Nuns and the Next Step: Weekly support meetings for inmates changing lives, leaders say
Peer support group for inmates provides someone to talk to, lowers recidivism
Inside a small, unassuming house on a North End street is a living room where nearly every Thursday for 17 years, a retired prison chaplain, a group of nuns and volunteers meet with inmates on leave and former inmates to talk about their lives.
The nuns do it because in their eyes, the men just need someone to talk to in a positive environment, away from prison doors — and if they have someone to talk to and depend on, they might change their lives.
In the experience of Sister Carol Peloquin, a retired chaplain from Stony Mountain Institution, it does change lives.
When Peloquin worked at the prison, she says she would see men she'd thought would do well outside return to the prison and its chapel soon after they were released.
"It was often just pure discouragement," she said. "They didn't have anyone to talk to."
In 2001, Peloquin put in a request to Correctional Services Canada to develop a pilot project to provide peer support to paroled inmates.
The idea was simple: meet once a week with inmates who were soon to be paroled, and talk. That pilot project became Next Step.
"It was an excellent investment," she said.
Next Step reduces recidivism: Peloquin
In the 17 years Next Step has been around, Peloquin said about 250 men have come and gone through the program. She can think of only three who eventually reoffended beyond parole violations.
Those three men all had persistent mental health issues or addictions, she added, and the crimes that put them back in prison weren't violent.
Peloquin worked in the Catholic school system before she applied for the job at the prison in 1994. She said she wanted to work more directly with the disadvantaged.
In 2009, Peloquin handed the reins over to Kathleen Mico, a community worker with a master's degree in conflict resolution. But the inmates still meet every Thursday at the little house where Peloquin and two other nuns live.
'They need to be working hard'
Sometimes, men will come to meetings, get paroled and eventually stop coming. In other cases, men come back for years and eventually become volunteers.
But one of the caveats is if an inmate wants to be part of the group, they have to come every week without exception.
"We insist on attendance — you either come every week or you say goodbye. That steadfastness is a huge part of it," said Peloquin. "We take people at risk — but they need to be working hard."
Almost all of the men who went through Next Step are leading better lives than they did before, Peloquin said. Most of the men are employed, she said — one's a baker, another is a foreman at a construction company.
"They may not have wonderful, perfect lives," she said. "But they aren't back in prison."
Changemakers is a multimedia series spotlighting the efforts and stories of everyday Winnipeggers striving to improve the lives of their neighbours. It was produced by senior journalism students in Red River College's creative communications program.
With files from Kit Muir