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Editor’s Note: The following story includes mentions of domestic violence, drug use, and incarceration. Please read accordingly. Also note that certain identifying details have been omitted for privacy reasons, including locations and timelines. References to police are not necessarily referring to Waterloo Regional Police Services.

The Grand Valley Institution for Women is the only federal women’s prison in Ontario. People from all walks of life end up there for varying reasons. The common thread between them is that readjusting to life outside of prison is a challenge, and resources need to be in place to help women, regardless of where they go, after they leave GVI. This is the story of one woman — we’ll call her M for privacy — and her experience with the rehabilitation program Stride.

The Grand Valley Institution for Women is tucked away in the bustling, traffic heavy neighbourhood of Homer Watson, around the corner from Pioneer Park. It houses up to 215 women serving federal sentences. Women come and go all year long, some choosing to resettle in KW after their release. The Stride program helps current and former inmates rehabilitate and readjust to life after incarceration.

Every Tuesday evening, a team of volunteers and coordinators set up in GVI’s main compound for what are called “Stride Nights,” where women are able to participate in things like arts and crafts, karaoke, talent shows, and other activities. They also help the women form what are called “Stride Circles” where they can choose two or three volunteers to have as supports while they are in prison, as well as when they get out.

“Every circle is different depending on the person being supported,” said Kim Moore, who was Stride’s event coordinator and is now the policy and reporting coordinator.

Stride is under the umbrella of CJI (Community Justice Initiatives) – a local non-profit organization that is also responsible for programming including Restorative Justice and other conflict mediation services. Stride is its own branch and secured five-year funding in 2014 in order to advance their model of helping women in prison reintegrate successfully into a community, as well as help the community prepare to receive them safely. Stride currently has five full time staff, but relies heavily on a group of volunteers. Moore says the program the same positive results without them.

“We couldn’t do this work the same way, impact as many women if we didn’t have the volunteers doing the front-line work.”

Volunteers go through a training period in order to assist the women at GVI but there is nothing specific that they do – no dogmatic directive or political agenda – they simply go and spend quality time with the women, opening themselves up to talk about whatever they may have on their mind, as well as provide assistance in helping them find resources. They are also there to assist them through the reintegration period: things like securing housing, re-connecting with their families, finding employment, and the multitude of other hurdles they face before release.

M’s story starts out fairly typical. She was married in her 20’s, had two children, and went through an amicable divorce. As a single mother, she balanced the responsibilities of motherhood and a stressful career. By 29 she became executive vice-president of a marketing company, travelling all over the world for work while raising her kids, one of whom had a terminal illness.

She said she had no time for men. She’d go on dates when she was away on business, but wasn’t looking for anything serious. Then, at 31 she met someone who would change her life,;she fell instantly in love.

A year later, the abuse started.

“The biggest mistake I ever made is the first time he shoved me and yelled at me, I let him back in because he begged me and told me he’d never do it again. I set the stage for him to continue to do that my whole life.”

For her, it was abuse that also led to drug use.

“Addiction was something he had used to keep me in his circle,” M said.

Not long after they met, M’s sister was killed in an accident. She said his way of helping her manage the grief was to give her cocaine, which quickly became her own coping mechanism.

“I numbed my sister. I numbed my abuse.”

It only got worse. During one particularly brutal episode when she was pregnant with their child, he punched her in the face and threw her down the stairs. She suffered a concussion, had teeth knocked out and had to have her nose reset immediately to enable her to breath and help the baby survive.

Only a few months later the violence escalated enough that her then 10-year-old daughter called the police. He was arrested and charged with multiple counts of assault and threats.

Eventually, police told M they couldn’t protect her and that she had to pack up everything and move. For five months, her family lived in fear and isolation. Her son was on oxygen, and then tragically, he passed away later that year from his existing illness.

“It was the worst day of my life.”

M had been in and out of sobriety, but the mounting trauma caused her to fall back into substance use.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of my son being gone. I lost everything that was important to me – my house, my life, my self-esteem, and my dignity. I felt very empty inside.”

While M’s partner awaited trial, she was visited by police informing her that numerous bad cheques had been cashed through her business, allegedly by her former partner. She was legally advised to accept the charges and 32 counts of fraud went on her record. Her partner pleaded guilty to multiple charges (which did not involve any of the alleged abuse towards M) and was sentenced to one year of community service. He was a firefighter and got his job back. M’s head bowed a little during our conversation when she told me that after a while she couldn’t stand being alone anymore and eventually went back to him.

“I wanted someone to hold me – to tell me everything was going to be okay.”

Many people don’t understand how a victim of abuse can return to their violent partner, but multiple studies have shown the reason victims continue to go back is complex. “An abusive relationship is often a confusing mix of love, fear, dependency, intimidation, guilt and hope. There is a shared life involving family, finances and a home. Victims of violence and abuse usually return to the relationship many times before leaving it,” the RCMP Resources website explains.

They moved far away from friends and family. “I was his all over again,” she said. Despite that, she was able to get clean and felt herself getting stronger, but the abuse never fully stopped.

The cycle of her relocating and him finding her continued. She would try to break free and he would break down her resolve.

“The greatest addiction I have in my life is not a drug – it’s him.”

M accepted a two-year deal instead of fighting for a smaller 18-month sentence on her legal aid-funded lawyer’s advice, who M said told her federal prison was like a holiday compared to provincial jail where she would have served the shorter term.

M recalled that the police didn’t want to hear about the violence, and alleges that one officer had written on a court document that, “her cries of abuse are just smoke and mirrors to cover up her deficiencies,” while also implying that she must have liked the abuse if she kept going back. M up until this point had many positive experiences with the officers she dealt with, but when it came to this particular squad she felt as though they did more to aid her abuser.

She teared up when talking about the violence. Memories of how she laid in bed knowing where she was heading and how she can still see the image of her children chasing the car as she left for sentencing are permanently ingrained.

When M arrived at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, one silver lining was that she felt immediate relief that she wouldn’t have to see her ex or deal with his threats while she was there. M focused on transitioning into life at GVI.

One of the things M was grateful for with the Stride program was that she didn’t need to worry about anything being written down or recorded by anyone at Stride. She claimed that when talking to GVI counsellors, everything was documented and could potentially be used in parole applications, where there was little to no privacy. Information released in her parole applications could lead to her former partner identifying and finding M and her children. She also felt a general lack of privacy from GVI when it came to counselling, which made opening up more challenging.

She also appreciated that it wasn’t government mandated or affiliated with a certain religion. Most programs offered in prison are through Christian organizations, and while she identifies as a woman of faith and was thankful for them, she knew not everybody at GVI was comfortable with that set up. M said there needs to be an open space that allows anyone to feel comfortable, despite their beliefs.

M’s favourite memory of Stride programming is something called philosophical café. On these nights, the Stride team brings in a professor of philosophy who poses a question for the circle to discuss within rules of healthy debate. One night they were asked: “would you rather have happy ignorance or unhappy knowledge?” M said it fed well into the dynamic of living in prison. Unhappy knowledge, she said, is knowing that the person to her left was a woman who took part in rape – and to her right, a woman who killed her own child. The happy ignorance allowed her to get to know them without judgement; to ignore their crime and try to make positive connections despite their past. “Because if I don’t, then I become hateful,” she said.

I asked if she has maintained that way of thinking outside of prison.

“I don’t think I judge anybody about anything. If you would have asked me this question 20 years ago I would have been judgemental to a tee. Everything was black and white, there was no grey. If you needed to go to the food bank, get a job, if you’re an addict, just stop using. Don’t wanna go to prison? Then don’t commit a crime. If anybody would have sat me down with a crystal ball and said you are going to meet a man who will abuse you and you will start using drugs and eventually you will go to prison…I would have laughed in their face and said ‘absolutely not, not me!’ Life has a silly way of putting humility in our path,” M said.

“All of these women are somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, something to someone – women in prison are kind and generous and creative and they have so much to give. If we don’t support them reintegrating then we lose out on their gifts,” Moore added.

GVI is a multi-level prison, meaning women needing maximum security as well as medium and minimum are being held there. Those in maximum security are not able to attend Stride nights because they are located in a separate area and are not allowed to be in the main compound, but women who downgrade from maximum to medium for instance, are allowed to participate.

“To have someone to talk to, to really express feelings to without judgement or punishment or recording seems to be a major step in the rehabilitation process,” Moore said, adding, “if we deny the ‘baby-killers’ the opportunity to have support, we are making the call that they don’t get to rehabilitate.”

Denying any woman a proper chance at a healthy future would inevitably make it harder for their families or those close to them to thrive. For example, Moore said that kids are five times more likely to be incarcerated as an adult if their mothers were. “So if we don’t support them then we are also not supporting their children.” Fear and worry are understandable when a high-profile case re-enters a community, but Moore believes that there is a greater possibility for a safe society if we take ourselves out of the realm of judgement and into one of empathy and understanding.

M’s story is still happening. At the time of our interview her ex-partner was still awaiting sentencing and he had just served her with custody papers.

“There is the potential that he could get nothing. There is potential that he could get a conditional sentence,” she said, referring to his current trial for fraud charges. He is not facing charges for the domestic abuse M has alleged.

Either way, if he’s going to be in her life and her kids’, it’s another hurdle she faces. M told me he also recently hacked into her email account.

“What do I do? Pack up and move for the sixth time? I don’t know.”

What she does know is that she is more equipped to deal with the massive amount of work that lies ahead of her. Just a few months out of a halfway house and still on parole, she knows employment is a huge roadblock. Her main priority, however, is reconnecting with her kids and while there have been some struggles she feels like she has already made progress in establishing positive relationships with them.

“I have emerged bigger, better, and stronger,” M said with a smile. “Support of solid women has changed my life.”

One of the women that M is referring to is Kate Crozier, Stride’s Program Coordinator, who has been in M’s circle since her early days at GVI. It’s not easy for her to admit some of her feelings, especially those regarding her former abusive partner, but she says having the ear of an experienced woman that understands the complexities of abuse was extremely important.

“Kate was able to counsel me in areas that I did not even understand myself, feelings I had around guilt and shame for having stayed with him so long, were verified by Kate…she helped me to understand that I was not alone in those thoughts.”

M maintains the emotional trauma is the hardest to get over, even though the physical abuse is an extensive list of injuries. Despite the brutal bodily harm, she says that having someone “tell you that you are a worthless piece of shit,” remains the most difficult to repair.

“That man will never get back into my life without a shadow of a doubt, but does he scare me still?”

She nods her head at me in affirmation, holding back tears while shifting her shoulders.

Moore is responsible for finding ways to secure more money so that Stride continues past their current funding end date of 2019. In her role, she is working on building the case for more funding and writing community engagement pieces. There is interest from other provinces to try their model but without specific funding ear-marked, it’s difficult to find money to create more programs.

“Nobody has extra money sitting around.”

For M, she will continue to deal with the stigma that follows after one leaves prison. She has to meander through parent-teacher meetings, gain the trust back from her youngest daughter and can only imagine right now what it might be like to have friends again.

I asked M if she would consider ever speaking at one of CJI’s events or volunteering with Stride.

“One day I will be the woman who stands in front of a room and says, ‘ya I went to prison,’” but she admits that it will take some time.

She believes it will happen, however, because she is not facing these challenges all alone. She credits her parents with assisting her survival through the worst of her abusive relationship. She says they were always there to help her pick up the pieces and help her with her children – whether it was emotionally, mentally or financially. That along with the continual support from her Stride circle ensures a certain amount of stability, notwithstanding M’s own dedication to her own healing. As Moore said, “If we’re going to look at a pie chart of who’s done the most work? It’s 99 per cent her.”

The Stride circle has taught M that her story means something, and that her experience in prison doesn’t have to define her, but in the end, M has been the one to put that into place.

“I refuse to be judged based on my worst day.”

Any former GVI inmates are encouraged to reach out to CJI and Stride if they are struggling with reintegration, regardless of where they moved after being released. If you know someone currently at GVI, encourage them to seek out the program during their time there. Find out more at cjiwr.com.