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, and kidnapping …. she was convicted of the first-degree murder of Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the shootout. In 2013, the FBI announced it had made Shakur the first woman on its list of Most Wanted Terrorists.”

Just the sort of girl you’d like to bring home and introduce to Mom, eh?

I’m inclined to think Susan Rosenberg presenting herself as a “Political Prisoner” is about on a par with Karla Homolka presenting herself as an “Innocent Victim”.

And also, like far too many people who manage to get into positions of influence or notoriety or somehow gain the public’s attention, Susan is a manipulator whose only real talent is for Self-Promotion.

Susan had choices, she took them.

*   *   *

We are presented with our next poster child in the CBC’s documentary on The Evils of Solitary Confinement.

Greg McMaster

Brett: “Inmates who have experienced long term isolation can be reluctant to revisit those experiences. But others, like Greg McMaster, have written publicly about what that confinement is like.  In 1999 The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons published his award-winning essay, called “Hole Time.”

Greg: “My name is Greg McMaster, I’ve been incarcerated since the age of 21 – life sentences from both the United States and Canada. I’m 56 years old, I’ve been incarcerated for the last 35 years.”

Brett: “Greg McMaster is serving time for killing 4 men in 1978, including an American police officer. He spent a total of 7 years in segregation, most of them in the US.”

Greg: “A day in segregation is extremely long. You’re woken up with a food tray or a bag lunch at your cell door, 7:30 in the morning. Each day seems to take a week to pass, sometimes it’s lights out at 10 o’clock at night, and you have nothing to distract yourself, nothing to occupy your time. You do a lot of thinking, a lot of fantasizing, you take incredible journeys in your mind — You’re constantly striving, for anything to trick yourself.. I walked to Boston, from Minnesota, in my cell. I figured out how many miles it was, how many footsteps in a mile, and pacing back and forth in my cell every day, I would count the steps. I walked to Boston, in my mind!”

“Some guys collect bugs. A spider crawls across the floor, you pick him up. He’s entertainment. I had a collection of 22 dead bugs, hanging from my cell bars. It was like Executioner’s Row for insects; and when the guards finally made me take it down I reflected I must have been really screwed up that month… I thought this was entertaining…”

“But it’s what you do… In my mind, I’m demonstrating, this environment you have me locked away in — I’m in the deepest darkest dungeon on the planet” (Obviously not nearly deep nor dark enough) “and — there’s 22 different kind to bugs coming here to visit me!”

“That’s the depravity, of the filth, the degradation of it all — That’s my biggest company, is bugs…”

Brett: “When I asked him how he endured his isolation, Greg explained how his complicated relationship to anger, even hate, was a necessary mental crutch.”

Greg: “Hate gives you something to live for. When you’ve lost everything else, friends, family, normal prison environment, whatever that might be, you’re in a solitary cell, you’re reaching for something to grasp onto — you grab onto HATE, and it festers within you… But for me, at least, it served a purpose: It kept me alive. It kept me sane in my darkest hours.”  

*   *   *

“Greg McMaster is serving time for killing 4 men in 1978.” Brett just mentions it in passing. No big deal. Girlfriend had just dumped him and took all their money and then his car broke down. Bad day on a camping trip, eh? Everyone’s entitled to blow their stack occasionally?

  • She didn’t mention how he’d had a criminal record for break-ins and robbery and drunkenness and drug abuse in his teens and early 20s.
  • Didn’t mention either that his killing of four men was during a rampage that lasted  over 6 days, as he roamed a substantial chuck of south-central Canada and north-central America, and two of the four people he murdered, he shot eleven times each…
  • Also seems to me I read somewhere on the Internet (can’t find it now of course), Greg had beaten up his girlfriend just before she dumped him.
  • Paul Cook, former Police Chief of North Bay, ON, sees Greg McMaster as a cold-blooded killer who knows how to work Canada’s human rights laws to his advantage. “I was around (McMaster) for years, and I never once saw one trace of remorse — ever,” Cook says. “It was all about Greg McMaster, and it continues to be.”

As an article from The Toronto Sun amply demonstrated:

“Multiple murderer Gregory McMaster is known to those who’ve followed his 33 years behind bars as an astute, litigious convict, always ready to take a legal fight to his captor’s doorstep. More recently, however, McMaster, 54, has waged his battles in the courts, twice filing lawsuits against Corrections Canada, claiming his rights had been violated while in the Fenbrook medium-security prison near Gravenhurst.”

“McMaster came out with money in his pocket on both occasions.”

“Late last month he was awarded an-out-of-court settlement from Corrections Canada after arguing that jail guards put his safety at risk by circulating a newspaper article to other inmates that referred to him as a ‘serial killer.’ ”

“McMaster was also successful three years ago after complaining that prison officials didn’t provide him with adequate running shoes for a knee injury he sustained in 2004.”

“Before that, when he was first brought to Canada for trial in 1993 — after 15 years in the U.S. prison system — he tried suing for the way he was being handcuffed.”

What the Hell was all that?

I’d really like to know: What was Brett thinking, when she gave this manipulative, murderous, psychopathic piece of filth, a bully pulpit from which to browbeat me — and you — on The Evils of Solitary Confinement? Shut up, Greg, and crawl back in your hole where you belong and may you never see the light of day again: You had choices, you took them.

*   *   *

Thirdly, and lastly we come, to our Shining Star, on The Evils of Solitary Confinement:

Jack Henry Abbott

Brett: “A common theme in the writing of inmates who have experienced long term isolation, is the feeling of being buried alive, as if they have fundamentally disappeared into a state of non-existence.”

“Canadian Lisa Gunther is a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She also facilitates a weekly philosophy discussion group with prisoners on death row, all of whom have experienced at least 2 1/2 years of segregation. She has found their experiences resonate with the writings of other isolated prisoners.”

Lisa: “One prisoner whose writing I have learned a lot from is Jack Henry Abbot, and he wrote a book called In the Belly of the Beast. Jack describes solitary confinement as an alteration of his relation to space and time. It goes that deep. He says that solitary confinement can alter the ontological make up of a stone.”

“That was one of the first lines that I read about solitary confinement that really compelled me to think about it. How is it that putting someone in a concrete box can not only alter their sense of themselves but alter the being of the very stone walls that enclose them from their perspective. How can it alter the being of the world?”

Brett: “She wrote a book” (Don’t they always?) “called Solitary Confinement – Social Death and its Afterlives [in which] she applies her perspective as a philosopher to the first person experiences and psychological literature of the effects of extreme isolation. She asks what it is about such confined aloneness that causes fundamental psychological damage – even when the inmate’s bodily needs are all met.”

“Her answer is a deeply existential one, that a person can’t truly function without relations with others, that being human, requires social contact.”

Will you listen to the psychobabble? Unfortunately, I’d read Colin Wilson’s account of Jack Henry Abbot first.

Seems our Jack was in contact with the author, Norman Mailer, who was sufficiently impressed with Jack’s literary talents he was able to get him paroled. What did our Jack do, when he had relations with others, had the social contact, that Lisa bemoaned the absence of?

He had a wee disagreement with one Richard Adan — an unemployed actor, working as a waiter in a restaurant — about washroom facilities; asked him to come out to the street and discuss it — and stabbed him to death. Back to prison did our Jack go, where he committed suicide in 2002 — in solitary confinement — and I think most of us would agree: Good riddance to rubbish.

Apart from the advance fee of $12,500, Abbott did not receive any revenue from In the Belly of the Beast, because Richard Adan’s widow successfully sued for $7.5 million in damages, which meant she receives all the money from the book’s sales. It’s an Ill Wind, I suppose, but I’ll bet she’d still say she’d rather Richard was still alive.

Meanwhile Norman Mailer was criticized for his role in getting Jack Abbott released; accused of being so blinded by Abbott’s evident writing talent that he did not take into account the man’s violent nature. In a 1992 interview in The Buffalo News, Mailer said that his involvement with Abbott was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about and nothing to take pride in.” Jerzy Kosinski, another writer who supported Jack, admitted that their advocacy of Abbott was in essence, a “fraud.”

Jack had choices, he took them.

If I may conclude, (this surprises you how?) Lisa sorta forgot to mention the individual Jack dedicated his book to?

Carl Panzram.

Never heard of him? Famous in his day as another convict litterateur — and as a serial rapist, burglar, arsonist… did I forget to add “serial killer”? Silly me. 22 people. That they know of.

Carl also complained bitterly and at length, about the torture, The Evil, of Solitary Confinement. But you know? He had choices too.

Meanwhile, listening to Lisa whine about Jack? That was where I lost it.

“Ah, shaddap, ya bunch of braying jackasses!” I snarled, and switched off my radio.

That was two weeks ago. Haven’t turned it on since, and I wonder if I’ll be turning on to CBC, ever again. This was an institution that I respected, that I trusted. I valued what I thought I was learning from them. Now that I have listened to this documentary in its entirety, twice, I am aghast, that the presenters could be so inexcusably irresponsible, so deceitful, and so deeply, deeply dishonest. These individuals they interviewed and speak of, Susan Rosenberg, Greg McMaster, Jack Abbott… They are not innocent victims of a cruel, arbitrary, vindictive and oh yeah, patriarchal, social order: They are violent, manipulative criminals, who brought their circumstances upon themselves by their own bad attitudes, their own bad choices, and their own bad actions. And if they find those circumstances disagreeable, then they should not have committed their crimes.

It’s just as simple as that.

And I take considerable exception to being demanded that I feel any kind of compassion for them, after being given half a story.

“Alone Inside” is a disgrace: How dare you people insult my intelligence with this rubbish? Lying by omission is still lying. In fact, it’s the very worst kind of lying. Ideas is CBC’s flagship program, and their journalism in this instance alone is no better than this? What does this say about anything else they present on Ideas? If they’re going to lie — pardon me, “misrepresent” — this badly, here, what quality of material am I getting anywhere else on CBC? Can I trust the sports scores on CBC? Can I trust the weather report? Do I dare take the chance?

Whatever. Excuse me folks. I have a guitar to practice.

PS Should you be so inclined, you can listen to Alone Inside, here: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2013/09/03/alone-inside/


Posted September 22, 2013 by Capt. Roy Harkness in Uncategorized

6 responses to “On the Mediocrity of the CBC

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  1. The Strappedo is torture. The Rack, is torture. Waterboarding, is torture. The experience of the innocent inmates at places like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Dachau or Auschwitz, is and was, torture. This … “documentary” … as you dignify this dishonest piece of drivel, did not make the case to me, that solitary confinement is nor do I see it as, torture: The inmates of solitary confinement are housed, clothed, and fed. They have at least emergency access to doctors and dentists. I won’t deny solitary confinement is extremely unpleasant; but even as a prison inmate, it’s avoidable: It is not “torture”, it is meant to be a “deterrent.” The victims of the Inquisition, Nazi Germany and American aggression could not avoid what was done to them. Rosenberg, McMaster, and Abbot however, could.

    In retrospect, I’m not happy with the way I portrayed Ashley Smith; but I’m not going to change now what I wrote at the time. That said, I think what I wrote otherwise, was measured and considered: That the people who presented this … “documentary”… were being deceitful and manipulative. They told half a story. Lying by omission is still lying, and I found this dishonesty issued by an agency I trusted, highly disturbing. That was the point I was trying to make, and I think I made it.

    Meanwhile your comment “I am grateful every day that people like you are in the minority.”? Excuse me? Have you ever been bullied? I have. Relentlessly, my entire life. It wasn’t nice. Have you been the victim of or were in any way party to, criminal predation? I have. That wasn’t nice either. I believe I am tolerant. But I draw limits, as should any reasonable person. Rosenberg, McMaster, Abbot et al are well beyond those limits. I have compassion: For the victims of predation. But certainly not for the perpetrators. Have a look at the work of Drs. Yochelson and Samenow on criminals and criminality, or for that matter, Robert Hare’s work on psychopathy; what shines out in their work is the exasperation of dealing with the bloody-minded, willful stupidity of criminals; in essence: “What is to be done with these people? Nothing works!

    Finally, I draw your attention to one George Mason’s blog, and his comment on thought and criminality:

    “As always, all of this comes down to the very simple fact that people are only as good as their ideas, and those who do not understand their ideas and those of others that affect them face consequences as grave as if they went before a firing squad.”

    I trust you find my riposte to your comments on my posting satisfactory.

  2. Torture is not an acceptable form of punishment in Canada, no matter the choices a person takes. The point of the documentary is that solitary confinement is a form of torture. The documentary makes a pretty airtight case and you haven’t argued against it, just argued that these people deserved it. Therefore, according to the Canadian charter, your point is in direct opposition to the values of the country. As a citizen, I am grateful every day that people like you are in the minority.

  3. Thanks for clarifying your thoughts on the documentary and responding to my comment. (https://sexdiaryofanoboist.wordpress.com/2014/02/). I think your response was pretty fair, given the rude nature of the comment I made about you being thoughtless and narrow minded. I must have been in an irritable mood, so I apologize for that. Completely unwarranted and stupid. However, it’s your reaction to the CBC program which I still feel is worrisome. Is the program really about feeling compassion for criminals? Or about some kind of left/right political divide? Is that really the only thing you hear in it? I don’t think that that is what it was about at all. It was about the evolution of the use of solitary confinement, from the 19th century when it was conceptualized as a kind of religious practice of penitence/salvation, to the 20th/21st century when it has essentially become a kind of torture. This strikes me as being a really interesting premise for a program and it was executed in a compelling way. I think if the premise of program had been, “whatever criminals get when the doors of the prison close behind is OK because they are all monsters,” then the program would have been pretty short. It strikes me that there are no “ideas” at all in that kind of moral attitude.

  4. The program was great. It is your inability to listen that is worrisome. If you just want to have your thoughtless and narrow minded opinions reconfirmed, why bother turning on the radio? Guitar playing is probably a better path for you to learn something new.

  5. Dear Repowoman:

    Thanks for your comment.

    I listened to that programme, paying close attention, three times. And each time I listened, my impression was… it was a discussion of the impact solitary confinement had on these individuals, without reference to why they were in solitary confinement; moreover it was being demanded of me I feel sympathy for these individuals, as a result of their plight…

    Sorry: Not today. And likely not ever.

    I doubt listening to this disgraceful production a fourth time is going to change my impression of it. I view myself as a broad-minded, tolerant and compassionate individual. But this manipulative piece of work left me feeling, quite frankly, soiled, and with the notion the people who produced it were being deeply dishonest: Lying by omission is still lying.

    That said, you encourage me to continue with the blog, which I was about to delete..

    Best regards,

  6. The program was about the impact of SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, NOT about the individual cases of those who have experienced long stretches in solitary. Perhaps re-listen to the programme with different expectations?

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