Notorious bank robber and author Stephen Reid says he's seen the Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda turn Canada's prison system – once revered for its emphasis on rehabilitation – noticeably more tough and unforgiving on the inside.
"The meanness that's inside of a penitentiary right now compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago is just shocking," he said. "Harper has taken us back … against all common sense, against all compassion and certainly against all criminology experts."
Mr. Reid – a former member of the so-called Stopwatch Gang, a Canadian trio that pulled off more than 100 bank heists in Canada and the United States in the 1970s and 80s – is being released Thursday on statutory parole. The 65-year-old was serving an 18-year sentence related to a 1999 bank robbery in Victoria. He spoke with The Globe and Mail from a halfway house in the area, where he has been since February, 2014.
Now that he's getting out, Mr. Reid, who was once on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's most-wanted list, said he feels obligated to write about the ways in which Canadian jails have changed under the current federal government.
"Prisons are not the way they were, even up to 10 years ago," he said. "Canada, at one point, led the world – people came here to study our correctional system. Now, we're a laughing stock."
Mr. Reid wrote about his Stopwatch days in a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1986 about a gang of bank robbers called Jackrabbit Parole. He also received Victoria's Butler Book Prize in 2013 for a collection of essays titled A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison. Mr. Reid's wife Susan Musgrave is a well-known Canadian poet.
In 1980, Mr. Reid was arrested during an FBI raid in Arizona. He was wanted for 31 robberies committed during his days in the Stopwatch Gang, which included stealing $785,000 in gold bullion from Ottawa's airport in 1974. Mr. Reid was later returned to Canada to serve a sentence related to the Ottawa airport robbery. He was released on parole in 1987.
More than a decade after being released, he was sentenced in 1999 to 18 years in prison for armed robbery and attempted murder after walking into a bank in Victoria with a loaded shotgun and making off with $93,000.
The National Parole Board denied the long-time prisoner's request for full parole in March, concluding that the positive strides he'd made in recent years did not outweigh his risk of reoffending.
But the drug addiction fuelling the bank robbery that led to his current sentence, Mr. Reid said, is now long behind him.
"When I went back in '99, I was at the absolute bottom of the world," he said. "I've humbled myself greatly time and again through addictions … but I have survived."
Still, while Mr. Reid said he's "left the cult" of criminal activity he wrote about in Jackrabbit Parole – which he called "a romantic version of a bunch of bank robbers" – he said he doesn't feel apologetic or the need to ask for redemption from the public.
"I just finished 16 years away from my family and living in little boxes and overcrowded bathrooms, so we're all even," he said. "We're square."
Mr. Reid plans to return to Haida Gwaii in the coming weeks to finish writing his memoir, work on some films and spend time with his wife.