The two men come from different backgrounds and they are radically different in age, physical stature and temperament. But their activities led them to the same place: a cell block in Archambault maximum-security penitentiary, 45 km north of Montreal. Edward Sullivan and Daniel Benson, assigned to Cells 2L26 and 1J25, are lifers, or so-called flat-raters—men convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison with no chance of parole. And both men, in recent interviews inside the prison with Maclean’s, insist that they have been sentenced to a living death.
Said Sullivan: “We’re supposed to be a civilized country, but they lock people away for 25 years.
It’s better to execute them instead.”
Life: Sullivan and Benson are among about 50 inmates who are serving 25-year terms at Archambault, and they are two of approximately 397 such federal inmates across Canada. Those life sentences became part of the Canadian penal system in
1976—a measure that the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced to serve as a deterrent to murder after Parliament abolished capital punishment that year.
Murders: Now, some criminologists say that the threat of a life sentence has done little to halt first-degree murders—premeditated killings. As well, many criminologists, members of human rights groups and even prison guards add that the sentences deprive inmates of all hope for the future— and make a few flat-raters into time bombs, potential threats to other convicts and prison guards alike.
Both Benson and Sullivan were sentenced to life terms for the murder of family members. In 1984, a Quebec Superior Court jury found Sullivan, a burly former lumberjack from the Gaspé region, guilty of strangling his former common-law wife. Sullivan, who is now 42, had committed the offence in 1977 but managed to elude police for seven years. Benson, a diminutive, studious-look-
ing man of 25, received his sentence when he was 18—for fatally shooting his stepfather with a .22-calibre rifle.
Benson, who was studying theatre at a community college north of Montreal when he was arrested, said that at first he had difficulty grasping the implications of a 25-year sentence. The first two years, he said, were “very hard,” and he often considered suicide. But now, Benson says that—to a certain extent—he has come to accept what has happened. Declared Benson, who spends his mornings studying theology in a small, book-lined cell: “You have to do a sentence like this one day at a time. I don’t ever try to think ahead 10 or 15 years.” One of his sources of strength, he said, is the regular visits from his mother, sisters and grandparents.
Visit: Sullivan also said that contact with family members is vital. In January, 1988, Sullivan married his girlfriend. Now, she and her 19-year-old daughter from another relationship visit Sullivan regularly. And once every six weeks, Sullivan and his wife spend three days together, living in a trailer—parked in the prison yard— which prison officials provide for family visits. “If I didn’t have my wife and the time in that trailer,” said Sullivan, “I would have ended things a long time ago.”
For the most part, prison officials say that the men serving 25-year sentences at Archambault are among the quietest and best-behaved members of the prison population. They add that that is probably because lifers often have no previous criminal records and do not want to make their stay harder by spending time in solitary confinement. Still, some lifers have exploded into violence on occasion, taking hostages and attacking Archambault guards. In the most recent incident, in 1982, a failed escape attempt by two inmates sparked a major riot that eventually caused the brutal murders of three prison guards who had been taken hostage in the uprising. Said Sullivan: “When something like that occurs, it’s usually around the day a guy gets word that his appeal has been denied. They’ve got nothing to lose.”
For both Sullivan and Benson, hope is rooted in the possibility of a softening in the federal law that put them behind bars for 25 years. But both men appear to be resigned to( the fact that such change is unlikely. Benson himself summed up his chances of a reduced sentence as he said goodbye to a visiting reporter. Declared Benson: “If you need to do a follow-up in 10 or 15 years, call me up. I’ll be here.”
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