Maximum Minimum Medium:
A Journey Through Canadian Prisons

by Julius Melnitzer,
382 pages,
ISBN: 1550135856

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Prison Pros and Cons
by Jeff Walker

IN THE EARLY 1980S, BRIAN Molony's embezzlements from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce resulted in $10.2 million in losses. (See Gary Ross's riveting Stung ) From the late '80s until mid-1991, Julius Melnitzer, a lawyer in London, Ontario, outdid Molony by not only defrauding five banks of an unrecovered $12.35 million, but bilking trusting friends, partners, and associates for an additional $14.7 million! A gambling addiction drove Molony. An insistence that the world take far greater notice of him than was warranted by his legal career is what drove Julius Melnitzer.

Melnitzer planned to garner enhanced recognition via an almost comically garish display of the wealth that others were persuaded was a product of his financial wizardry. But that wealth really consisted of an eventually staggering $61.1 million in bank loans backed by falsified financial statements and forged stock certificates. "I wanted everything, at any price," he acknowledges in Maximum, Minimum, Medium. Upshot: Molony was paroled after two and a half years; Melnitzer -- ditto. Mel (his prison nickname) even argues that though his victims might be unhappy with such an early parole, "Victims aren't above the law." He philosophizes, I could not undo what I had done, but neither could I live forever by the opinions of others: that was too much like my old life."

The journalist Brian Martin writes in Never Enough: The Remarkable Frauds of Julius Melnitzer (1993) that following Mel's sentencing,

he was reportedly attempting to interest book publishers in his story. He was looking for a sizable advance, reflecting his continued "think big" approach to life. But he found no takers.

That is, until Martin's book started selling briskly. With a ready-made market for some sort of sequel and with Met already typing away furiously on his PC (Prison Cellcomputer), a book prospect rematerialized. O.J.'s Simpson's "exculpatory" topped best-seller lists (leaving most people wishing that at least his lawyers could be convicted if O.J. walks) and now Canada has an actual confession, from a practitioner of criminal law yet, who's already been to the stammer. Enough Already! would have been my preferred title, though. This flabby epilogue to Martin's superb account merely belabours the prison woes Mel brings on himself and indulges in prison epiphanies we wish he'd kept to himself.

Here's a Mel prose sampler:

The "Grey Goose" [prisoner- transport bus] was not grey, and its squared off rectangular body bore no resemblance to fowl. I have no idea how the bus got its name ... there wasn't much to distinguish the Goose from its school-bus relatives.

Want more? The Blue Jays World Series hoopla "proved that, even in the dungeons, the keepers and the kept could hold hands, if only for a moment, finding their own hope in the same breath of air." And flashing back to a pre-sentencing stroll through a Toronto neighbourhood after allegedly swallowing 80 222s, "There were only a few passers-by; no longer evaluating, I opened myself to the beauty of our shared humanity in their faces and glances," and, nearing his chic Yorkville condo, "I fought the inclination to mourn my ouster from this charmed world." His nausea induces retching a few hours later, but many a reader will have beaten him to the bowl, having ingested, right in the introduction, "Here [in prison] I would learn that the present, anywhere, is most precious because it is most fleeting: even as we contemplate it, it passes." Two basic elements of this memoir clash cacophonously: the surprising cosiness of Mel's time in the joint, and Mel's insufferable whining, which actually starts right after his arrest:

[The law firm] Cohen, Melnitzer expelled -- not suspended -- me immediately, demonstrating how quickly human nature overrides principle when our own ass is on the line. [Come again? Mel had confessed. Therefore the firm had no choice] ... Our Rosedale home was broken into and its furniture repossessed without notice by our decorators, Gluckstein Design, within forty-eight hours of my arrest, using the key with which Deena had trusted them.... [Good for Gluckstein; Mel still owes his other creditors $20 million]

To be mentally prepared for incarceration Mel has relaxation classes and private psychotherapy, each twice weekly, for three months. (I finally saw a psychiatrist six days after my arrival ..." he moans, following a prison transfer.) He does less than two months in maximumsecurity prisons, seemingly less gruelling than the average Outward Bound trip. In fact at maximum-security Millhaven, Mel's lawyer's inside connections make things especially nice for Mel, including "nightly feasts." When the favouritism generates resentment among fellow inmates, one challenges Mel to a fight, but the other cons intervene and even oblige Mel's antagonist to apologize. That's the worst of Mel's maximum hell. Transferred to Beaver Creek, minimum security's "Club Fed," " ... sensations of hopelessness tingled over my body like a frozen Popsicle on a warm tongue."Within months, he threatens to kill a fellow camper for spreading the true rumour that Mel's wife is leaving him. Later, during a basketball game, Mel attacks a fellow lawyer who accidentally hits him in the groin with the ball, requiring four men to pry apart the battling legal beagles. With 100 per cent justification, the warden ships Mel off to Warkworth (medium security) near Peterborough, Ontario, eliciting indignant Mel-whinings whose echoes will reverberate until the reader slaps the book shut. Ironically, after settling in to his new digs, Mel comes to prefer them. Many moons later he writes, "Warkworth, desperate for space, had been trying to send me back to minimum since early [1993] but, content with the anonymity and my routine and delighted with the way the staff treated me, I refused to go." Refused to go? Tough system, this.

Why did Mr. M. turn bad? It seems that young Julius had to bribe his way into participating in games with other kids at his parochial Jewish school, establishing a pathological pattern. "No matter how successful I became, I could never earn enough to buy the love of the whole world: some crimes start when kids don't get to play." [my emphasis] He even suggests that not until an attempt in prison to transfer out could he break that pattern: "Here was a chance to make a real choice, perhaps the first since I'd bought my way into the soccer games at the age of six." [my emphasis again] Underlying the pattern was a demanding father emotionally traumatized by the Holocaust murders of I I kin including a first wife and their twin children. First-born Julius's escalating successes and the tokens thereof were expected, but would never be enough to please father in any definitive way. The foregoing summarizes the unconvincing psychohistory Mel has co- fashioned with his psychiatrist since his arrest. He confesses that a written psychiatric assessment of himself, excerpted in the book, contains "devastating revelations." In fact, its psychobabble is no more impressive than Mel's invocation of the trendy term "self-esteem" at every opportunity or his last word on wife number two, Deena, "Our marriage had been an affair. With that realization, I let go."

Mel comes out in favour of jail time for big-time white collar criminals -- for the effective shaming job it does on them. "Community service at the time of my sentencing could [merely] have reignited the need for recognition that destroyed me," he writes. But Mel can tell us this now because the time he did was so easy and so short. Maximum, Minimum, Medium inadvertently provides a good argument for delaying parole eligibility for Julius Melnitzer and his like.


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