Q&A

Amid Burnside jail protest, a look at what's needed when offenders get out

Protests by inmates at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility over conditions are into their second week. Advocates say there's a corresponding lack of services for people who've been released from jail.

Former inmate of Nova Scotia jails says she found work after release, but had trouble with addiction

The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility is a medium-security jail with a capacity for 322 male and 48 female inmates. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

As a protest by inmates at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth over conditions at the jail stretches into its second week, advocates say there's a corresponding need for better services to support those who've been released from behind bars.

The protest is timed to coincide with one by prisoners in the U.S. and to draw attention to issues at the Burnside jail. Inmates are protesting the state of health care, the lack of rehabilitative programs and the quality of food, among other issues. 

The Elizabeth Fry Society says there's also a lack of supports for women trying to reintegrate into society.

Emma Halpern, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, and Treena Smith, who's spent time in jails in Nova Scotia, spoke with the CBC's Portia Clark about the need for services. Here is part of that conversation. 

What have been some of the main challenges when you've gotten out in terms of finding a place to live or a job or staying clean?

Smith: Whenever I got out, it's always been bouncing around, kind of couch-surfing. I have a pretty good work ethic, and I would always get out and be able to go back to work, and I'd always feel that I had an obligation to go back to work in order to be a normal part of society.

But it also put a lot of pressure on me. I'd go in for six months sometimes and get out and go right back to work two days later, and just try to be as normal as possible.

What kind of shift is that, to go from inside right to work? 

Smith: I always thought it would be more helpful in the sense that I'm being a participating member of society, I'm making my own money, things like that. But I didn't take the time to work on the other things in regards to getting my addiction under control, my mental health issues, that sort of thing.

And money can be a trigger for all of us who have addictions. So it was hard, being an active addict, I guess. 

So then you'd have money to pay for it. 

Smith: Right. Everything's a struggle really. When you get out, you feel like everybody knows — you've kind of got that look about you, that you just got out of jail, or you look hard, or you have really bad social anxiety.

Even going to the grocery store, I can remember getting out and just feeling like I don't belong, or a sense of [feeling] alienated, you know.

What are the programs that are available to help with, I guess, some of the life skills, but also the mental health challenges?

Halpern: Particularly in our provincial system, there really isn't any kind of step down, step back into the community process that's designed as part of the justice system. And I often say that in my mind, reintegration is the key component of the criminal justice system. But it is very much neglected. It's not a properly funded part. We have lots of money for courts and for policing and even for the jails themselves, and then we just stop at that point.

So that's where the social safety net of community organizations have tried to fill as best we can those gaps. I would say housing is probably the Number 1 challenge, finding safe, secure housing. We run a transitional house [Holly House] that allows some women, for whom we have enough beds for, to be in a period of transition, to get on their feet.

Many of the things that Treena are saying are true for many of the women we work with. So you've been very much, as we say, institutionalized, having lived anywhere from a couple of months to you know, in the federal context, we've had women coming out after 14 years. And you've lived in this institutional environment, and coming out and feeling very alien, as Treena says, in the world, and not having the supportive wraparound community supports at your disposal. Because many of the women we work with don't have that ... So that's what we try our best to provide at E-Fry.

Emma Halpern is executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. (Kristen Brown/CBC)

For more of this work to be done, is it a matter of understanding or money or both, in your view, Emma?

Halpern: I wanted to say something that will hopefully tie back into some of the protests that are happening at Burnside right now and connecting it a little bit. Which is just that, you know, the community sector that provides supports and services through — mostly tremendously underfunded — not-for-profit groups can provide so many of the things that folks need in the community, so that they do not end up in our prisons.

And where we should be focusing our energy and our resources and our supports is in the community sector, so that one, people do not end up in our prisons and jails when they really shouldn't be in the first place, and two, when they do come out, they don't go back in. 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Treena.
    Aug 29, 2018 7:33 PM AT

With files from CBC's Information Morning