It was my internship at the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Network that first introduced me to Cory Cardinal.
After being pen pals with Cardinal over the past few months, I have come to see the vast talent in his writing. It felt only right for me to make the journey into the SPCC to meet Cardinal face-to-face for the first time.
After being thoroughly searched by the SPCC’s guards, they slapped a red tag on me (to distinguish me from the inmates) and escorted me through a variety of sliding doors. Finally, sitting across from each other in a tiny white room overlooked by guards through a pane of glass, Cardinal and I stared at each other.
Cardinal politely thanked me for visiting him and pushed a roughly 100-page manuscript of his writing across the table. His penmanship is flawless and it’s evident he spends most of his days scribbling away. Cardinal’s memoirs have the potential to someday be transformed into a book and are defined by his poetic reflections of overcoming gang life on the streets to pursue writing.
The first thing I noticed about Cardinal was the abundance of tattoos on his arms. However, I soon learned the ink was not permanent. Cardinal only receives five sheets of paper per day in secure lockdown, but he is such a prolific writer that putting his thoughts on his skin is the only way to preserve his ideas.
Cardinal has been in and out of jail since the age of 15, coping with a difficult family and substance abuse his whole life.
His times in prison are a result of his attempts to feed his addictions. Cardinal will be released in late April. Shedding his criminal past to become a legitimate writer is a daunting task and Cardinal plans to continue generating awareness of his talents by submitting to writing contests across the country.
When he was younger, Cardinal witnessed the aftermath of a fellow inmate committing suicide by hanging himself in his cell.
“I know in my mind I can write a novel — I’ve got the tools to do it,” he said. “It’s just about sitting down and having the stability to do it. It’s going to be a totally different perspective than anyone’s ever seen. It’s coming from an inmate, it’s coming from a guy that’s lived on the streets, it’s coming straight from the cell.”
In his writing, Cardinal hopes to provide a cautionary message for younger generations of First Nations. Abstaining from gang life, drugs and crime are all themes of Cardinal’s work.
“It’s going to be a fresh perspective. I know people wonder what’s going on in an inmate’s mind and what happens in jails and on the streets,” Cardinal said. “I can take them through that. I can walk them through that first-hand.”
The pain in Cardinal’s eyes was palpable as he told me about his past life; it was tough to imagine that even a shred of deviance existed in him.
As for the writing workshop, Cardinal was ecstatic that a large group of university students had decided to participate. For Cardinal, writing is not only therapy but also a way of relating to other people.
“It’s writing that draws people together from different backgrounds. You’re from a different background and I am too but that’s what brought us together — writing.”
The lives of university students and prison inmates came together during a writing workshop at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre on April 2.
The workshop was organized following the SPCC’s recent publication of Creative Escape: Art and Stories From Prison. The compilation began as a writing contest for the prison’s Aboriginal population, producing a 27-page booklet of surprising artistry.
Diann Block, the SPCC Aboriginal Cultural and Community Coordinator, contacted the U of S English department and reached out to student writers to come in and work with inmates interested in writing. Block hoped that interacting with young people who have the same drive for writing would encourage the inmates. Prior to Creative Escape, there was minimal support for inmate-writers to hone their talents.
The participating student writers and inmates gathered in a common area of the SPCC to carry out the workshop, which included writing exercises as well as feedback on inmates’ writing in one-on-one discussions.
However, Creative Escape’s first-place winner and talented poet Cory Cardinal could not join the group writing workshop. Cardinal’s involvement in an altercation with another inmate landed him in the SPCC’s secure lockdown.