Life sentence: Offenders need more support for successful reintegration

Life sentence: Offenders need more support for successful reintegration

Mary Campbell recently noticed an article about two criminal brothers who didn’t appear to be getting the message.

Combing through a local newspaper last month, Mary Campbell noticed an article about two criminal brothers who didn’t appear to be getting the message.

The Victoria judge hearing the case scolded the pair for continuing their life of crime well into their 50s and 60s. One of them had recently used a fraudulent credit card to buy $957 worth of groceries at three local stores, along with nearly $3,000 for two items at Bong City, $617 worth of diving equipment and a $2,000 guitar at Long and McQuade.

The lawyer told the judge his client has an ongoing and troubling drug addiction, but does well when he’s in custody and gets the help he needs. The judge, however, said he was “probably beyond rehabilitation” — a comment that struck a nerve for Campbell, the former director general of the corrections and criminal justice department at Public Safety Canada.

“It struck me, this was such a missed opportunity. I wondered what if the judge had said to them, what can I do for you? That opportunity just sailed right by,” said Campbell, adding the pair were given a few more months behind bars.

“It’s not just about locking people up and letting them out. The system is about humane care and rehabilitation and putting people back on the street a little bit better than when they came in. Now we’re so obsessed with security and people’s fears and parole officers I know are frustrated because they are really just police officers looking to breach the client. I think we’ve really lost our sense of value.”

When Campbell looks at the state of Canada’s correctional services these days, she sees a system that’s “quite broken” and leaves her feeling concerned. She’s given the minister a number of suggestions she calls easy quick fixes that would support compassionate reintegration, but so far nothing has changed.

According to Campbell, the standard conditions of parole are the same as when they were created in the 1960s, even though risk assessment and research is far more developed. She also believes the programming offered in prisons is inadequate and insufficient, noting only three per cent of Correctional Service Canada’s (CSC) total budget goes towards programs, and many offenders have a lengthy wait before they can access what they need.

Prior to winding up behind bars, offenders often face a number of challenges related to substance abuse, mental health issues, social isolation, a lack of affordable/supportive housing, poor employment history or low levels of education. Some of those issues are addressed in prison and continue well into parole.

The Salvation Army CRF (community residential facility) in downtown Victoria houses 47 offenders who are on parole and in need of help to successfully reintegrate back into the community after several years behind bars. It’s the largest halfway house in Canada, with professional counsellors and social workers on hand to supervise the men day and night as they prepare for a second chance at life.

There’s also a number of outreach services and programs, such as the eight-week intensive Skills Recovery Program that’s typically assigned to an offender when they’re granted day parole and designed for those with a history of problematic substance abuse. About 80 per cent of offenders finish the program — a number Salvation Army high-risk counsellor Yin-Yee Yip notes is quite high.

Often raised in a broken home with negative associates as friends, Yip said some don’t even know what being a “straight John” looks like after so many years entrenched in a life of crime. More than 50 per cent of the offenders she sees have some sort of issue that needs to be addressed, such as substance abuse, mental health or a lack of job skills. Finding the appropriate care for mental health needs, particularly addiction, and stable affordable housing is an ongoing challenge once they leave.

“We have had residents come back to our facility because they have nowhere else to go after they are done parole telling us that they have been trying to reoffend to return to institutions in order to get the appropriate medical attention and stable housing,” said Yip, noting a big part of her job is knowing what community resources are out there and the best avenues for offenders to pursue.

“I think the biggest thing is we provide balance to them. We’re constantly monitoring their sign out, they have to tell us where they’re going, when they’ll be back. We’re kind of mom, dad, teacher and guidance counsellor.”

Chris Gaudet has been on parole in Victoria since November and is already discovering things about himself he never knew.

Involved with gangs in Calgary since the age of 17, the 31-year-old has completed the Skills Recovery Program, takes meds to help control his anxiety, and has found work in the city’s booming construction industry. He’s also started writing poetry, which he performs once a week at a local cafe.

Accessing programs during his 11 years in and out of prison was difficult, but Gaudet managed to achieve his Grade 12 and get some training as an electrician before the trades program was cut at William Head.

He knows there’s still plenty of challenges towards achieving a successful reintegration once his sentence is complete, but he already feels he’s on a better path.

“It turns out I’m a good poet, which I would have never known if I didn’t do the program here. These ladies (at the Salvation Army) challenge me to go and try new things. A lot of the guys have given up, they won’t change or try something new. They’ve identified themselves as convicts,” said Gaudet.

“I’m trying to shed that, but it took me 20 years to get to where I am. There’s always a stigma attached to it. If I say I’ve been to prison, that changes things…I was more scared to get out than to go to jail. Where do you go? Where do you fit in? Everything has changed. It becomes overwhelming.”

Read part one of the three-part series: The challenges offenders face reintegrating back into society here.