Toronto reintegration centre helps inmates rebuild their lives
South Etobicoke Reintegration Centre's future compromised by low inmate population nearby
Gary McKend has struggled with addiction and been in and out of jail for much of his adult life. At age 58, he is tired of both, but he needs considerable help to begin a new life.
The South Etobicoke Reintegration Centre is committed to helping men like McKend, who are being released from the Toronto South Detention Centre and need assistance with everything from finding a bed to sleep in and clothes to wear, to reunification with children and securing a place in an addiction treatment program.
But at age 58, McKend isn't sure that he can change.
"It's easy to adjust when you go inside. You're used to it," McKend told CBC's Metro Morning about each time he has been incarcerated.
My mother didn't grow up till later in life, and I think it's about my turn now.- Gary McKend, former prison inmate
Workers at the centre, who themselves have experience either with the correctional system or substance abuse, serve as a peer-support network to newly released prisoners, accompanying them on their journey as they rebuild their lives.
But the facility, which was established right across the street from the detention centre and the Toronto Intermittent Centre to service inmates immediately upon their release, is struggling to pay rent and keep some of the partner agencies on site. It isn't yet serving the number of men it had anticipated, as labour issues have kept the jails from operating at full capacity.
The reintegration centre sees about 10 to 15 people per week. When the jail is full, that number will more than double, to 30 to 40 people per week.
For now, the low numbers have made it difficult for The John Howard Society and its partner agencies to maintain or develop new sources of funding.
'Life and death' decision
The centre's directors are committed to staying close to the jails, knowing how important their services are to the newly released inmates. Statistics show that between 30 and 40 per cent of all prisoners are homeless when they leave the South Detention Centre, and the reintegration program is crucial to help keep them out of trouble.
Lindsay Jennings and Barry Corbitt are both peer counsellors at The John Howard Society, and know this first-hand.
"The first eight billion times I came out, it was basically just going right back onto relationships involved with the criminal justice system and addiction," Jennings told Metro Morning.
"But the last time I was released I actually decided to call detox because I had decided I just didn't want to go to jail anymore. It could have been life and death at that point."
A condition of McKend's release last week was that he enter an addiction treatment program. His first stop was at the reintegration centre.
'I ran away and ran away'
For McKend, his chance to rebuild his life comes after "40 years of incarceration correlated to 40 years of addiction."
He was born to an alcoholic mother and grew up in a violent home.
"I started running away from home, I was a fearful child," McKend said.
"I ran away and ran away, and then I started stealing because if I was going to survive out there, I'd have to eat."
"Obviously, it's hereditary," McKend says. "My mother didn't grow up till later in life, and I think it's about my turn now."
Jennings helped McKend find the right bus so he could get to his initial assessment at the treatment centre, where he will spend the next three months.
He has promised Jennings and Corbitt that he will write.
"This time I've been given a break, an opportunity to go to a substance-abuse program," McKend says. "One of those situations where either I hang myself, or save myself at the rope."
'I drank the Kool-Aid'
Meanwhile, the centre's directors hope they can stay open until the jails and, as a result, the centre, are operating at full capacity.
Heating issues have staff working indoors in their winter parkas, and there are concerns that all the partners won't be able to pay their share of rent.
Still, staff are "committed to doing our best" to remain open, says Sonya Spencer, executive director of The John Howard Society of Toronto.
"The clock is ticking," Spencer said. "I said earlier that I drank the Kool-Aid, but we don't have an endless reserve to support this initiative."
They have considered everything from crowd-funding campaigns to applying for grants, and haven't ruled out any fundraising idea, Spencer told Metro Morning.
"If we close our doors," she said. "I need to know that we've exhausted every opportunity to keep this place open."