An Inside Look at Our Penal System
Book review of: Roger Caron's Go–Boy! Memoirs of a Life Behind Bars
McGraw–Hill Ryerson, 264 pages, $10.95
Reviewed by Don Weitz
Seven News, January 13, 1979
Going “stir–crazy” in prison is just a matter of time, and usually results in inmates doing more “hard time.” Or getting sent to a psycho ward to be experimented on like a guinea pig or rat. Prisons, like “mental hospitals,” are classic Catch–s. To survive years in the punishing, dehumanizing prison environment and retain one’s sanity and humanity takes incredible physical and mental strength and courage. Very few of us have it.
Roger Caron has both – awesome physical strength and sheer guts. He’s a genuine survivor of the Canadian prison system, still locked up in medium security Collins Bay penitentiary in Ontario. Now 40, Caron has spent over half his life, almost a quarter of a century, in no less than thirteen jails and prisons. He’s sampled some of the toughest: Guelph Reformatory, Kingston Penitentiary, Millhaven and “Penetang” (for the “criminally insane”). He started his prison career at 16, when he was convicted and sentenced for a “B & E” (breaking and entering). Caron has seldom been free for more than a few weeks or months at a time. Thefts, armed robberies and escapes inevitably led to doing more “hard time” in the “Big Joint.”
It’s amazing that Caron has survived this long with his sanity and humanity intact. But what’s even more amazing is that, while locked up, Caron produced GO–BOY!, an autobiographical account, covering roughly twenty–two years, of many of his prison experiences. Undoubtedly the act of writing the book helped Caron remain sane.
GO–BOY!, as the book jacket explains, is “prison slang for a runner and the prisoners’ chant of encouragement to those who make the desperate break for freedom.” Caron escaped six times from about as many prisons. His vivid descriptions of these daring and ingenious but futile breakouts surpasses almost anything on TV or in the movies. Caron’s keen sense of the dramatic is tempered by his compelling to stick to what happened to him, to tell it like it was, which was horrible enough. If it were not for a few brief interludes of black inmate humour, and for moments of real sharing and love with his girlfriend and family, GO–BOY! would be a real horror story.
Of course, much of it is: guards beating and gassing inmates in cells and corridors; near–fatal fights with other prisoners; the brutal and maddening experience of solitary confinement in “maximum deadlock”, where sewer rats sometimes emerged through open toilets; the terrifying psychiatric “treatments” he was forced to endure in the psycho ward; and the flesh–cutting torture of the “paddle” or strap in the “Limbo Room”. This passage describes sadistic treatment by a guard while Caron was near madness from one continuous year in solitary confinement:
But it was the gorilla who took the greatest delight in scaring me into climbing the walls of my cell. Always pussy–footing around and observing me through the peephole, he would wait until I got spaced out and then with a brutish grin boot my door with great force! I’d come right up off that concrete pallet with arms slashing, eyes rolling, and my mouth twisted open in one long shuddering scream....
Caron’s account of forced psychiatric treatment with, I believe, Indoklon gas administered while he was in a strait–jacket is equally horrifying. Caron was subjected to this torture by the prison psychiatrist as an alternative to the “paddle”:
The mask clamped firmly over my mouth and nose and suddenly I found that I could not breathe!...Then I heard the ominous hissing of gas....Horror–stricken, I started thrashing about while the hands that were gripping me squeezed more tightly than ever. There was an eerie buzzing in my ears like an angry horde of wasps trying to chew their way into my brain. And I still couldn’t breathe.
On two occasions, Caron was sentenced to the “paddle,” administered to him naked in the “Limbo Room”:
The eerie ritual began when the dozen witnesses ominously scraped the soles of their shoes on the floor in unison, deliberately done to confuse my sense of direction. “ONE!” I clenched my teeth and my body went rigid as the strap sliced through the air. “CRACK!” Like a pistol shot, it made solid contact with my buttocks, my head snapped backwards, while violently driving my shackled body forward. White searing pain exploded throughout my being and blood gushed from my lips as I struggled to stifle a scream. It was brutal and it was horrible.
In his supportive foreword to the book, Pierre Berton comments on this brutality:
It is not good enough for Canadians to say that they did not know these things were going on inside our prisons. They did know. They were told about it over and over again. Some of us have tried over the years to protest; but the Canadian public, in spite of the clear knowledge that physical torture of the most painful kind was part of official policy, continued to accept it, and indeed, in some cases applauded it. One of the reasons that the Canadian penal system has yet to emerge from the dark ages is because the people continue to demand revenge rather than rehabilitation....
GO–BOY! can be read as a major social document which cries out for long–overdue prison reforms in Canada. It’s a major contribution to prison literature and criminology. But GO–BOY!, like much concentration camp literature, can also be read and appreciated as a forceful witness to survival in hell. Caron has been there and come back to life whole, human and still fighting. The public and critics will judge whether Caron makes it as a writer. I say he will, and I’m eagerly awaiting his next book, on the Kingston Riot. GO–BOY! deserves to attract wide readership and public acceptance.
Postscript: Roger Caron was released from prison in late December 1978.
Published in Seven News, Volume 9 Issue 17, January 13, 1979