Upon arriving, new inmates are inducted into the prison with traditional Aboriginal expressions of hospitality. They are given blankets as a sign of peace and protection and shown around the place so they know it is their home rather than their cage. Inmates and staff alike join together to welcome the new arrivals. The goal is an atmosphere where people are allowed to become human again, reconnect with their emotions, and come to terms with the implications of their crimes.
One woman who works there,
affectionately referred to as Grandma by everyone at the prison, states
that her role is to give the men unconditional love and separate them
from the stigma of their crimes. The men repay the love in full;
one scene shows an inmate delivering her a breakfast that he had
specially made for her.
We meet nineteen inmates, each with a different story. The director introduces us to them one by one, showing them at work they love to do. One man, while dipping in and out of prison over several decades, decided he wanted to learn how to carve wood and now he carves traditional Aboriginal masks. Another paints drums. Another makes dreamcatchers, another bakes (remarking that while baking he does not have to think about "jail things" but rather what the men might like for dessert), another builds wooden toy cars.
The staff at Kwikwexwelhp tries to teach the inmates how to become their own agents and use their time productively without harming either themselves or anyone around them. We see the inmates first as craftsmen and as they create, they tell us about their murders, drug addictions, and sexual offenses.
They also talk about their lives, both the
circumstances in their families that led to their involvement in
criminal culture, and about their experiences rocketing around the
criminal system in Canada. Many come from homes of abuse, physical and
sexual. Many were taught to hate their Aboriginal heritage and
experienced terrible abuse and racism because of their ethnicity. Many
grew up in foster care or with negligent parents.
The men show varying levels of emotion as they express remorse for their crimes and talk about the trauma that the prison system has visited upon them. One man, Rod, describes the way that the prison system perpetuates criminal violence by teaching the inmates to become "unconscious in their conscience." Another, Darcy, breaks down and cries as he talks about how he cannot let the lives he took while in a drug-induced haze be in vain. The inmates know their own culpability in ending up in the criminal system but they also know how hard it is, once involved, to break out of it.
The stories of the men are intensely moving and by showing us who they are as people instead of focusing exclusively on their crimes, it serves as a reminder that justice does not deal with monsters and freaks. The men who commit crimes are as human as their victims.
Plenty of extra features on the DVD provide longer interviews with the inmates as well as reflections on criminal justice and Aboriginal practices. The documentary moves fluidly between aspects of life at Kwixwekwelhp with the men serving as regular commentators on the topic at hand. Always central is a focus on the humanity of everyone involved with the prison.
At the end of the documentary they do follow-ups on what happened to some of the inmates. The stories do not always end well. Some of the inmates are released, some violate their parole and are incarcerated again, and some are transferred to higher-security prisons after breaking rules. It is an important reminder that change is a long process. But at Kwixwelhp, transformation remains the goal.
"The Meaning of Life" is available from Face-to-Face Media at a cost of $small institutions, and $250 for major institutions.