After spending nearly half his life behind bars, Dan Whalen, 32, is sharing his story with students across Alberta to educate them about the consequences of crime.
On March 4th, Whalen visited Lacombe Outreach School to tell students about his struggle with violence, crime and addiction.
Whalen said he got caught up in a life of crime because he was not equipped to deal with the struggles of everyday life. Now, he is better equipped to deal with those struggles and while he still thinks about turning to crime, he remembers what life in prison was like and how much he missed out on while serving time.
“I have reasons to not do the things that I did anymore,” said Whalen.
Born in Newfoundland to an abusive father, Whalen was often beaten as a child. When he was eight and his family moved to Calgary, he thought things might get better. However, when he was caught stealing a candy bar from a shop, his father beat him so badly he couldn’t get out of bed for three days.
After that, Whalen was the one who was blamed whenever something was missing from the house or elsewhere in the neighbourhood, he said.
Whalen added this was particularly problematic as his brother was a kleptomaniac. So, at 13, he decided if he was going to constantly be blamed for someone else’s stealing, he might as well commit the crime himself.
“If I was going to be punished for stealing, I was actually going to steal something.”
So, he stole his parents’ car at 3 a.m. one morning and crashed it. Luckily, Whalen was unhurt in the accident but was eventually convicted and did his first stretch of time in prison at the Calgary Young Offenders Centre.
Because of his small size, staff at the Young Offenders Centre didn’t think Whalen would be safe in a regular boys unit and so was put in a girls unit where the girls were not allowed to talk or socialize with him at all.
After his bail and conviction however, Whalen refused to go back in the girls unit, and was placed in a regular boys unit.
It wasn’t long before he was challenged by one of the biggest boys in his unit, he said. Whalen decided he had two options, take a beating from the larger boy, or fight back. He decided to fight back and to his surprise, he won.
It was the beginning of his reputation as a fighter, one that would follow him throughout his entire life in and out of prison.
After serving his sentence as a young offender, Whalen moved back in with his family. However, it wasn’t long before he ran away from home to escape his abusive father.
With no money and no job skills, Whalen turned to a life of crime to support himself. Whalen said that he felt like he had little other option at the time, but added he made no excuses or justifications for what he did.
Inevitably, he wound up back in prison. He then got caught up in a cycle of being incarcerated, being released and ending up in jail again.
Whalen said that counting parole and time spent in open custody, he has probably lived 17 years of his life in jail.
Each time he got released and things started to turn around for him, something happened that would send him in a downward spiral again. However, it was a long time before Whalen was willing to make the life changes necessary to break that cycle.
He said that prison was where he felt he belonged. He had friends there, a reputation and felt accepted.
“Jail was where I felt most comfortable.”
It wasn’t until Whalen became addicted to drugs and lost a few friends to drugs that he was began to look at his life differently.
He said he got tired of seeing the same people coming back to prison after being released and was tired of being a part of that cycle himself. Whalen said he wanted to get out, get clean, grow up and have a life.
“I just got fed up with it,” said Whalen. “When you are in jail, time stands still. You don’t age, you don’t mature. I got tired of being that 19-year-old kid.”
Whalen has now made great strides in moving his life in a positive direction.
He has a job, his own place and has even worked to repair his relationship with his father, who has made several life changes of his own and is now a pastor.
Today, Whalen works for the Seventh Step Society, sharing his story with young people throughout the province.
Whalen said he hopes his story will keep young people from a life of crime. He added he wishes someone like himself had come to speak at his school when he was a kid to tell him what life in and out of prison might be like.
In the future, he hopes to go to school to become a social worker and continue working to keep young people from a lifestyle such as the one he is still working to get out of.