'It means everything to me': Rideshare that connects inmates with loved ones struggles to meet demand
Winnipeg-based program only able to deliver 24 of 99 rides requested in month of May
Sitting in the back seat of a car just within sight of the minimum security unit of Stony Mountain Institution, north of Winnipeg, Paulette Daignault said she was anxious to get inside.
The Winnipeg great-grandmother can't drive, but she tries to get to the prison every two weeks or so to visit her son, Marc. They play cards — he always wins — and share updates on family, his kids and his new baby granddaughter. The two have always been close, she said.
"It's definitely not the same, not the same as if he was at home or in the city," Daignault said last week, during the roughly half-hour drive from Winnipeg to the prison.
"We do the best with what we have. That's about what we can say."
Daignault is one of dozens of Winnipeggers who rely on a free prison rideshare program to visit loved ones in Manitoba prisons and jails — but a group organizer says they're struggling to meet the demand.
"We had 75 [requests for] rides that went unfilled just in May alone," said Owen Toews. He's a co-ordinator with Bar None, a prison abolitionist group that runs the rideshare, and the driver who took Daignault to Stony Mountain for her latest visit.
The group had 99 ride requests in total last month, he says, meaning they were unable to fulfil three-quarters of all bookings.
'Huge demand' for service
"At this point, we are just getting so many more requests for rides than we're able to give," Toews said. "That's our biggest practical challenge in operating the rideshare these days, is meeting the huge demand."
Stony Mountain isn't far from Winnipeg — only about 25 kilometres. But there's no bus service to the institution, meaning it's difficult for those who don't have access to a car to see loved ones inside.
Daignault first started using the program a few months ago, after learning about it through her daughter-in-law. Before that, she'd gotten rides from her brother, but he hasn't been well lately and she worries about bothering him too much.
"It means everything to me that I can get a ride," she said.
It's been more difficult to book rides lately, she said. She was anxious to get to Stony the morning of her latest visit with Marc because she hadn't been able to make it to the prison for more than a month, and because it was nice out she was pretty sure they'd be able to sit outside.
Since the service started in fall 2015, Toews says demand for rides has grown thanks to word-of-mouth in the city and in the institutions themselves.
"It means a lot to the people I've talked to and given rides to. I think it's very, very, very stressful — and stressful is much too light a word — to have a loved one locked up," he said.
"I think — I hope — that by giving rides we can take one miniscule part of the stress of that away."
The service is in need of more drivers, but Toews said it also needs more commitment from the drivers it has. Some people who signed up to volunteer for the group have never actually given a ride.
"I think it's just something that's unknown so people, they just don't know how it will work," he said.
Toews said for some, visiting a prison may feel intimidating or unwelcoming. The organization is working on finding a way to "demystify" the process, he said, so drivers will feel more confident.
They're also hoping to find a more organized process to schedule rides and drivers, he said, and are looking at putting in minimum availability requirements for new volunteers.
In the car with Toews, Daignault said she was nervous about her first ride, too. She didn't know the driver, and she felt bad about making the person wait as she had her visit.
But when she met Toews, she said she felt she could talk to him almost like he was another of her grandsons.
"Maybe I talk his ears out, I don't know," Daignault said. "But I enjoy the ride because he's very pleasant."