A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden
City of Victoria Butler Book Prize
About this Work
Stephen Reid has grown old in prison and seen more than his share of its solitude, its vicious cycles, and its subculture relationships. He has participated in the economics of contraband, the incredible escapes, the intimacies of torture, the miscarriages of justice, and witnessed the innocent souls whose childhood destinies doomed them to prison life. He has learned that everything is bearable, that the painful separation of family, children, and friend is tolerable, and that sorrow must be kept close, buried in a secret garden of the self, if one is to survive and give others who love you hope. Within his writing runs the motif that his prison life has never been far from his drug additions, but the junkie or drunk who has some straight time and means to stay that way knows a lot about the way we really live, think, feel, hope, and desire in this country.
Each of the essays in this collection is a recognition of how Reid’s imprisonment has shaped his life. Some describe his fractured boyhood and the escalation in crimes that led to his imprisonment others detail the seductive rush and notoriety of the criminal life. There are the regrets too of how his choices have impacted the lives of his daughters, wife and family. But in each essay the refrain is “prison life”, whether it is measuring the integrity of the books in the prison library, the violence and primal intimidation inherent in all-male communities, or the torment and solace of solitary confinement.
Being on the jury for the Victoria Butler Book Prize was an honour and a truly rewarding experience. The opportunity to read across genres and subjects was a highlight. We have many talented writers in our midst, confirmed by the high caliber of writing encountered during the reading. We read a rich variety of genres and approaches in submissions to the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize – the power songs of island ecology, moving confessional poetry, whimsical satire, and teasing psychodrama. We travelled through small-town Quebec and New Jersey, to Serbia, the Gulf coast, Florida, France, and came back to D’Arcy Island; we watched football on the streets of Africa. We learned more than we thought possible about Vancouver Island history, Victoria’s streets, and the city’s love of the visual arts. As one of the books summarized the jurors’ adventure in reading: astonishment is all.
Framed by a sharply observed, imaginatively speculative, and risky exploration of beachcombing, Stephen Reid’s A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden is a prison ethnography taut with wit and humanity. The candour, the details of a culture alien to most readers, and the transformations of a secret language permeate what is also a diary, a confessional, and a reader’s perceptive notebook.
Stephen Reid began writing in 1984 while serving a 21-year prison sentence for his role in the “Stopwatch Gang,” so named for their ability to rob banks and armoured cars in less than two minutes. During his sentence he submitted a manuscript to Susan Musgrave, then writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo. This developed into an ongoing correspondence, and Reid and Musgrave were married in 1986. Reid also published his only novel, Jackrabbit Parole, that year. He has taught creative writing, worked as a youth counsellor, and served on boards of the John Howard Society, Prison Arts Foundation, PEN Canada, Spirit of the People, and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden is an affecting book about Reid’s occupational hazard: getting locked up in jail. He also grapples with large issues, such as the nature of addiction and Canada’s often inhumane criminal system.