The road to prison is lined by cedars tall enough to block the setting sun. The tarmac is slick from an evening shower and the narrow glimpses of ocean that glisten like spilled ink between the ruddy trunks appear more ominous than the calm I always associate with lapping waves.
At the end of the narrow road, I pull into the waterfront parking lot of the William Head Institution, a minimum-security facility located in Metchosin, about 25 kilometres west of Victoria. It’s just turned 7 p.m., but the oncoming winter has already put a damper on our lazy evening light and the area is dark.
Stepping out of the Jeep, I’m engulfed in the aromatic musk of cut cedar. It’s a comforting scent that always delivers fond memories of my father, a skilled carpenter who turns wood into art. Beside the parking lot are piles of split firewood, bundled, tied and ready for pick up.
I head toward the main gates, noticing the 20-foot tall metal fences topped with lethal loops of razor wire. A watchtower stands at the water’s edge, but tonight it appears dark and empty.
A sign at the gate warns me not to bring anything inside: wallet, cellphone, money, electronics of any kind, etc.
According to Correctional Services Canada, William Head opened in 1959 and can hold up to 140 inmates, with 20 per cent of those serving less than 40 months, 27 per cent serving more than 40 months and 53 per cent serving life sentences. It employs a staff of 101.
After walking through the metal scanner, I’m instructed to hang my jacket on a hook and hold my hands by my side while a handsome chocolate lab gives a sniff for drugs. Satisfied that I’m not smuggling in contraband, I’m escorted to a waiting van to be driven through the compound to the inmates’ gym. On the short drive, I note the absence of prison blocks or cells. Here, the inmates live in a cluster of duplexes, which can each house five people.
Surrounded on three sides by water, the spit of federal land has the bones of a luxury resort. And if not for the razor wire, uniformed guards and strictly enforced rules, I would be jealous.
At the gym, I catch my first glimpse of the reason I am here. Rows of red plastic chairs face a whitewashed medieval castle where tonight’s performance of Gormenghast will come to life. Directed by Ian Case, the play features a unique cast of nine inmate actors and three local actresses (Ingrid Hansen; Kate Rubin and Michelle Chowns).
Although dubbed a fantasy classic, Gormenghast is not my favourite piece of theatre. However, despite this misgiving, the energetic and villainous cast makes me eat my words. Performed with gusto and with visually impressive stage direction, the inmates of William Head made me a believer. Go for the adventure; stay for the show. Gormenghast runs until Nov. 12. M