10/17/2013 07:05 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Stephen Reid Bank Robber Wins Victoria Butler Book Prize

VICTORIA - His tales of battling addiction, the painful struggle of prison life and the separation from friends and family have earned one of Canada's most notorious bank robbers a literary prize worth $5,000.

Stephen Reid was a member of the so-called Stopwatch Gang, which hauled in $15 million while robbing some 100 banks in Canada and the United States during the 1970s and 80s.

He is currently serving an 18-year sentence at the William Head Institution on southern Vancouver Island for a 1999 bank robbery and shootout with police in Victoria.

But the spotlight was on Reid, once again, Wednesday night, when he was awarded the 2013 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize for his collection of essays, "A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden:Writing from Prison."

"When he called me tonight, he said 'it was my best jury decision ever,'" said Susan Musgrave, an acclaimed Canadian writer and Reid's wife of 27 years. "Of course the prize is decided by a jury."

"He always has the best one-liners."

In fact, the three-member jury praised Reid's work as a "prison ethnography taut with wit and humanity."

Musgrave said Reid told her that he learned of the award Thursday at noon when he visited the William Head library and read a newspaper.

She said she was actually surprised he won — noting all the books up for consideration were deserving of the award — but added Reid's collection of essays will help people better understand addiction, a problem he's been battling since the age of 11.

Al Forrie, owner of the Saskatchewan-based company, Thistledown Press, which published the book, accepted the award for Reid, calling him a keen observer of the human condition who had the language set and vision to produce the essays.

"It goes beyond the intent of prison memoir and exploitation and Hollywood movie kind off stuff," said Forrie.

"I mean this is a book of deepness, of darkness, of kind of an unbalanced grace, and very few people could have written this, except somebody who has this experience, and has the skills set to be able to transfer it."

Reid, of course, is no literary freshman. He wrote the semi-autobiographical novel, Jack Rabbit Parole, which was published in 1987.

He's also written articles and essays, and according to a statement from the City of Victoria, taught creative writing, worked as a youth counsellor and served on several boards, including the John Howard Society.

Last March the Parole Board of Canada granted him day parole, allowing him to attend a substance-abuse program.

Musgrave said Reid was issued an eight-week pass but is now back in custody and must re-apply for parole.

While a member of the Stopwatch Gang, so named because they used stopwatches to ensure their robberies were committed in less than 90 seconds, Reid was on the FBI's most wanted list.

The FBI arrested him in Arizona in 1980, and he was later returned to Canada to serve his sentence for an Ottawa gold robbery worth $750,000.

Reid was paroled in 1987, but he was back behind bars after being handed an 18-year-sentence for the 1999 Victoria bank robbery.

Wearing a police uniform, Reid and an accomplice walked into a Victoria bank. Reid pointed a loaded shotgun at employees and customers, and the pair fled with $97,000.

During the getaway Reid opened fire with a .44 Magnum handgun on pursuing police officers, including one who was giving chase on a motorcycle.

He also shot at an innocent woman bystander, knocking a paint tray from her hand, in an attempt to create a diversion.

Reid was granted day parole in January 2008 but it was revoked Nov. 6, 2010, after he was caught driving an uninsured vehicle with 18 plastic bags full of contraband U.S. cigarettes.

"This is a man who has lived an extraordinarily, spectacularly dangerous life, and he's been looking at the darkness for so long," said Forrie.

"I mean most of his life has been inside of prisons, and yet he hasn't been consumed by it. He has found something within himself to keep himself from just being absorbed by it all and giving it up."

-- by Keven Drews in Vancouver

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