Kitchener-Waterloo

Grand Valley inmate calls on Waterloo region to be more accepting

A 29-year-old inmate is challenging Waterloo region to be more accepting of women who are returning to community after serving time in a federal prison, asking people to look past the label.

'Women are so much more than their crime,' says 29-year-old Jesse

29-year-old Jesse says there's more to women than their crime, and she wants the community to recognize that. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

A 29-year-old inmate is challenging Waterloo region to be more accepting of women who are returning to community after serving time in a federal prison.

"I just want the community to know that women are so much more than their crime," said Jesse, whose full name is not being published for privacy reasons.

Jesse has been living at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener for more than a year.

"It's about realizing that they are people and that they've suffered losses and tragedies. You know, I didn't just wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to commit a crime,' or, 'I'm going to start selling drugs.' That was by no means my intention. However, it's led me down that path."

Since being in prison, I've met some of the most talented women that are so gifted — whether it's drawing, writing, singing — and I think that a lot of us have just been misdirected.- Jesse

Jesse, who aims to be leaving the prison in April, spoke at a three day event hosted by Community Justice Initiatives, called Women in Prison: Building Community.

CBC News agreed to refer to Jesse by first name only, as former inmates can have a hard time finding work and housing. 

"A lot of us coming from prison, we seem to think that we have a label on our foreheads that says 'Just got out of prison,'" Jesse told CBC. 

"One of my biggest fears, I guess, is just not being accepted or just having a stereotype where people are just not liking me or judging me or not giving me a chance, because I come from prison."

Fear of judgement

Research has shown that many women in prison share Jesse's fear that people on the outside will judge them harshly. 

Darla Fortune started working with and interviewing the women at Grand Valley in 2005, when she was a masters student at the University of Waterloo.

The public just doesn't know the women inside those walls, and there are very few opportunities, really, for people to get to know them.- Darla Fortune

"There are many fears, I have to say. That was one of the things, I think, [that was] initially surprising to me," she said. "They often spoke about the prison as being a safe place for them in contrast to entering community."

Now a professor at Concordia University, Fortune returns to Kitchener on Thursday to share her 10 years of research with those attending the Women in Prison event.

Fortune said the prison walls separate many women from lives of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and trauma. They know that when their time is up, they will be returning to those same circumstances.

And many, like Jesse, feel marked by their experience in prison and are worried it will somehow show through and affect their ability to find work, housing and a place to belong.

"By and large the community is distanced from women in prison," Fortune said. "The public just doesn't know the women inside those walls, and there are very few opportunities, really, for people to get to know them. I think more needs to be done on that end, for sure, so that we start to see women as women, and can support women as they come back into community."

That's one of the reasons why Jesse wanted to speak at the event in downtown Kitchener Tuesday afternoon — to ask the community to give women in prison a chance.

'Just give them a chance'

"Since being in prison, I've met some of the most talented women that are so gifted — whether it's drawing, writing, singing — and I think that a lot of us have just been misdirected. Like, we haven't had the opportunity to actually realize that we are actually good at something," Jesse said.

"Just give them a chance as individuals, just to get to know them, actually have a conversation with them and to see their drawings, their singing."

If more people took the time to see the women at Grand Valley as woman, rather than as inmates, Jesse said things would change for the better, both at the prison and in the community. 

"I know from experience that when I have nothing to look forward to, it's like what's the point in wanting to do good? When you have that one person that believes in you, it makes you want to do good, because you don't want to disappoint that person. I think it gives us purpose and meaning."

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