A New Life

It was nearing the end of his holiday in the spring of 1996, when Gerry Griffin pulled up to the cutoms booth in Melilla, on the northern coast of Morocco.  He and a childhood friend had been overseas for almost a month, having landed in Amsterdam and rented a Volksvagen van so they could go camping across Western Europe and Northern Africa.  Now it was down to the final leg:  across the Mediterranean to Spain, up through France and Belgium to Amsterdam and then home to Canada where Mr. Griffin would return to his Orleans home and his job as a real estate developer.

But, as Mr. Griffin approached the Spanish customs stop – Melilla is on the northern coast of Morocco but it is Spanish territory – he could tell trouble was in the air.  There were police everywhere.  Soldiers with rifles were staking out the ferry terminal and when they saw Mr. Griffin and his friend approach in the van, they lept into action.  Mr. Griffin and his friend were both ordered out of the van at gunpoint and the officers began to search them and the van.

“I’m yelling at them in English and they don’t understand a word I’m saying.” Mr. Griffin says.  “Then, after an hour-and-a -half, they pull out these drills and start drillinginto the sides of the van.  I was thinking, Jesus Christ, we’re going to have to pay for this. I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”

About 15 minutes later, Mr. Griffin figured out exactly what was going on.  One of the soldiers drilling into the sidewall of the van pulled out his drill and it was covered in thick brown paste.  Hash.  When the soldiers finished disassembling the van, they discovered 68 kilograms of hashish hidden away in the side panelling.  Mr. Griffin and his friend were about to begin a five year odessey that would take them from the rat-infested bowels of a Moroccan prison to the relative sanctuary of Millhaven maximum secuirty prison near Kingston.

And, the amazing thing is, that if he had it to do all over again, Mr. Griffin wouldn’t change a thing.  “It was the single most precious experience of my life, ” Mr. Griffin says today.  “After what I went through in prison, I realized a couple of fundamental things, one of them being that the most important thing in the world was happiness.  I also realized that the only thing in life that I really wanted to do was play music.  I decided enough with real estate, enough with everything else.  I told myself, if I ever get out of this place, I was going to sink or swim in the music business, no matter what.

Now, after having spent three years in African and European prisons and another year and a half in the Canadian prison system, Mr. Griffin, 50, has given up every aspect of the life he led before that fateful vacation.  His first CD, “Hour Glass” was released in 1996 and now he criss-crosses the country in an RV, playing his special blend of blues and folk music at every bar, pub and festival that will have him.

As he sits and sips a coffee at The Snug Pub in the Byward Market, Mr. Griffin even looks every bit the musician:  he has long grey hahair, tattoos decorating his arms and silver rings in both of his ears.  “I was like a square peg in a round hole all my life,” Mr. Griffin says, “Now I’m like a round peg in a round hole.”

Mr. Griffin was born in Vancouver and his parents moved him around the west coast as he was growing up.  The family moved to Deep River, about 175 kilometers north west of Ottawa when Mr. Griffin was nine.  He grew up loving music, playing guitar and harmonica.  He left high school early, married early and bounced around Montreal and the Ottawa area until settling in Orleans in the early 1980s.  “I was always around music, but it was never a full time career” Mr. Griffin syas, “I guess I was busy trying to hold down a job and take care of my family.”

But his 25 year relationship with his wife was slowly disintegrating.  By the late 1980s , the couple decided to divorce and the papers were signed in 1989.  Shortly after the divorce wnt thorugh, his friend came to him with the idea of taking a camping holiday in Europe and Africa.  “I thought it was a great idea, a chance to get away,” Mr. Griffin says, so they set off in the spring of 1990, ready for adventure.  “It was a great trip!, Mr. Griffin says, “I just didn’t expect it to end the way it did.”

When the officers discovered the hash in the rented Volkswagen van, Mr. Griffin and his friend were taken to the city jail in Melilla. At the court appreance the next morning, the magistrate, through an interpreter, told Mr. Griffin he had nothing to worry about.  But there was an administrative bungle and the two men were taken to the worst prison in Melilla – a Moorish fortress that had been built in the late 1400s and converted to a prison.

“If you ever saw the movie “Midnight Express” – that was a really nice prison compared to the one we were in,” Mr. Griffin says.  “As a new prisoner, they gave you a urine-soaked blanket and they shoved you out onto the prison patio where 150 people dive on you, trying to rip everything of value off of you.  Once we were in there, I realized we were in for a serious, serious problem.”  There were about 250 people in the prison, mostly Africans but with a handful of Europeans mixed in.  The prisoners were housed with more than 30 to a cell, stacked three or four high in bunks.

“The conditions were just abhorent.  There were thousands of rats, human feces all over the floor – the toilet was a hole in the floor with a mountain of feces around it.  Rats would jump up out of the hole and bit your balls if you didn’t cup yourself when you squatted over the hole.  Maggots, rats, millions of those AFrican coackroaches.  It was unbelievable.”

Much to his dismay, Mr. Griffin was not released after seven to ten days as he had been promised, but instead, he and his friend were taken back to the courthouse to stand trial. “The whole thing took five minutes and we didn’t even have an interpreter,” Mr. Griffin says, “It was a joke.  They gave me eight years, four months and a day.”  Mr. Griffin immediately contacted the Canadian consulate in Spain, but to no avail:  he was going to have to serve the time in Morocco until the case could be looked into.  He was carted back to the 15th century prison in Melilla.

One of the first things he had to deal with was his friend.  “I was totally disgusted with him.  He folded up big time – he had a breakdown.  What he did with the drugs, it drove me insane for about a month, but what are you going to do?  Run around hating someone for the rest of your life?  Let you bitterness get the best of you?  What’s the point of that?”

Mr. Griffin is adamant that he had nothing to do with the drug smuggling.  Still, he is protective of his past and the friend who got him in trouble.  He refuses to fgve up his friend’s name, saying he’s been through enough trouble.

The conditions were so bad at the Melilla prison that in less than a year, there were two violent riots, with prisoners lighting fires in hopes of raising awareness about the brutal conditions.  After the second riot, Mr. Griffin was transferred to a prison in Spain.  “It looked like an improvement from the outside, but it wasn’t much better.  Trust me,” Mr. Griffin says.

Mr. Griffin’s continued efforts  to have his conviction overturned met little success.  Even worse, he says, Canadian officials refused to help.  “If you get in trouble in a foreign country, do not contact the consulate or embassy because if you life was difficult before, guaranteed they’ll make it worse.  In my case, they took the side of the Spanish government.  “You are presumed guilty, if it is a drug offence, by the Canadian authorities.” 

Mr. Griffin became so desparate at one point, he even went on a hunger strike.  He went for weeks, and was ready to push on, but he wasn’t ready to let his life slip away.  “I realized I was making a point, but I also started to see what I was giving up … I had been writing in my journal and I was really getting into the music again, so I started to eat.  I wasn’t going to let the system get the best of me.”

Back in Canada, Mr. Griffin’s friends were trying to raise support for his cause.  They held a benefit to raise money for anything he needed.  “A friend brough the money to me in Spain and asked what, other than my freedom, did I want.  I said, without hesitations, a guitar.”  With that, he started writing music again.  Nine out of the 10 songs on his first CD were written while incarcerated overseas.

He continued to be shuffled about the Spanish prison system until 1993 when Canadian authorities managed a prisoner exchange.  He was sent to Millhaven in the fall of 1993.   “When I got there, it was like, wow! Recognizable food. A library! Cells with only two people in them.  Television! This was heaven.”  He was transferred to the minimum security Frontenac Institue shortly thereafter, and then put in a halfway house in Ottawa in 1995.

He then became fixated on his music career.  He began recording and writing more songs.  He also hooked up with Heather Houston, a former procurement officer for third-world aid organizations who became his manager, girlfriend and back-up singer.  The couple bought an enormous RV to travel the country in.  So far, they have played across Canada, including appearances at the Winnipeg and South Country Fair folk festivals.  This July marks a year straight that they have been on the road.  Next week they set out for Kingston and Peterborough before they head for the West Coast.  “We’ve had great reception so far, but we still don’t have a name for ourselves,” Ms Houston says, “… as they say in the music business – it takes 10 years of work to become an overnight success.”

“I’d like to think most of my songs are about the human condition.”  Mr. Griffin says.  He is looking forward to when his parole is up in August 1999.  “I’m just doing what makes me happy” Mr. Griffin says.  “And that’s the best thing a person can do.  Everything happens for a reason.”

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