You may know John Williams by the “bad boy truck” he drives around Harrison Hot Springs. You may know him by his nickname Cookie, coming from his time as a cook in the Navy.
But you probably don’t know the whole story of his 36 years in jail — and that’s what Williams is sharing in his recently published book Life on the Inside.
“It’s a good book for someone who wants to know what correctional officers really do,” Williams explained over the phone.
“It’s not our job to treat these guys any different from how we would treat anyone else,” he said. “These guys have been sentenced already, they’re in jail. Our job is to make sure they’re safe, we’re safe, the community’s safe. That’s our job.”
Williams, 64, began writing his history as a correctional officer several years ago, but the story begins long before, in the mid-1970s.
Then Williams had left the Navy to help his sister out of trouble.
With little money to his name, he had hooked up with a friend who was doing break-and-enters in garages. He had a problem with authority, and no intention of working in the B.C. penitentiary system.
But, “somebody came along at a point in my life where I could have been behind bars, on the other side,” Williams said.
That someone was the father of his-then girlfriend, who Williams needed to make a good impression on in order to keep dating his daughter. Then Williams showed up to a family dinner in a car that he said he had “pumped full of coin.”
“He knows I’m not working, he’s not dumb,” Williams remembered.
“He looks at me and he says, ‘John, if you’re going to date my daughter, you’re going to need a job. And they’re actually hiring at the British Columbia Penitentiary …. With your military background and your honourable discharge, and my recommendation, you’re in.’”
And he was.
In 1977, Williams became a guard at the B.C. Penitentiary, sparking a career that saw him move to Kent Institution, Mountain Institution, the Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village (although it was Elbow Lake Institution when he started), and finally end his career as regional president for a newly minted union.
At the beginning, Williams said, being a guard was “a bit of an adjustment.” But, he had an advantage.
“I had been on that other side of the fence, for a short period of time,” he explained.
“I can relate to these guys. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and all of a sudden put on a uniform and be a cop in jail. I had some experience in the background.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean every interaction was pleasant in William’s career.
His book outlines a several stories from the inside, including one at Kent Institution where he said he and his partner “almost didn’t come out.”
Williams and his partner were circled by a dozen inmates. Standing back to back, the two guards waited as one inmate was swearing, pushing into Williams’ space.
“I knew this kid for about five years in jail, and this is a side of him I had never seen before,” Williams said. “He was maybe a foot and a half away from my face and swearing at me. You could see the anger pouring off him.”
Then, the inmate took a step back.
“I took the hint, and then I backed up a foot, and as fast as it started, it dissipated just as quick,” Williams said.
Although Life on the Inside touches on some of the major changes to corrections during Williams’ career, at its heart the book aims to move past the negative interactions most people associate with the career.
“It’s how you deal with these guys,” Williams said. “The respect is both sides of the book. You show them respect, you’ll get it back.”
“We all have a bad side in us. It all depends on how you bring that part out.”
Life on the Inside is published by Friesen Press, and is available for purchase through the publisher’s website and lifeontheinside.ca.