Daniel Dufresne’s first night in jail was September 8, 1999 – his 24th birthday – and he did not enjoy it.
The tiny cell was more like a walk-in closet; six feet wide by 22 feet long. There was no mattress to sleep on, nothing to wear but a plastic poncho and nothing to read.
“Time felt like it didn’t even exist anymore or at least matter. I cried, I laughed, I counted cracks on the walls, the ceiling, the floor… I was broken – nothing more than a dog in a cage,” wrote the now 41-year-old Fernie resident in his novel There’s No Skateboarding in Jail.
On the night of February 19, 1999, Dufresne crashed his pickup truck into Toronto’s 13th Division Police Station nearly killing one of his best friends. He was was given a one-year prison sentence, two year’s probation and a three-year driving suspension.
Now he wants to impart the lessons contained in a journal he kept during his incarceration, which he recently published, to a younger generation in the hopes they will learn from his mistakes.
Dufresne was born in New Brunswick and has been living in Fernie for the last 10 years. He works at Rocky Mountain Village and is purportedly the only male care aide in the Elk Valley.
In 1999, Dufresne was a film student at the University of Toronto. He and his friend Michael, (Dufresne declined to give his friend’s last name), had started up their own film company and were halfway through their first movie when they decided to have a celebration.
They got drunk and at around two o’clock in the morning Michael got into a fight with his girlfriend, said Dufresne. She wanted him home.
“Mike and I argued for a little while and finally I just kind of gave in. I thought maybe I’d sobered up enough. I don’t know. I decided to make the drive, I fell asleep at the wheel and drove right into the 13th Division Police Station,” he said.
Michael was seriously hurt in the accident but paramedics were already on scene and though he lived, he spent the next six months in a coma.
“The doctors were able to bring him back, which is why I got the light sentence,” said Dufresne. “The Crown was actually asking for 14 years and I got one.”
“I got a second chance at life.”
In jail Dufresne met a variety of people. His book chronicles the roughly four months he served at the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton.
The book makes it clear that there was, in fact, no skateboarding in jail, but there was baseball, ping-pong, pool and a host of men who were guilty of the worst offences.
“I met them all,” said Dufresne. “Murderers, pedophiles, drug addicts. I talked to them all.”
He talks about a man named Irish who picks on those smaller than him in the yard.
There’s his cellmate Scully, a man in his 30s with long hair who talks really slow from doing too much “junk” but who nonetheless has an advanced vocabulary and knows a lot about chemistry.
The months he spent in jail were a formative experience but his problems with alcohol persisted, even after his release.
“You would think that the drinking stopped but it didn’t,” he said. “I got out of jail and continued drinking for almost a year before I really started to realize that I didn’t want to continue down that path.”
He received counselling from the John Howard Society, which helps convicts readjust to normal life, because institutionalized living had affected Dufresne’s ability to cope with the outside world.
“You become used to getting told when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, when to sleep, when to get up, who to talk to and who not to talk to,” he said. “So when you come out it’s very overwhelming.”
He said he felt lucky to have only served four months, and to have done so in an institution that offered counselling.
“Let’s say I’d done 14-years in a maximum-security prison for my crime, I don’t think I could have returned to society,” he said.
Counselling helped Dufresne realize that it was time to make some big life changes. He’d been drinking since the age of 14. A migraine sufferer from a young age, he was always told to avoid drugs for fear that they would make the migraines worse, so he turned to alcohol, which he could easily obtain from his parent’s liquor cabinet or from strangers at the beer store.
“It became the easy drug,” he said.
In 2002 his father died of cancer at the age of 50, which was a tragedy that inspired him to drastically change his life.
“I was like, ‘this isn’t right I’m going down the wrong path,’” he said. “And all I wanted to do my whole life was be in the mountains and snowboard. So I gave everything up and moved out here, the rest is history.”
“Life has been incredible ever since.”
Dufresne hopes his book will educate youth on the unforeseen consequences of drinking and driving. Aside from doing time, he faced a lawsuit, declared bankruptcy and continues to deal with fallout from the incident to this day.
He never thought that a drinking and driving incident in his 20s would affect his ability to buy a home in his 40s, but it has.
“People don’t realize that. They think okay you get caught drinking and driving, you’re going to get a ticket, maybe they’ll impound your car, maybe you’ll hurt somebody and maybe you’ll even do a little time in jail….” he said. “It’s not true, there’s so much more that people don’t realize. You have court, you have lawyer fees, you have getting sued, you have your credit ruined, you have family that doesn’t want to talk to you and you have employers who don’t want to hire you. The list can go on and on.”
“But I’m not complaining, not in any way. I am very grateful and I realize how lucky I am. I hurt someone really bad. I could have taken his life. I know I put his parents through hell,” he added.
While he was in prison, the biggest complaint fellow inmates had towards him was that he always had to have the last word.
So before he left, he let them write a message of their choosing in his journal that he agreed not to read until he was released, which would allow the inmates to get the last word for once.
These messages are featured in the last pages of the book, which is available on Amazon.ca.
“You can find pretty incredible messages from people. Terrible men who’ve done terrible things yet there’s always hope and these people took the time,” he said. “Even if you’re not a reader just flip right to the back of the book and read those last two pages. You’ll get everything you need.”