A crusader for convicts

MARK BUDGEN August 5 1985

A crusader for convicts

MARK BUDGEN August 5 1985

A crusader for convicts


A lifetime of crusading for unpopular causes has taught Claire Culhane, 66, how to deal with her critics. This spring, when the silverhaired grandmother took her latest campaign to Parliament Hill with a handful of other penal reform activists, she confronted an increasingly law-and-order-minded public mood with a demand that prisoners receive more civil

rights; predictably, hecklers objected. Culhane recalls: “Whenever people told us we should shut up and be grateful to live in a country with so much freedom, I pointed out the closed-circuit security cameras trained on us from the Peace Tower and the East and West Blocks. Then I said, ‘I’m Claire Culhane, and the cops have a file on me that goes back 50 years. Someday, they are going to look at today’s pictures and ask what you were doing talking to a subversive.’ ” Now, in her crowded Vancouver apartment Culhane is tirelessly planning more visits to inmates of Canadian prisons and letters to politicians protesting against solitary confinement and involuntary transfers. As well, the woman whom Canadian convicts have called “an angel” is preparing for her next big protest: Aug. 10, National Prison Justice Day. That will be the 10th anniversary of the deaths of two Millha-

ven Penitentiary prisoners, one a suicide, one a heart attack, while they were in segregation; it is a date few Canadians will mark. But Culhane, along with relatives of prisoners, lawyers, church and social workers—plus thousands of Canadians behind bars—will observe the day with fasting and vigils. The protest typifies Culhane’s attraction for controversy; at a time when polls indicate that 71 per cent of Canadians want capital punishment reinstated, she is a staunch abolitionist and argues that the prison system should be abolished except for psychopathic killers — “the Clifford Olsons, about one per cent of the prison population,” as Culhane points out.

In place of prisons, she advocates that offenders be required to make direct restitution to their victims, and would even oblige murderers to help support victims’ families. Culhane has just published her second book on the correctional system, Still Barred From Prison.

Her radical views have made her an unpopular figure with police and penal officials alike. In British Columbia wardens at five pen| itentiaries have barred her z from either visiting or writQ ing letters to inmates. Said John Stonoski, warden at Kent Maximum Security Institution: “Claire Culhane is an unsettling influence on the inmate population here.” Added former Liberal solicitor general Robert Kaplan: “She has a damn good head on her shoulders, and her representations on behalf of individual prisoners have had merit. But the trouble is, Claire will not see the other point of view.” For her part, Culhane wryly attributes her uncompromising militance to the manner in which she entered the world: “I was a breech birth,” she said, “so I put my foot in it right from the start.”

Claire Eglin was born in Montreal in 1918 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family and says, “I was 10 before I learned that the French for ‘Jew’ was Juif and not maudit Juif (damned Jew).” As a precociously strong-willed youngster, she recalled, “The only advice my parents gave was, ‘You are a girl; you are Jewish. Stay home. Keep

quiet.’ ” But she was temperamentally unable to obey. At 17, she went to Ottawa to train as a nurse, until she was expelled for taking linen from empty private beds to use in public wards.

Moving back to Montreal, Culhane joined the Young Communist League. “It seemed a logical way to stop the fascists in the Spanish Civil War,” she said. Police rounded her up dozens of times for participating in demonstrations, but through her activism she met fellow Communist Party member Garry Culhane, a union organizer whom she later married. They moved to Vancou-

ver and had two daughters, Rosheen and Dara; in 1950, disillusioned with the party, Claire abandoned it and later took a quiet job as a medical records librarian.

But by 1967 her children had left home and the marriage was long over. That year Culhane accepted a job as a hospital administrator at a Canadianrun tuberculosis hospital in Quang Ngai, a small Vietnamese town 350 km north of Saigon—and 10 km from the village of My Lai. In the winter of 1968, during the Tet Offensive, U.S. military personnel told the Canadians to move

their patients out; they intended to occupy the hospital as a military base. To Culhane’s horror the Canadians complied. Returning to Canada, Culhane campaigned relentlessly to end all Canadian involvement in what she saw as an immoral war—“acting as the butcher’s helper,” as she charged in her first book, Why is Canada in Vietnam? On March 7,1971, she even chained herself to a chair in the House of Commons’ public gallery in protest, creating an uproar.

By the time the war ended in 1975 Culhane had returned to Vancouver to be with her daughters and five grandchildren. Then she learned that a prison guard had accidentally killed social worker Mary Steinhäuser during a hostage-taking and riot in the B.C. Penitentiary. Culhane promptly joined demonstrations calling for a full inquiry into the incident. At the invitation of local lawyers and MPs, she agreed to serve on the institution’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee. But a year later, after she publicly accused penitentiary guards of mistreating prisoners during a later hostage-taking, she was dismissed. Those incidents whetted her taste for what she now calls “the best fight in town.” In 1976 she occupied the warden’s office at the penitentiary to protest against an order banning her from visiting inmates. Police charged Culhane with illegal trespass; a provincial court judge found her guilty, a conviction that carried a sentence of a $500 fine or six months in jail. Culhane opted for jail, knowing that she was barred from it. Frustrated, the judge dropped the case.

Meanwhile, her efforts had earned her the gratitude of the country’s most hardened convicts. Tom Elton, serving a life sentence for murder in William Head Institution on Vancouver Island, told Maclean ’s: “I would have killed myself if not for Claire. She gave me a basis for evaluating myself.” Elton, who has just received his BA from the University of Victoria through a prison study program, may be eligible for day parole this month. Norm Fox, 48, who was pardoned last year after serving eight years for a rape he did not commit, said, “Claire formed the group which proved I did not do it. If it were not for her, I would not be out of prison.”

The testimonials are strong incentive for the grandmother who next week will be parading for prisoners’ rights in front of the barbed-wire fence outside a correctional centre in Burnaby, B.C. Culhane’s supporters admire her for the energetic passion with which she fights. And those who disagree recognize her conscientious representation of a forgotten constituency.