Karla’s lawyer, George Walker, had explained early on what a twelve-year sentence meant – four years, if she continued to behave as she had (this was when he used to visit her in Kingston before Paul Bernardo’s trial, during the first two years of her incarceration) and eight years if she was the worst inmate in the world.
Although there was no impediment to Karla applying for full parole as early as July 6, 1997, after she had served only four years of her sentence, and indeed, the judge and the prosecutor at her trial had deferred parole recommendations, a sign that the authorities would not oppose any application she might bring, Karla herself demurred and decided to wait for her Statutory Release.
Karla had lived up to her end of the bargain. If her name weren’t Karla, she would have been the poster girl for the country’s new women’s penology. She completed the necessary high school credits and then went on to get her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology through a local university’s correspondence program. (Ironically, the only Bachelor of Arts program on offer to her through correspondence from Queen’s University was psychology. She had really wanted to read the law, but that was not possible by correspondence. Sociology had been her next choice, but there were not enough correspondence courses to get a degree.)
The majority of women in prison do not have the equivalent of a Grade Eight education and very few emerge with any further academic credentials. There are many ways to do time and the statistics show that most simply waste it or fight it.
Karla kept her nose clean and stayed out of trouble. She “graduated” from all of the programs the prison insisted she take such as “Anger Management” and “Survivors of Abuse.”
With the prison’s encouragement, she gladly took the “Peer Support” courses offered at Joliette and made a concerted effort to help other women who were having trouble on the inside. But the betrayal was more egregious still because not only did the system not live up to its end of the bargain, it was now patently obvious they were really trying to screw her in the process and make the remaining years of her sentence hell on earth.
What no one seemed to grasp was the fact that doing time in the Reception Center at Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines was a lot “easier” than doing time in Joliette. In Joliette, you were kept busy fourteen hours a day. It was a very structured, disciplined environment. If you were even a minute late for work, or one of your courses, you received demerit points on your record and demerit points directly affected your privileges and progress.
It was no picnic either, trying to live and keep up in a house with seven or eight other drug-addled, strung out women who came from all different walks of life, none of whom were very pleased with themselves or wanted to be where they were. Some women just couldn’t cut it in that kind of environment and those women were sent to special segmented maximum security lockups in men’s prisons like the Regional Reception Center or the big male pen out in Saskatoon.
In Sainte-Anne, they did not really care about the six women they housed. As long as they stayed out of the way and did not cause any trouble, everybody was happy. Not only were there no hairdressers, there were no programs, no therapy (Dr. Perreault was the only staff psychologist and responsible for overseeing and interpreting the administration of the psychological testing) and no work to speak of either.
“Oh well,” as Karla wrote in one of her letters, “I still get paid the same $6.90 a day.”
In Joliette, Karla was working thirty-three hours a week and getting regular therapy. She had responsibilities for which she was held accountable. And she had hope. No one had disavowed her of her obvious belief that she was going to be released on her Statutory Date, in fact quite the opposite. They encouraged her to work hard toward it.
Here, they opened her cell door at 7:30 a.m. The yard opened at nine. She had to be back in her cell by 10:30 p.m. when they were locked in for the night.
Between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., she did exactly as she liked. She had all the time in the world to sit around and think, put on her makeup, fix her hair, take showers, exercise, watch television, read, write letters, kibitz with the other women, sunbathe, and generally twiddle her thumbs. It was by far the easiest time she had done, but the least fulfilling.
It was sure a hell of a lot easier than her first four years in Kingston’s antiquated, gothic Prison for Women where she had been locked down in her tiny third-floor cell twenty-three of twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Then again, now that she thought about it, maybe not. The first two years before she testified at her ex-husband’s trial had really been the easiest time of all. She might have been isolated in the prison tower but they treated her like a princess. She was continually being coached by police and prosecutors in preparation for her appearance as their “star” witness, often for days, sometimes for months at a time. And the prison had provided a psychologist and a psychiatrist whom she could see as often as she wished. During the first two years, Karla often had three or four therapy sessions a week.
Things did change after she testified. Although Sergeants Bob Gillies and Gary Beaulieu came down to see her one last time as they had promised, she never saw another policeman or prosecutor. As far as the police and prosecutors were concerned, Karla had served her purpose. What happened to her from then on was no longer their concern. They got what they wanted – her testimony against her husband and his conviction, on all counts.
At least the prison did not abandon her. They seemed to redouble their therapeutic efforts on her behalf. She kept seeing the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Roy Brown, until he got sick in 1996 and left the prison. He was old and never came back. Then they sent a very prominent Kingston-based psychiatrist, Dr. Sharon Williams, to see her. Dr. Williams was very nice and helped Karla with some issues she had, particularly what she should tell someone whom she might meet after she was released about her crimes and time in prison. But that was a long time ago now.
Karla’s thirty-second birthday was coming up on May 4. Her girlfriends from high school, with whom she used to celebrate around the pool in her parents’ backyard, had long since stopped sending her cards. One by one, they had all betrayed her too. Her former very best girlfriend, Kathy Ford, nee Wilson, had even sold Karla’s letters to a tabloid newspaper. Kathy said it was compensation for the fact that by simply being there, and being in so many of the shots, Karla and Paul had ruined her wedding videos. Karla had always been a bit jealous of Kathy and her seemingly perfect marriage – to a Marine named Alex Ford. Since coming to Sainte-Anne, Karla heard that they were now divorced. So much for happy endings. Karla took some solace knowing that other people “fucked up” too.
Karla would occasionally catch herself dwelling on some ridiculous artifact, like Kathy Ford and her letters, that meant absolutely nothing to her anymore. So much had changed over the seven years she had been in prison. After she had testified in the summer of 1995 and returned to Kingston, her mother started to suffer annual breakdowns between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The reality of what had happened finally sunk in and her mother’s collapses were severe enough that she was hospitalized, sometimes for months at a time. And now her father, who, although quiet, had always been a bit of a rascal and robust, had multiple sclerosis. And her beloved Rottweiler dog, Buddy, was dying. On the plus side, her surviving sister, Lori, with whom she had remained close, had finally married and now had a baby that Karla absolutely adored. Her sister brought him to Joliette so Karla could see him when he was barely two months old. He was beautiful. Karla wanted children herself so badly that the visit had been strangely unsettling.
After years of haggling, the authorities had decided, once and for all, to close the dilapidated Kingston prison. Karla was transferred to general population in Joliette on June 1, 1997. In Joliette, Karla made many new girlfriends and she celebrated her last few birthdays with Tracy Gonzales and Christina Sherry, Linda Veronneau and Stivia Clermont.
Three and a half years later, in what was no more than a politically motivated publicity stunt, Karla’s keepers unceremoniously transferred her to the Psych Center in Saskatoon where she was placed in maximum security isolation. They did not have hairdressers there either. Karla was almost able to look back on it now and laugh. For the first time in a half-dozen years, her mother had managed to stay out of the booby hatch and there Karla was, locked down in one four thousand miles away. She and her mother had actually chuckled about it on the phone. For the first little while out there, every time she phoned her mother the call would not go through and she had to redial two or three times, a sure sign that the prison was monitoring her phone calls. Calls were not supposed to be monitored unless the prisoner was advised, but they were anyway. She confronted the Warden. Naturally, he denied it but after that her calls went through on the first try.
After years in the open environment with eighty other women in Joliette, other than a couple of nurses, two shrinks, a psychologist named Cindy Presse and a couple of her grad students, the only other person she talked to over the four months she was there was her mother.
When they finally shipped Karla back to Quebec in January, they did not immediately place her in Sainte-Anne. There was no room. They had to wait for one of the six cells on Cellblock “A” to become available. Instead, they put her in Institut Philippe Pinel, a psychiatric hospital on the northern boundary of Montreal. They did not offer her any therapy in Pinel either. It made absolutely no sense.