How a Montreal organization helps former prisoners adjust to the outside world
New book chronicles over 20 years of Open Door
In his 18 years as a prison chaplain, Montrealer Peter Huish saw inmates come and go — and then come back again.
It seemed as though, once released, they would inevitably return, as if passing through a revolving door.
Part of the problem, he said, is that they feel rejected by the outside world.
"There is still a significant underlying stigmatization from society and taken on by the inmates themselves," Huish said. "They know they are looked down upon in general."
And so, in 1999 he founded Communitas Montreal, looking to create a safe place for them to turn to upon their release.
Jeri Pitzel, who co-ordinates the Open Door program for Communitas says finding one's way after serving time is harder than it might look.
"He's done his time, he's paid his dues to society and he comes out and he has closed doors all around him," Pitzel said. "You can't live here. You can't work here. You can't do this. You can't do that."
Open Door aims to show former convicts that there are members of the community who want them back and are willing to support their transition into society.
Since its early days in 2001, it has given former detainees and those out on temporary leave or day parole, the opportunity to mingle with volunteers, guest speakers and members of society.
It is a forum for discussion not necessarily about criminal justice — but about broader topics, like the environment, politics and science.
COVID has also meant Open Door meetings have had to shift online.
That hasn't been easy for everyone. Age is a factor, with the average attendee around 60. Also, many living in halfway houses are banned from having the technology that would allow them to attend virtually.
Still, the program is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the publication of an anthology which will be released in hardcover next week, Open Door: From the Inside Out. Pitzel hopes that the book will shed light on the challenges that former detainees must face when they try to make a fresh start.
Building a community
The book includes the testimony of 150 individuals who have passed through the program, including volunteers and incarcerated Communitas members.
So far, 100 softcover copies have been picked up. The organization is hoping to raise funds through book sales, having lost some federal funding this year. "I think COVID has a lot to do with it," says Michele Rattray-Huish, Communitas volunteer and president of the board of directors.
The book was financed through a Pathy Fellowship received by Michaela Drouillard, a 23-year-old Communitas volunteer and recent McGill University graduate in Russian literature and digital humanities.
Pathy fellows receive a living stipend and funding for a community organization of their choice. Drouillard used her funds to facilitate the publication of the book.
"People who might not know anyone who's been incarcerated might see them as exotic or someone you see on TV," she says. "They're just people."
One inmate's experience
Lino, who calls himself a "white collar bandit," has served four years of a 13-year sentence for financial crimes.
He has been part of Open Door for nearly four years, since June 2018. CBC is not using his last name because of difficulties it could cause in finding employment upon his release.
He attends meetings when he is out on day parole and helped with the book's planning: approaching printers for quotes, conducting several interviews and making line edits.
The program offers a comforting sense of anonymity, says Lino.
"You meet people at Open Door, you can't tell who's been inside and who hasn't right away, because everyone is treated like an individual," he said.
A delicate transition
Pitzel says the first year on the outside is critical for ex-inmates. The length of a sentence can be an indicator of how hard it will be to slip back into society smoothly.
Some prisoners may have trouble understanding new technology that did not exist when they went to prison, like cell phones.
They may find themselves lost, having to form new friendships since they are no longer allowed to spend time with people who have criminal records.
Some are overwhelmed by the speed of life on the outside, because on the inside, everything tends to be slow. They might spend an hour and 45 minutes in a grocery store because they are disoriented by the level of choice available.
But the biggest challenge, Pitzel said, is the lack of community support.
"I suppose people are afraid, thinking that everyone who is released from prison is dangerous, which is the furthest thing from the truth."
She says that those who go to prison are often those who are poor, with mental health issues, or those who were neglected or abused. "That's what we do with our marginalized people — we put them in prison."
She would like to see more preventive policies, such as addiction counselling and leadership training for kids.
Lino says that Open Door: From the Inside Out is a testament to the benefits of restorative justice: a system that focuses more on healing than on punishment; on being tough on crime, rather than tough on criminals.
He says the book could help the idea take root in the minds of those on the outside.
"This is a story of hope," he says. "This is restorative justice in practice."