Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Oct. 19, 2009)


Theyíre not making gangsters like they used to


  By John Martin


Like most everyone, my earliest impressions of criminals and inmates came by way of watching television. I loved the old black and white gangster films; still do in fact, and vividly recall scenes that I havenít viewed in several decades. The tough guy talk was particularly memorable as well. James Cagney was probably the most hardcore and gave one of his best lines in the film "The Public Enemy" when he bragged, "Youíll never take me alive, copper." Another Cagney feature, "White Heat," had the memorable scene at the end where the gangsters are being killed off during an ambush and he boasts, "They think they've got Cody Jarrett. But they haven't got Cody Jarrett. Ya hear? They haven't got him."

The movies of yesterday were full of characters in prison laughing that they could do a nickel (five years) standing on their head. Others warned that the joint (jail) hasnít been built yet that they couldnít bust out of.

You donít hear much of this tough guy talk anymore; certainly not in this countryís prisons. Instead, youíre more likely to hear inmates crying about smoking restrictions and threatening to talk to their lawyer. Thatís the situation in Quebec where 19 murderers, drug dealers and gangsters have hired an attorney to argue that a smoking ban constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Yup, apparently inmates are suffering from stress, anxiety, headaches and insomnia on account of having to butt out.

The federal prison smoking ban has been in the works for years but due to a number of complications was phased in much more slowly than the bans impacting citizens who donít rob, rape and kill. And now that the ban has taken effect it seems these tough guy, whoop-ass gangsters canít handle it. So what do they do? They go running to their lawyers.

This trend has been underway for quite some time. In recent years weíve had a host of inmates sue the government (often successfully) for the most ridiculous reasons. One inmate who slipped on the wet floor during a racquetball game and broke his ankle was awarded a nice cash sum. Another was given compensation when he rolled head first out of his bunk bed. Still another hit the jackpot when he fell off a hay wagon at a work camp. Trust me, I couldnít make this stuff up if I tried.

Most recently we have the case of a 270 pound inmate in Ontario who won a whopping six grand because the prison apparently was slow in getting him a new pair of size 13, extra-wide runners when his old pair started wearing out. Convicted of killing three young Canadians and a Minnesota police officer in 1978, the inmate was also awarded legal costs. Howís that for hard time?

If these types of stories get you riled I suggest kicking back and renting a copy of one of the greatest epic gangster movies of all time; "Little Caesar" (1931) starring Edward G. Robinson Sure, itís just a Hollywood take on mobsters during prohibition. But itís no more a make believe world than whatís going on in the countryís prisons these days.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2009