Kitchener-Waterloo·Special Report

Meet the women who work and live at Grand Valley prison in Kitchener

CBC's The Morning Edition takes listeners to Grand Valley Institution for Women, the federal prison in Kitchener, Ont., and introduces them to the women who live, work and volunteer within its walls.

Kitchener, Ont. has been home to Grand Valley Institution for Women for 20 years

For 20 years Kitchener, Ont. has been home to Grand Valley Institution for Women, one of Canada's six federal prisons for women.

Located on Homer Watson Boulevard, the building is easy to miss and many people do, but in mid-November a small group of people came up with a plan to bring the institution out into the open.

Community Justice Initiatives arranged to have people from the prison — employees, volunteers and inmates — attend a three-day event alongside researchers and community workers.

It all happened in downtown Kitchener, at the Walper Hotel, and CBC News was there, speaking to everyone involved.

Darla Fortune, researcher

"By and large, the community is distanced from women in prison," said Darla Fortune, who started working with and interviewing the women at Grand Valley in 2005, when she was a masters student at the University of Waterloo.

Fortune's research focuses on Community Justice Initiative's Stride program, which helps women in prison form relationships with people in the community, so that they have a circle of support when they finish serving their sentences.

She said many women fear leaving the prison, because they think people outside the prison walls will know where they've come from and will judge them for their past crimes.

"I think more needs to be done on that end, for sure," Fortune said, "so that we start to see women as women, and can support women as they come back into community."

Jesse, Grand Valley inmate

29-year-old Jesse knows the fear of judgment first hand, having lived as an inmate at Grand Valley for more than a year. 

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

"I just want the community to know that women are so much more than their crime," Jesse said. 

"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."

Patrice Butts, mother-child coordinator

Prison not only separates women from their community, but it also often separates them from their families, including their children. 

"We need to really keep in mind that, more often than not, when we sentence a woman we often are sentencing a child or children as well," said Patrice Butts, who coordinates the Mother Child Initiative at Grand Valley. 

By helping the women maintain strong relationships with their children, Butts said "everybody does better."

"They need support and we need to do a really good job to try to help people stay together through this difficult time."

Laini Lascelles, spiritual advisor

In the last decade, the number of Indigenous women in federal prisons has increased by 60 per cent.

Laini Lascelles, a spiritual advisor at Grand Valley, said teaching these women about their Indigenous identity is one way to prepare them for their release. 

"We're always stressing that this isn't your home, this is temporary," she said. "You're here for however length of time — make the most of it to do the work that you need to do on yourself."

But Lascelles said more needs to be done to support Indigenous women when they return to their remote communities.