(Still from the Nunavut offenders program, Keeping Canada Safe)
Glen Flett is a farmer serving a life sentence.
He’s been on parole for the past 11 years, while serving a second-degree murder sentence. In that time, he and his wife Sherry Edmunds-Flett started Emma’s Acres. It’s an agricultural social enterprise in Mission, B.C. where victims and violent offenders work side-by-side on a 3.2-hectare farm. Together they grow vegetables that are sold at farmers’ markets or given freely to the families of homicide victims.
For the offenders, Emma’s Acres is where they can make amends; an opportunity rarely afforded to those incarcerated.
“Frankly, there's not many opportunities to give back in prison, and even when you get out to volunteer, it's almost impossible because they ask for a criminal record check,” Flett says, noting that just hearing this makes offenders give up.
It’s a big help for the community too. Mission is in the Fraser East Health Service Delivery Area, where 16,257 out of 229,545 residents live in food insecurity, according to data from the 2011-2012 Canadian Community Health Survey. That’s seven per cent of the population, which is estimated to be two per cent higher than the national average in 2012.
For victims, farming with offenders who are not part of their own trauma can empower them and help their healing process.
“I’ve done time in maximum security. I've seen people murdered. I do appreciate that we need to control those who are out of control, but we need to recognize that somewhere along that continuum of incarceration, we need to help people change.”
Flett believes getting offenders involved with their communities is a way to feel connected to society, which he hopes will reduce the odds they’ll re-offend once they’re out.
He’s not alone. Emma’s Acres is just one of several prison rehabilitation programs across Canada that provide prisoners with creative, educational and skill-building opportunities. By providing productive and meaningful activities, rehabilitation may be Canada's best tool for addressing why offenders end up behind bars in the first place
Breaking The Cycle Of Crime
Most entering the correctional system already face difficult challenges.
A 2015 John Howard study on the Ontario prisoner population revealed that more than 40 per cent reported experiencing mental health issues and 70 per cent said they had problems with substance use. The isolation of prison can exacerbate these struggles, a Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) report says. As CSC is the sole healthcare provider for all offenders, their choices are limited. A U.S. Justice Department document states that rehabilitation and treatment programs have an effect on recidivism, ranging from 10 to 20 per cent.
The report notes that women, Black, and Indigenous prisoners are at risk of inadequate access to mental healthcare, in spite of a dire need for services.
For women offenders, 85 per cent have experienced physical abuse and 68 per cent have experienced sexual abuse in their lives. Indigenous and Black people are overrepresented in the prison system, too. Howard Sapers, Canada's prison ombudsperson, states
that almost a quarter of the overall prisoner population is Indigenous; the Office of the Correctional Investigator states that there are 3,500 Indigenous federal offenders behind bars on any given day. As the National Household Survey (NHS) reports, Indigenous individuals make up just over four per cent of the nation’s population. He also notes that in the past decade the Black prison population rose by almost 70 per cent.
Once they leave prison, many offenders return to criminal behaviour. Correctional Services Canada’s (CSC) prisoner profile estimates that out of 10 male offenders, nine of them have a prior conviction; for women offenders, eight out of 10 do.
The reason for this may be related to reintegration. This is the rationale behind why two B.C. inmates have filed a lawsuit against the federal government, CBC News reports. The inmates reported being unable to access to rehabilitation programs, which impaired their ability to get on the path of recovery and reform their behaviour in order to apply for parole. According to a 2015 CSC report, those who get full parole, which gradually reintegrates offenders by letting them serve their sentences in the community, are less likely to re-offend than those on statutory release.
Flett says there’s no dispute that committing to prisoner rehabilitation is part of making a lasting impact on recidivism rates.
However, the official definitions of recidivism are diverse and notoriously difficult to confirm, sometimes combining ignoring the overlap when a federal prisoner commits a provincial offense. Rates range from single to double digits, depending on the offence, in the latest CSC report. iPolitics columnist Michael Harris and author of Con Game: The Truth About Canada's Prisons suggests that recidivism rates are murky because a statistic that seems too high to taxpayers would enforce the idea that rehabilitation doesn’t work.
“It builds self-esteem and a sense they can contribute; that makes people appreciate what it is they're doing.”
But from various research sources, Public Safety states that successful rehabilitation programs that directly address why someone commits crime show the potential to lead to a 19 per cent drop in overall recidivism.
“Society needs to look at this problem differently because it's not going to go away,” he says. “Don't we care about the kind of people they'll be when they get out?”
Catherine Latimer from the John Howard Society believes keeping Canada safe means ensuring prisoners have all the resources they need to become contributing citizens. That starts with building employable skillsets and encouraging creative aptitudes.
“It builds self-esteem and a sense they can contribute; that makes people appreciate what it is they're doing. All of that's very positive,” Latimer says.
Some of the men farming on Emma’s Acres are from Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, where they’re referred to as residents, not prisoners or offenders.
The facility is one of several healing lodges in Canada, taking a unique approach to rehabilitation for Indigenous residents. In a roundtable interview with Kwìkwèxwelhp officials, they note the unique cultural needs that Indigenous people in the correctional system may have, such as access to an elder or performing smudging ceremonies. They emphasize that an awareness of colonialism’s history is present in all of Kwìkwèxwelhp’s programming.
Warden Marie Cossette states that working with the elders and chief of Chehalis First Nations territory, on which Kwìkwèxwelhp is located, is necessary for residents to feel accepted and valued within the community. Residents can provide services like chopping wood and clearing debris after bad storms.
“Like any other relationship, the chief, the community and us have to be fully committed,” she says. “I’ve worked in several institutions in Canada, and I’ve never seen a place where a former resident will keep coming back for ceremonies, or call to tell us they’ve got a new job or a baby.”
Elder Robert Nahanee recounts a man who stayed at Kwìkwèxwelhp about six years ago. After leaving, he did college courses, got married, and runs healing lodge services with his wife.
“It was thanks to Kwìkwèxwelhp and the ceremonies. Boy, he really came to life in the sun dance,” he says, citing how the teachings of the sun dance ceremony helped the man discover spirituality.
Sandra Flemming thinks she’s sent nearly 600 puppies to prison.
Flemming is the provincial director of the Nova Scotia SPCA, which organizes a canine therapy program called Working on Our Future, better known as WOOF.
WOOF pairs pound puppies with inmates from Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Halifax, N.S. The puppies live at the prison full-time for 10 to 12 weeks before they’re adopted by local families. Volunteer prisoners bathe them, and teach the puppies basic commands using positive reinforcement. The inmates keep careful training journals throughout.
At first designed to give prisoners a productive pastime, Flemming noticed WOOF was also a therapeutic outlet.
“I’ve never felt concerned with the offenders having the animals. I’ve seen a 250-lb pound man, all tatted up, cuddling a puppy,” she says. “They provide a lot of love and do things we just can't do here [in the shelter] constantly.”
Amy McRae is a dog trainer with WOOF. She’s noticed that after a hard day, staff and prisoners alike recharged after stopping by the puppy room.
“It’s a very stressful environment. Having the puppies there prevents a lot of fights and conflict,” McRae says. “It might sound cliché, but for a lot of these people, the puppies are a source of unconditional love that they've had very little or none of their entire lives.”
Some WOOF participants have racked up thousands of volunteer hours. There are a few perks, like course certificates and access to outdoor spaces, but it’s mostly done for the sake of taking good care of the puppies.
All their hard work can pay off. McRae says she’s been contacted by prisoners after their release for advice on how to get involved with dog training, or for job references in the booming animal grooming industry or shelter care.
“It might sound cliché, but for a lot of these people, the puppies are a source of unconditional love that they've had very little or none of their entire lives.”
Programs that teach employable skills like WOOF are in high demand. In research compiled by Public Safety, 75 per cent of prisoners in federal institutions have employment needs. As CBC News reports, prison watchdog Ivan Zinger criticised CSC’s employment agency CORCAN for offering training in dated industries like textiles.
“People underestimate the extent prisoners can and should be making a contribution to their own rehabilitation and skill set development,” she says. “I think that's a real concern for prisoners, they really want trade skills and certificates and things that will translate into employment as soon as they're released.”
Jailhouse Rock For Charity
In the prison capital of Canada, Ontario musician Hugh Chris Brown is striking chords with inmates.
Brown runs Pros and Cons in Kingston, ON., rehabilitating prisoners at Joyceville Institution through music workshops.
Musicians and offenders collaborate in the prison’s chapel. Some sing, others play guitar, learn audio engineering, or write poetry. Offenders have chosen to just sit in the room and enjoy the good vibrations. The participants have released an album, with proceeds going to charities chosen by the prisoners.
Aside from developing musical talents, Brown believes the program cultivates a positive environment where offenders could be vulnerable and emotional. They’ve expanded Pros and Cons for women offenders in Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, and Brown says he’s received requests for the program from prisons coast to coast.
He stresses the importance of removing the filter of crime when it comes to how we view prisoner reconciliation.
“When you build these trust relationships, predicated on the present tense, it's naturally creating an emotional platform for people to be present to themselves and not solely on the definition of their worst act,” he says. “We've moved from public execution to incarceration. We have to keep developing.”
Lloyd Ingraham is a former violent offender, as well as a Pros and Cons musician. He’s been on parole since last January, and as he puts it, “keeping my nose clean.” He credits Pros and Cons, as well as programs like the Empathy Project and the Alternatives to Violence Project, for showing offenders what a victim’s point-of-view looks like.
"It's naturally creating an emotional platform for people to be present to themselves and not solely on the definition of their worst act."
“It's hard to form relationships inside. Sometimes you don’t want to. But the whole time during this project, we worked together and sang together,” Ingraham says. “It was very much a collaborative project.
The whole process gave me more confidence in myself. The first time you sit back and listen to the song you've done, you think ‘I accomplished that.’”
The Future Of Prison Rehabilitation
Brown was inspired to create Pros and Cons as a replacement for prison farms. Six of these farms across Canada had offenders planting crops and caring for animals. The initiative was eliminated in a highly controversial move by the previous Conservative government, along with Lifeline, a widely popular CSC-funded program that supported prisoners with life sentences
Advocacy groups are hopeful that the change of government will renew commitment to prisoner rehabilitation. Latimer says there have been early conversations with government officials that signal they are interested in supporting rehab programs again; there are talks of starting two prison farm pilot projects in Kingston.
“There's been a lot of very positive orientation and lots of good questions being asked, but we haven't seen much occur yet,” she says. “We're on the cusp and hopefully we'll see something fairly soon.”
Already, things are looking up for Emma’s Acres. Flett states that they’ve received federal funding, for the first time since 2012.
“They turned the corner and are a lot more supportive of what we're doing,” Flett says.
He mentions that aside from emphasizing education and employment for prisoners, hope is just as important to nurture.
“Aside from teaching them educational things, we need to give them hope. Without hope, you can't change. Creating a bunch of hopeless people is really not a good idea.”
For Ingraham, rehabilitation won’t reverse his actions, but it’s the first step to moving on from the worst mistake of his life.
“I can’t erase what I’ve done and it will always be a part of me, but I can contribute to society again,” Ingraham said. “Life will go on.”
Related: On the land with the Nunavut offenders program. In the far North, they are breaking the cycle of incarceration by providing offenders the opportunity to go out on the land and re-connect with their culture.