The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Charged with his wife's murder, Mark Stobbe went to jail so you don't have to

Who thinks about what jail is like? People likely to go to jail, of course.

But if you're a career-oriented, hard-working family man like Mark Stobbe, you never imagine yourself in jail. 

That's something you see on television.  It's make-believe and as far removed from your reality as the actors in prop jumpsuits and tin handcuffs. That's what Stobbe thought, right until the day the police arrested him and charged him with killing his wife. 

Instantly, the pretend had become the real. He found himself in jail.

It would take years, literally, before he was brought to trial. And it turned out the Crown didn't have the slightest, smallest shred of evidence against him.  Their whole case was a bluff.  A flight of fancy. Pure imagination.  A case so beyond flimsy it would shame real lawyers and real judges if they were capable of shame.

If there was one good thing about the whole experience (as if there can be anything good about being accused of the murder), it's that Stobbe got bail in relatively short time (six weeks). He didn't have to spend those years in jail waiting for trial.

But he was in the remand centres in Saskatchewan (where he got arrested) and Winnipeg (where the trial was held) long enough to get a view of life in jail, a view that most people will never have and never want to have.

And it's fascinating.

You wouldn't think so. What's so fascinating about watching time pass day after day?

Stobbe was a civil servant with the Manitoba government when his wife, Beverley Rowbotham, was murdered.   But he was a university grad in sociology.  He didn't let his time locked up go to waste. He spent his observing.  Not watching, observing.

He's written a book about what he saw. Its like a Discovery Channel safari into a human jungle. Stobbe tells you:

* Why new inmates annoy everyone on their first day.  They don't know enough not to let the metal door slam behind them.  A slamming door, over and over as newbies are admitted, drives everybody nuts.

* Why you don't throw the food you don't eat into the trash. Somebody may want it. Uneaten food is shared, not junked.

* Why there are no thieves in remand.  Nobody likes a thief, especially if he's likely to steal from you when you're not watching. That's why almost everybody says they're in for breaches of their bail conditions. Breaches everyone understands. It's a rebel thing. Thieves nobody trusts.

* Why you don't throw your plastic cutlery in the garbage.  It's not Mcdonald's. You're not doing somebody a favour. Trustees are responsible for all the knives and forks, even if they are plastic.  Throw them out and the trustees have to dig through garbage to find them. Pile them up neatly, and save them work.

Stobbe discovered that corrections officials, aka the "screws" as they're called in old movies, strive for order above all.  Strangers confined against their will will sort themselves out as long as everyone knows what to expect.  Introduce instability and you're asking for trouble.

Even when an inmate had to be subdued by the "incident response team", the prisoners knew the routine and nobody got excited. They grumbled about the tear gas but even the inmate knew what was going to happen, in what order, and how it would end providing he didn't fight back too strenuously. He wanted to make a statement, he did, everyone understood, and life went on. That's jail.

Stobbe was surprised to discover that jail guards and police are not necessarily working in tandem.  When the police planted someone in the jail to elicit incriminating information from Stobbe, he was taken from his cell and warned by a corrections officer to watch out for plants.  A police snitch disrupts the order of a jail.  That is not  good.

That's also why longtimers in remand hate gang members. Believe it or not. Guards have to keep gangs apart, so when one gang is let out for recreation, the others are locked up, and these repeated lockdowns aggravate the inmates who are not in either gang.  Gang members aren't respected in jail, they're despised the same as on the outside.

Some of the best insights into the jail mentality comes in Stobbe's interactions with other inmates. He was charged with murder, which automatically put him at the top of the hierarchy and meant he got the jail's one and only newspaper first. The sex offender never got it no matter how much he pleaded.

Stobbe describes the psychology of the coke dealer who explained his operation the way a Fortune 500 executive would;  the brawler facing several years in jail for assault who was still proud of punching out the guy who called him a "wagon burner";  Lumpy, who had standards in his business---no selling cocaine within 200 yards of a school.

And he analyzes faults in the system, which he saw even from his brief exposure to the inside. Bail, for example, he says, is a trap. Inmates spend so much time fantasizing about what they will do when they get out, that bail conditions that require them to abstain from those very activities are guaranteed to see them rearrested in a short time.

In one bull session, his fellow prisoners wove tantalizing tales of the sex, drugs and alcohol they would get once out of jail. Stobbe disgusted everyone when he confessed his biggest desire was for Spitz sunflower seeds.

His book, A Cry for Justice, won't disappoint or disgust you. It's a primer to life in jail which, God willing, you'll never have to experience. Who doesn't like a good safari from the comfort of your own home?

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