In their own words: Inmate publications of the British Columbia Penitentiary

By Olivia Cocking

In March 1951, inmates at the British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster, B.C. published the first edition of the penitentiary’s bimonthly magazine, Transition. Prison administrators promoted penal publications such as Transition during the 1950s and 1960s as part of a broader initiative to remodel the correctional system around a model of rehabilitation rather than punishment. With subscriptions offered for external readers at the rate of $1 annually, the editorial staff of Transition worked not only to keep inmates abreast of daily life at the penitentiary but also to establish a “feeling of understanding and faith” between prisoners and broader society.

Cover illustration showing an old-fashioned train engine and caboose, a railway station with a sign reading “Agassiz,” and a handcart containing mailbags labelled “BCP”

Front cover of the May–June 1961 issue of Transition magazine (e011311001)

Staffed by an editorial team of inmates and published at B.C. Penitentiary’s own print shop, Transition offered the penitentiary’s residents a chance to voice their views on a wide variety of subjects. Issues of the magazine featured editorials, articles of fiction and critical commentary, as well as coverage of prison sports and entertainment. Recurring columns included one on advice by a Dr. Larrup Loogan, called “What’s Your Beef?” and a section on prison affairs aimed primarily at the inmates, titled “The Inmate Speaks.” Holiday issues of Transition offered a particularly touching perspective, featuring seasonal greetings from inmates to friends and family, as well as reflections on the experience of the holiday season from inside the penitentiary. As one writer in the November–December 1959 issue noted poignantly, “high walls have a way of casting thick shadows across the laughter of a Christmas meant to be bright.”

Cover illustration with text “Merry Xmas,” showing two children in pyjamas facing a fireplace where Christmas stockings are hanging from the mantle.

Front cover of the November–December 1960 issue of Transition magazine (e011311002)

Publications like Transition often faced challenges in balancing the goal of providing an authentic outlet for inmates to express their views within the constraints of administrative censorship. However, given the realities of censorship, one of the most striking features of Transition is the frequency and depth of the critical analyses of criminal justice issues. Columnists discussed policy debates and offered personal perspectives on the effectiveness of Canadian strategies for prisoner rehabilitation. In Transition’s January–February 1959 issue, one columnist contended that Canadian efforts at rehabilitation had failed to live up to their goals, arguing that Canadian penitentiaries did “little but instill in the majority of inmates either a conscious or an unconscious desire to get even with society.” However, not all articles were equally disparaging. For example, a feature in the May–June 1961 issue detailed the positive contributions of B.C. Penitentiary’s blacksmith shop: “The inmate tradesmen in the BCP blacksmith shop are performing a public service that could be performed in no other way and by no one else. This is a fact in which these men can justifiably take pride.”

Cover illustration showing a man sitting at a desk writing a letter with his right hand and holding his head in his left hand, which also holds a lit cigarette.

Front cover of the September–October 1957 issue of Transition magazine  (e011311003)

Drug use and its treatment by the criminal justice system represented another frequent topic of debate among Transition’s columnists. The January–February 1959 issue features two contrasting opinions on the criminalization of drugs. One columnist argued that “the addict is a person who is mentally and morally incompetent” who could not be parted from his criminal tendencies by the legalization of drugs. The other contended that the social problems created by drug use lie in its criminalization, and not in the addicts themselves. As a result, he advocated the legalization of drugs as a government cost-saving measure and a remedy to the culture of criminality surrounding drugs.

Inmate columnists did not restrict their commentary to criminal justice issues. For example, the opening editorial of the 1961 Christmas edition sketches a pointed critique of voter apathy in Canadian elections. The editorial analysis presented by the columnists is especially effective when they highlight the eagerness with which their otherwise disenfranchised fellow inmates participate in Inmates Council elections. As they note, “Possibly they could set an example for the citizens and send forth emissaries to use a little rehabilitation on them.”

Back cover illustration showing a hand holding a cup containing signposts with various messages, such as “What Is A Convict?”, “Inside Looking Out”, “Rehabilitation?”, and “100 Year Failure!” A subscription form is included below the illustration.

Back cover of the January–February 1959 issue of Transition magazine (e011311004)

The vibrant discussion of criminal justice issues found in the pages of Transition reflects a broader debate taking place among policymakers during this period over how to best create an environment for the successful rehabilitation of inmates. This contentious atmosphere placed increasing strain on relationships of prison administrators and the penal press. By the mid-1960s, administrative, financial, and distribution support for penal publications decreased and censorship escalated, marking the decline of a Canadian penal press that catered to an external audience on any significant scale. As a result, issues of Transition published at the height of the magazine’s circulation during the 1950s and 1960s represent an invaluable resource, providing a unique look into the intellectual lives of inmates and an original perspective on criminal justice issues.

Olivia Cocking works at Library and Archives Canada’s Vancouver public service point as part of the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP).

British Columbia Penitentiary’s Goose Island: help is 20 km away, or 9 to 17 hours as the pigeon flies

By Caitlin Webster

Two brief notes in Library and Archives Canada’s holdings of the British Columbia Penitentiary illustrate the dangers of running prison work gangs in remote locations. At various points throughout its 102 years at the New Westminster site, the penitentiary operated a prison farm as well as carpentry, metal work and masonry shops. But in the early 20th century it attempted to establish an off-site logging and quarrying operation approximately 20 km from headquarters.

In 1903, the penitentiary acquired the deed to Goose Island through an Order in Council. Also known as Wright Island, Pen Island, and even Convict Island, this 140 acre property sits in the centre of Pitt Lake towards the eastern edge of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

A handwritten page that reads, “On a Memorandum, dated 21st January, 1903, from the Minister of the Interior, stating that application has been made by the Minister of Justice for the transfer to his Department, for the purposes of the British Columbia Penitentiary of Goose Island, situated about the center of Pitt Lake, in Section 25, Township 5, Range 5, west of the Seventh Meridian, in the Railway Belt in British Columbia, the said island being required for the quarrying of stone thereon for use in connection with the penitentiary. The Minister recommends, as the land is vacant in the records of the Department of the Interior, that, under Clause 31 of the Dominion Lands Act, it be transferred to the Department of Justice for the purposes of the British Columbia Penitentiary as above mentioned. The Committee submit the same for approval.” [Signed by] Wilfrid Laurier.

The Order in Council granting Goose Island to the British Columbia Penitentiary, approved February 4, 1903. It was printed in the Canada Gazette (volume 36, number 34, February 21, 1903, page 4)

The penitentiary’s plan was to set up a work camp on the island to extract its lumber and mineral resources, and in June 1906 two guards and seven convicts travelled to the island from the New Westminster site. The group, which was later joined by seven additional convicts, cleared roads, built log houses and a wharf, cut 200 cords of wood, and quarried 96.5 yards of granite. Additional crews were sent in the spring and summer of 1907 and 1908.

As Goose Island was such a remote location at the time, prison guards were supplied with twelve carrier pigeons each week for communication purposes. One pigeon was sent from the island to the New Westminster site each day to provide a routine status report. For urgent matters, guards were to send two pigeons in quick succession, and for emergencies such as escapes, three or four pigeons were to be sent at short intervals.

A typed, mimeographed page describing how regular and emergency communication will take place by carrier pigeon between Goose Island and the New Westminster Penitentiary.

Page 2 of the British Columbia Penitentiary draft instructions for officers in charge of the Goose Island gang (e011193305-v8)

On May 27, 1908 such an emergency was encountered at the camp. At 3:55 pm, guards sent the first of at least two carrier pigeons, which arrived at the penitentiary at 9:00 am the following morning to report a “murderous assault” by two inmates. A follow-up message indicating that the prisoners had been handcuffed and that no injuries were incurred was sent at 8:10 am on May 28th and arrived at 4:30 that afternoon.

A handwritten note glued onto a typed page with a description of the note’s content and titled, “Message from Wright Island to the Penitentiary via Pigeon – May 28th, 1908.”

Message sent by carrier pigeon from Goose Island at 8:10 am May 28, 1908, arriving at the British Columbia Penitentiary at 4:30 pm the same day (e011193302-v8)

In addition to this attack, escapes and attempted escapes were also reported to have occurred from this camp. Predictably, the challenges of controlling a convict work gang in such a remote location led to the disuse of the island site. By 1919, the log cabins were in disrepair, and penitentiary staff erected “no trespassing” signs on the property to prevent vandalism. Despite some sporadic interest in the island’s stone, lumber, and recreational potential in the intervening years, little activity took place on the site before it was sold in 1953.

A newspaper feature titled, “Pitt Lake’s ‘Pen’ Island Re-discovered” accompanied by four black-and-white photographs of the work camp in disrepair.

Photographs by Charles Jennings accompanying a June 14, 1955 article by Jimmie McPhee in the newspaper, The British Columbian. (e011193303-v8)

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