Joe Gordon was born in Montreal in 1923 but grew up in Vancouver, the last of eight children of a Jewish family ruled by an alcoholic and harsh father. At least that’s what he told the world from his Oakalla Prison death cell.
Repeated stays in detention homes led to armed robberies, prison sentences, the murder of Vancouver City Const. Gordon Sinclair in December 1955, and execution. During those last days on death row, Gordon wrote of his progression from being an unwanted child to being a hardened criminal. He wanted his life story to serve as an example for others. Published in the Vancouver Sun, it’s an amalgam of self-pity and florid rhetoric, condemnation of the judicial system as it was then administered, and a warning to parents to do better by their children. He’s not a professional writer; he continually slips between first and third person. But it’s what he has to say that resonates 60 years later…
“I was six when I first entered the juvenile detention home — my crime — running away from home. My punishment — the strap, the reason I ran away in the first place. That first night in the detention home was a terrible one. Thrust among older boys than myself — all complete strangers — led to my first step into crime.
“Instead of a kindly father to son chat, I received the treatment I had come to fear. Fear is a strange emotion. You may cringe from pain, but despite this respect is lacking. In its place bitterness and rebellion is born. Respect and understanding can never be won by parents through fear of physical pain. It builds resentment for all authority. No one was interested in your reactions, only your obedience…
“You blindly follow instinct and fight with whatever means at your command…those not controlled by authority. Wilful desire and thoughtless emotion rule. Consequently, you break laws regardless of personal sacrifice and loss… The price you pay: Your life.
“As a child, as an adolescent, and more recently as an adult, I sought a substitute for the heart-rending path that only the lonely know. You haven’t reached the age when you are able to reason the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores.’ You follow where emotions and instinct lead. You are guided by frustration, hate and the compulsion of their emotions…”
After quoting from a book, Protecting Children from a Criminal Career, he continues: “I was sentenced to the Industrial School three times for petty offences. Each time I learned more of crime. Punishment succeeds very well in making criminals. It also keeps you on the road of crime and in the company of criminals. These poor unfortunates who were to be my friends welcomed me. Why not? Misery loves company. Also the most compassionate people are criminals for they have suffered the rejection of society.
“You learn from them how to steal a car, break into any sort of dwelling, blow open a safe, how to become a drug addict, a drug connection and a gun man. You become brutal at times, bitter always. You are also soft and sentimental — championing the underdog. You are not yet 15 when sentenced first to Oakalla Prison farm, for possession of burglary tools. In prison I learned what a drug addict was. I was given my first taste of drugs at Oakalla.
“Prison taught me what I know and is teaching others. The only friends I have in life are criminals. Due process of law brought me into contact with them in the first instance. Where no one else I had met showed any interest in my behaviour, these criminals showed me friendship and understanding which I eagerly accepted. Drug addicts, gunmen, pimps and prostitutes — those denizens of the underworld cast out by society — proved to be more humane than their socially acceptable counterparts…
“Every child should be considered sacred and all children equal in this sanctity. Remember, indirectly, we taught our children to be delinquents but failed to teach them the meaning of the word. As a voice in the wilderness crying for aid, teenagers plead for help, but there is none to lend a helping hand. No lifeline is thrown; no assurance or comfort given. It is survival of the fittest and self preservation first…
“Can we blame immature kids for falling prey to temptation? If adults can not resist, how can we expect adolescents to do otherwise? Instead of breaking a kid’s heart why not give him a break and help him[?] Don’t wait while irreparable damage is done to their growing personality traits. To brand a delinquent a criminal is to all but abandon hope. There is probably no longer or lonelier night in the lifetime of a child than the first one spent in a detention home. Official custody inflicts imaginary terror and fear. The full impact is lost in the bitterness it breeds. Sending youngsters to prison puts them in a school of criminal knowledge. Those who were not criminals when they entered will be so on their discharge. Instead of correcting young offenders, it more often demoralizes and hardens them.
“The public servants aren’t interested in guilt or innocence, their sole interest lies in conviction. They condemn 10 when one is guilty — and feel themselves justified. Their power is frightening when you realize they are instrumental in shaping the future of so many youngsters. They rely on the time-worn phrase, ‘society must be protected.’ Juveniles must also be protected from those prone to condemn and convict without factual evidence. Emphasis should not be placed on cure alone but on prevention.
“Social workers and criminologists — although sincere in their desire to help — all too often fail when most needed… This is not a tirade against society. It is meant as a frank appraisal of what society should be and how it can protect its future. The youngster of today will represent society of tomorrow. Guided by understanding and parental love, these juveniles may well be tomorrow’s leaders and go on to help other good citizens.”
So wrote Joe Gordon, armed robber, suspected drug dealer and cop killer from death row. His final words of admonishment of the judicial system of the day and his advice to parents were written 60 years ago. What do you think?