Collision with reality

Richard Nieman smiled across the table in the bare room, rubbing his freshly shaved head. Before a buddy of his gave him the new look, his thick…

Richard Nieman smiled across the table in the bare room, rubbing his freshly shaved head.

Before a buddy of his gave him the new look, his thick black hair fell well past his chin. Nieman marked the spot on the side of his neck with his index finger.

His hobbies mirror those of other 20 year olds.

Nieman picks up a hockey stick whenever he can, although, these days, he mostly plays in an indoor gym.

He likes staring down at the black and white squares of a chessboard, strategizing about the next placement of pawns and castles and knights.

Sometimes he lies in bed with headphones on, losing himself in the squeal of an electric guitar or in the layered digital soundscape of trance music.

Hoping to make a little pocket money and scrape together some savings, Nieman works as a prep-cook, seven days a week, three meals a day.

No, the difference between Nieman and most 20-year-olds is simple — Nieman lives in jail.

In fact, in the past three years he has spent only 121 days out of jail.

Born in Nanaimo, BC, Nieman moved to Beaver Creek when he was four.

He was also born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Caused by pre-natal exposure to alcohol, FASD is a complex birth defect that affects each child differently.

While FASD can manifest physically, causing characteristics like malformed bones and small stature, it always damages the brain.

A broad spectrum of problems can stem from this brain damage, including low IQ, learning disorders, behavioural problems, hyperactivity and a shortened life span.

Because the source of these problems is brain damage, there is no cure for FASD.

On top of that, Nieman’s childhood was far from stable.

He bounced between a variety of homes throughout his childhood and into his teenage years, sleeping in a number of beds in many towns.

 He knows the Yukon well, having called Beaver Creek, Marsh Lake and Whitehorse home.

The eldest of four children, Nieman’s two brothers and two sisters are still living in care in the territory.

With a broad easy smile and a calm deep voice, Nieman’s body seems older than his 20 years.

Despite his imposing frame in the sparse interview room, there is a naïve quality to the way he speaks about what went wrong for him.

In 2003, the year he turned 18, Nieman found himself serving time for assault and theft over $5,000.

After he got out, he was jailed again for stealing cars, he said.

He was released on Christmas Eve 2004, managing to ring in the new year as a free man.

By January 3, a week and a half later, he was back inside Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

He’s been there ever since.

What happened?

Nieman ended up in a motel after being released.

With no support or counseling, he found himself returning to bad habits.

Predators are a major problem, said Shirley McKay, who works at Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon.

They know when vulnerable people get out of jail and try to get them back on drugs and alcohol.

There was nowhere else for Nieman to go but the motel, said McKay.

Nieman knows he needs help to turn his life around.

“I feel normal,” he said.

He notices the small differences though.

Working in the kitchen, he sometimes struggles with his with short-term memory, although he is exceptionally good at remembering numbers and dates.

When tasked with a job in the kitchen, preparing juice for example, he’ll sometimes stop midway through to start getting the garnishes ready.

It’s not only an issue of concentration. Nieman is also eager to please.

He starts in on the next task because he wants to get the meal on the table quickly and make his boss happy.

Working in kitchen helps to pass the days in jail, and Nieman does best when he’s busy.

The day usually begins at 6 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. on weekends.

Nieman heads to the kitchen to help prepare meals, stirring ingredients into soup or topping up bottles of ketchup.

Once the meal is ready to be doled out, kitchen staff chow down before general population come to get their grub.

Repeating this routine at lunch and dinnertime, Nieman is paid $4.50 a day.

With insider knowledge of what goes into meals served up at the jail, Nieman steers clear of grease.

“You can gain a lot of weight in here because it’s mostly grease,” he said.

“Some people in here have a really fast metabolism.”

His favourite meal is cereal with fruit, like bananas, oranges and green grapes.

Nieman is to be released again in May. He wants a fresh start.

“I wanna work and save up and pay off my debts,” he said. “I’d like to buy some clothes and keep exercising.”

Kicking the bottle is a key part of his plan.

It’s hard to stick to all these changes on his own though, he added, noting that he needs support.

Help may not be there for Nieman though, McKay said.

“He needs an apartment in a home where he would have someone to talk to when he’s getting stressed and things like that. But there’s just nothing out there.”

Last time Nieman got out, they had an emergency billet set up. The couple decided they didn’t want an ex-con living in the house, though.

“I told them, ‘I messed up. I took a car,’” Nieman said.

So, he ended up booking in at a motel for a few days. Then it was back to bunking down behind bars.

This time, he wants to break the cycle.

Nieman dreams about working with horses.

A few years back, he took a wrangling and packing course on a ranch on the Alaska Highway.

 “I just like being in the outdoors. It’s sunny out and being around these horses that are really calm and good with humans,” Nieman said.

He has a connection to horses, and likes working away from big crowds of people.

“As a wrangler, you make good money too and get lots of experience with horses,” he said.

“Then they might say, ‘Can you clean out all the chimneys and the cabins for next year, split wood for next year?’”

If these kinds of programs were set up in advance, it would be easier to transition back into life outside the walls of the corrections centre, Nieman said.

“I never thought of it like that before but it would be much better if stuff was all lined up.”

The other times he’s been released there was nothing waiting for him except the front door, he said.

He had no transportation into town, no work or activities lined up, no place to stay and little money in his pocket.

“If the supports are set up in advance, Richard will have a much better chance for success,” said McKay.

The money is there to fund these kinds of programs, McKay added, noting it would be far cheaper to fund prevention programs than to keep people like Nieman in jail.

Currently, Nieman is living in a dorm with six other inmates. The other dorm contains 26 beds.

Living in the smaller dorm makes it easier for him to focus, he said.

While Nieman wants to make his way back into the saddle, he said he’s open to any job other than dish washing.

At 5 p.m., Nieman left the interview room for the kitchen.

A guard told him dinner prep had been done. So, it was back to the dorm.

But, before walking down the hall in his bright-red cotton suit, Nieman turned, and smiled.