Just as scary on the outside

Carrie Debrone

One of the most difficult things facing women who have been in prison is successful reintegration into society after their release.

There are few companies willing to offer former prisoners jobs, few low-income housing options, little support for mental health or addiction issues they may still face, and almost no support for former women prisoners who are often the sole providers for their children. Women who are released from prison need jobs that will pay them enough money to allow them to look after themselves and their families — but how can they find a job? Who will hire them? Who will take the risk to help?

If they can get involved in local businesses, education and training programs while they are serving their prison terms, they will likely have a better chance of being successful when they are released. Currently over 80 social agencies, schools, churches and local organizations work with Grand Valley Institute for Women (GVI) in Kitchener to help prisoners get onto a productive path.

GVI also has 200 volunteers involved directly with prisoners in chaplaincy, recreational, leisure, support and program-oriented activities. Many prisoners work on educational upgrading to achieve grade 12. There are currently over 90 women involved in education, with 19 women on a waitlist to start attending school and 23 involved in post secondary studies and through partnerships with Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Toronto, which provide courses for “inside” incarcerated students and “outside” social work students to work on under and post graduate credits.

While acknowledging that the prison system has made great strides in recent years towards successful reintegration, many say it is not enough. If society wants to help prisoners change from a life of crime to become responsible members of society, the community must step up. Many more community partners are needed to offer opportunities to incarcerated women before they are released– that’s the message sent from five current and released Grand Valley Institute women prisoners.

“We’re not bad people. Just people who made bad choices,” Jade, an inmate, said. And their message was echoed by the institute’s warden, Nancy Kinsman, and the Acting Deputy Commissioner for Women, Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), Kelly Blanchette who were also guest speakers at the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council’s 4th Annual Forum for Federally Sentenced Women, Celebrating and Enhancing Community Connections, held March 20 at the Victoria Park Pavilion.

Hosted by the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, the event invited people from social agencies, local businesses, school boards and universities to be part of a discussion about how to provide work experience and education to women in prison. “The safe transition of these women into the community is a key goal of the CSC,” said Blanchette, adding “We can’t do it alone. We must partner with the community.” Blanchette said that more new partnerships are needed especially in the areas of mental health and employment.

Over 225 people, many from local social agencies and businesses, listened to the personal stories of five courageous women who either are currently or had been incarcerated at GVI, one of the five regional facilities for federally sentenced women in Canada. Filled to capacity and overcrowded, GVI will open a new 40-bed minimum-security unit this summer.

The local prison was constructed in 1997 with a capacity to house 70 women. Over the past 15 years it has undergone six residential expansions. Two years ago there was a sharp increase from 120 to 190 prisoners incarcerated there. To meet this need, some rooms became shared accommodation and a portable housing unit was added to accommodate up to 16 women. Currently most of the women live in two storey houses that they share with about ten other women.

The new three-storey unit will have several ‘ranges’, each with a common shared kitchen, living room area, shared washrooms and single bedrooms. The new unit will have several adjoining rooms to allow children to live with their mothers. Candace, released from GVI two years ago, told her story of being on her own since she was 15-years-old and turning to a life of crime to support herself. While in prison she was separated from her daughter, with whom she has since been reunited. She said that by taking programs offered at the prison and with the help of good support worker there, she was released to a half way house in Hamilton. She now works in retail and serves on the board of the Elizabeth Fry Society. She hopes to attend Conestoga College and become a social worker.

“Change is possible but we need supports in the community. The more supports available the more successful we will be, “ Candace said. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Tina, who entered prison six years ago, said she felt hopeless in the beginning. “I was told by a judge that I would die in a cage if I didn’t change,” she said.
A job at the Kitchener Waterloo Humane Society, where she works every day and returns to prison at night, has allowed her to get over her self-hatred, she said.
“Most of my life I felt hopeless and worthless. When I went to work there I thought they would judge me, but they showed me support. I felt accepted and appreciated by strangers. They were compassionate,” she added.

She said the prison system needs to offer more grants, bursaries and scholarships for prisoners so that they can educate themselves and be ready to work when they are released. Completing her BA this spring, Tina said she wished more prisoners could have the opportunity to work that she has had. “I feel unconditional love from the animals and from my co-workers. The opportunities I have been given have encouraged me to change my life and be successful,” she said.

* There are currently 341 federally sentenced women in Ontario region. The current institutional count at Grand Valley is 201, and the remainder are under supervision in the community.

* Most women prisoners are considered low-risk

* The majority is serving sentences of three years or under

* 25 women are serving life sentences

* The cost of incarceration is $211,086 per woman, per year.

* 58% require some type of mental health care

* More than 80% have experienced physical or sexual abuse

* 80% have some type of substance abuse problem

* 30% have finished high school

* Many are single mothers and often the sole providers in the family

* Many of the women have experienced homelessness, foster care and prostitution

* Many suffer from low

* 20% of GVI’s population is

* 25% have self-identified as Black

* 15% have self-identified as Asian, Latin American, Caribbean or Filipino.

* 13% are deportable upon release