Leaving prison……MORE

……WHERE TO GO?  WHAT TO DO?

“Joe” was released on parole and permitted to bypass a half-way house and go home.  He was required to meet with his parole officer regularly but otherwise was free to move on with his life.  One night about three months after his release, two police officers showed up at his front door, placed him under arrest and returned him to prison.

When asked how he was managing in the community during a meeting with his parole officer earlier in the day, Joe felt confident enough to say that he was adjusting well and had only slipped a little recently by doing “a couple of lines.”  That no-no was reported and brought the police to his door.  Why, he was asked by fellow inmates when he showed up back on the range, would he admit to that.  Well, he told them, he was simply trying to be honest.

Yes, what Joe did was prohibited under the terms of his release, and policy warranted a return to custody for two/three months.  All the same, parole officers and half-way house staffers are too ready to return an ex-offender to prison, disregarding offsetting positives.  It’s as if there is a template that’s skewed in favour of punishment over rehabilitation.  That former inmate or others like him may have found a job, keeping in mind that help from CSC with finding employment is hardly more than the mandate to “go out and get a job.”  He may be helping family, making new friends, and confronting the challenges of life in the real world again.  None of that matters.

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“Jack” was sentenced to 30 years in prison in the United States, later transferred to Canada to serve his remaining time, and he did not apply or accept parole or early release because he didn’t want any compulsory attachments to CSC or the Parole Board.  He spent a full 30 years inside working as a paralegal, participating in over 300 cases against the prison industry in both the U.S. and Canada, and building links to law firms in the community.

When released, he continued with work in the law, eventually married, and is buying a home.  Last November he wrote, “I’m paying taxes and being good.  I’ve been out six years now and it’s really easy once you get into a routine and are around people who don’t drag you into the gutter.”

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Joe and Jack had more support and resources than many of the men and women released into the community.  Some don’t have a stable home, or the family and friends in their lives aren’t tuned to ward off future criminality.  Groups committed to propping up an ex-offender’s recovery often don’t have the means to fully engage with the lives of the people they’re trying to help.  And there’s the dispiriting prospect of working with some ex-cons who are released back into the community in worse shape then when they were first sentenced. 

To clarify, there are some men and women who won’t or can’t make a transition from a criminal lifestyle.  The unfortunate are the people whose mental/emotional health challenges combined with controlling addictions that go untreated drives them to reoffend and are too often resigned to living a life they do not want.

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“Affordable housing for former prisoners helps us all”, headed a contribution by Murray Fallis to the Toronto Star back on Sunday, October 25 of last year.  He was an articling fellow with the John Howard Society of Canada at the time and was researching the impact of recidivism on the community.

It costs taxpayers about $116,000 per year to maintain a prisoner in federal custody, more for maximum security inmates, less for minimum security offenders.  As Mr. Fallis wrote, “the fundamental goal of our correctional system is to ensure these individuals do not reoffend.”  We   agree that’s the policy but argue the practice does not usually meet the standard.  Nonetheless, Mr. Fallis makes a strong case on affordable housing for ex-cons.

Canada says the recidivism rate is 25%, although the figure is likely higher.  For one, when an ex-offender has been out of the system for five years or more, and then breaks the law, that is not included in recidivist statistics.  So, let’s say as things are now one in four will reoffend.  According to Mr. Fallis, “when an individual has adequate housing upon release, one study indicates that reincarceration drops by approximately 19 percentage points.”  That would amount to $459 million in savings by CSC in the first two years if a housing program existed.

Prisoners aren’t included in affordable housing initiatives because society feels criminals deserve their punishment, and maybe they do.  But just how much can we do with $459 million?  Including former prisoners in Canada’s National Housing Strategy makes sense, and those dollars would go a long way to build housing for the tens of thousands on waiting lists.  Murray Fallis concludes, “It’s not rocket science or radicalism: it’s an evidence-based solution to an expensive, long-term problem.”

Affordable housing for prisoners is a pipe dream.  After all, it would interfere with the status-quo, wouldn’t it.

Leaving prison……

….WHERE TO GO?  WHAT TO DO?

A few years ago, when inmates could still make three-way calls through one of their approved outside contacts, two young men in Kingston Penitentiary were talking about the girls in their lives.  One was anxious to meet somebody new while the other was willing to pass on the number of a woman friend.  With that in hand, a call was made, and a bright cheerful voice answered.  This inmate didn’t begin by introducing himself; rather, he jumped into friendly banter and the curious voice on the other end of the line played along, seeming to enjoy the conversation.  After a few minutes, she asked how he came to have her number.  When he named his source, there was a pause.  “Are you calling from inside a prison?”   “Yes.”  The line went dead.

Good move.  Prison romances are tough. 

Inner suburban rows of townhouses are a familiar sight in every city.  Often, in one of those townhouses on one of those streets in every urban centre is a family, a woman, her husband and their two kids.  Her best friend lives next door, a woman raising two kids alone.  Her husband is in prison.  There is a dramatic difference in the lifestyles of these two families.

Prison families live in hope.  There is little else.

A group of women sitting in a prison visitor waiting area chat as they are processed into the room where they’ll spend a couple of hours with their inmate spouses/boyfriends/brothers.  There may sometimes be a middle-aged couple coming to see a son, but rarely are men visiting on their own.  Conversation will flow easily on mundane everyday nothings until the prisoners arrive.

But, when women who are familiar with each other have a one-on-one conversation, talk will turn to the challenges of living with a partner or spouse in prison.  Frustration and anger and despondency will be forefront.  Overheard from one such conversation: “He has been very good to me, and I try to support him, but if he is not finished with prison this time, I don’t know that I can stick with him.”  A common thread is that men, women, and children who are an inmate’s community support are stressed, first from managing their own lives in the community, and then coping with the tensions of prison life.

All is not as it should be.

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Correctional Service of Canada readily agrees connections to the community are an important component of a rehabilitation process.  Visiting programs have options for short face-to-face visits to all-day special event gatherings to three-day “private family visits.”  An applicant with an established history with an inmate is pre-cleared for visits and is of course subject to security protocols when entering an institution.

All the same, Canada’s prison industry allows two conflicts at least with its public position on the importance of community relations.  For one, visitors don’t always feel welcome.  Depending on the day or the institution or the staffing assignments, visitor experiences can be awkward.  Men and women in CSC uniforms have a low opinion of their charges and will often paint the people closest to inmates with the same brush.  Friction can lead to grievances and even legal actions (search Paul Saliba on this site for “Correctional Officer Darin Gough” from December 20 of 2020).  CSC policy and CSC practice is not always in concert.

Visitors going into institutions is one thing.  Prisoners returning to the community is something else, and it’s here where CSC trips in “assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens.”  If, as some estimate, up to 80% of the men and women in our prisons can be turned around, they need more support than a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend can deliver.  What’s missing are assigned CSC staffers whose role is to work with willing inmates and the people behind them to identify challenges resulting from institutionalization and establish connections to government financed and sponsored resources that maximize prospects for success.  (Resources that presently do not exist.)  As it is, ex-offenders are left to rely on essential and dedicated volunteer organizations for support, groups which are in truth filling the void for services our governments neglect.

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Community support is only one piece to reducing recidivism.  More on that later
A bottom line here says CSC lacks the commitment to make a difference when a prisoner leaves the walls and bars behind.