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“I believe in second chances”

Female offenders make strides towards community reintegration

The first time Missie* was released from prison on parole, she lasted six months. “I was involved with drugs, so to get out and give up all my friends and have nothing was hard,” says Missie. “I didn’t have any positive community contacts, people on the outside who could help me with resources and good social surroundings. I ended up relapsing and going back.”

But since completing her sentence in December 2009, Missie has stayed out of prison and stayed clean. She credits Stride, an innovative community reintegration program of Grand Valley Institution for Women (GVI) in Kitchener, Ont. “My Stride Circle supported me emotionally, giving me the courage to go through with what I needed to do, instead of getting nervous and backing out. I felt more secure the second time.”

That sense of security in re-entering the community is crucial for incarcerated women with mental health and addiction problems. Many of them have lost everything—homes, jobs, possessions, family connections and children—unlike men, who often have a woman—mother, wife or girlfriend—tending things at home. These women have few supported housing options, and those that exist are often not in the communities where they plan to move. “The priority for many women is to get their children back and create a home,” says Julie Thompson, program director for CJI, a leader in providing restorative practices.

Stigma and social isolation are the biggest challenges to community reintegration. Stereotypes make people reluctant to offer women offenders housing and employment or social and financial support. Self-stigma prevents many women from asking for help. “We fear that we won’t be accepted,” says Marlene, who has served two-thirds of her five-year sentence.

Thompson understands that fear: “For women pushed to the margins by mental health, abuse or addiction issues prior to incarceration, and further isolated from society during incarceration, understanding how they’re supposed to fit back into society in a meaningful way is overwhelming,” she says.

Easing the transition is what Stride Circles have been doing for 13 years. They operate like a network of friends and family to assist women with the nitty-gritty of settling into new lives. At the heart of each Circle is the woman, supported by a CJI facilitator and three community volunteers who make a commitment to support her leading up to and after her release. A Circle usually lasts three to four years.

In Missie’s Circle, one volunteer accompanied her to children’s aid meetings, as Missie fought to regain custody of her children; another attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with her; the third, her “Christian mentor,” introduced her to members of her church. “Instead of there just being the four of us, the Circle broadened my connections to the community and to supports,” says Missie.

The Circle tried to help Missie access emergency housing, but it was ultimately family and friends who helped her secure an apartment for herself and her two teenagers. Completing GVI’s horticultural program gave Missie a head start on seasonal landscaping work. Her former Circle members are now her friends.

The women at GVI meet the volunteers initially at Stride Night, a weekly social gathering where CJI brings community members into the prison to join the women in crafts, games, music and other recreation. An Early Years Centre delivers workshops on parenting and play a few times a year.

“The purpose of Stride Night is to create a community inside the institution where the women and volunteers connect and build relationships,” says Thompson. “The volunteers meet the women, hear their stories and see them as individuals with potential. And the women hear what kinds of struggles volunteers themselves have in their daily lives. It humanizes the situation, showing that we have more in common than what keeps us apart.” Participation in Stride is voluntary and has no bearing on a woman’s eligibility for parole.

Michelle was drawn to Stride Night because there was nothing else to do on a Tuesday evening at the prison. Wary of “these do-gooders,” she was gradually won over when she realized, “It didn’t matter if I just went for cookies or if I wanted to stay longer; these people were always happy to see me.”

Michelle says that throughout the year leading up to her release and in the two years since, the Circle has offered her love and caring without judgment. “They have accepted me regardless of the worst things I have done.” They kept in touch when Michelle was released to a halfway house and welcomed her arrival at a new community, helping her find and furnish an apartment and accompanying her on outings as one of the conditions of her release.

For this young woman starting her life over, the Circle was initially the only source of friends. Now, with mixed emotions, Michelle is beginning to transition away from her Circle, as she slowly develops friendships among her peers at university and at her part-time job. Loneliness is still a factor because she feels vulnerable when meeting new people. “If people ask me about my past, I never know what to say, but I’m getting better at it,” she says.

Through the university’s counselling services, Michelle feels she is finally receiving counselling appropriate for someone with “serious issues with drug and alcohol abuse” and undiagnosed depression and anxiety. In prison, she had seen five different psychologists with different therapeutic approaches.

Now, Michelle credits the Stride Circle with giving her “a brand-new shot at life. The Circle gave me an opportunity to be around healthy people. It’s so easy to take that for granted if your life is together, but if it’s not, that’s life-changing in itself.”

Michelle is on a path that Marlene hopes to follow. Newly released from prison on statutory release, having served 40 months of her five-year sentence, Marlene is going through the most difficult time—the first year after release. Her Circle is helping her manage the stress. “They’re there for me to talk to, to call, to e-mail,” she says. “If I’m having a stressful day, we can sometimes go for supper or shop for things I need.”

As with many women coming out of prison, transportation is a problem, so Marlene often asks Circle members to drive her to out-of-town appointments, such as the random urinalysis that is a parole condition. She attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery meetings, sometimes up to four times a week, to work on her alcohol and gambling issues. She is “tickled pink” by the positive reception she gets from people like her new landlord, who, on hearing her story, said, “I believe in second chances.”

Marlene’s Stride experience has encouraged her to help women get off the streets. She wants to start a sewing and alteration business, showing women how to repair, recycle and repurpose clothing, much as the Stride program helps women reconstruct their lives. “I’m taking one day at a time, but I know I’m not going back to GVI,” says Marlene. “There’s nothing in my bones that says I need to mess this up.”

Communities must play their part, too, says Thompson. “We focus a lot on individuals who are marginalized, expecting them to make changes, to get their act together and become productive members of society; but as a society, we need to pull together and create safer, more compassionate communities for people to be successful in.”

Getting out and staying out

A new study published online in the American Journal of Public Health has found that aftercare helps female offenders stay out of prison. The study, conducted by researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), evaluated the effectiveness of the csc Community Relapse Prevention and Maintenance (CRPM) program, which assists female offenders with addiction. Among the findings:

  • Women prisoners with substance use problems who did not participate in an aftercare program were 10 times more likely to return to custody within one year after release than women who participated.
  • More than one-third returned to prison within the first six months, mainly for violating release conditions.
  • Women who violated a condition of abstinence were almost twice as likely to return to custody as women who did not violate conditions.
  • Women who were unemployed while on parole were more than twice as likely to return to custody as women who worked.
  • By six months, 26% of women with no exposure to crpm had returned to custody.
  • Most women who returned to custody had not completed high school or were unemployed during their release.

Reintegration programs make $ense

By the numbers, incarceration may not be the answer to helping female offenders, according to Julie Thompson, director of programs at Community Justice Initiatives (CJI). She presents the business case for community reintegration programs.

In 2010, about 503 federally sentenced women were incarcerated in Canada. The annual cost of incarcerating one woman was $203,000 in 2008, and the cost is growing, according to Public Safety Canada. The federal Grandview Valley Institution for Women (GVI) in Kitchener, Ont., has the capacity to incarcerate 163 women. It plans to add four beds in the mental heath unit and a 40-bed minimum-security facility.

CJI’s Stride program works with women from the GVI through Stride Circles that help them reintegrate into the community. The program has facilitated Circles for more than 45 women. The program has mobilized and trained 300 community volunteers who have given more than 40,579 hours of their time. Revenue Canada’s monetary attribution to volunteer work is $16.50 per hour. One Circle supporting a woman for an average of three years involves 1,935 hours of volunteer time, valued by Revenue Canada at $31,928.

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Related links

Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies

Community-based aftercare and return to custody in a national sample of substance-abusing women offenders

Community Mental Health Initiative (Correctional Service Canada)

Correctional Service Canada

Human Services and Justice Coordinating Committee (Ontario)

Stride & Community Justice Initiatives

Women Offender Substance Abuse Programming and Community Reintegration

Women’s Prison Association

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