Presents from prison: Pê Sâkâstêw inmates help serve Christmas hampers in Maskwacis
'We’re trying to help the people that are incarcerated to find a way to stay out of jail once they leave'
Community spirit is alive and well in Maskwacis, Alta. — and on Friday, that spirit extended to some of the inmates from a nearby correctional centre.
The Samson Cree Nation, one of the four band governments in the Maskwacis area, hosted its Christmas food hamper giveaway Friday with the help of volunteers and inmates from the nearby Pê Sâkâstêw Centre, giving away 1,200 hampers to those in need.
Pê Sâkâstêw, a minimum-security male correctional facility run by Correctional Service Canada, is located about a kilometre south of the town site of Samson.
Seeing the prisoners out and about in Maskwacis, however, is nothing new. Samson Chief Vernon Saddleback said Pê Sâkâstêw has been giving back to the community for years, and helps at major events all year long.
"We're trying to help the people that are incarcerated to find a way to stay out of jail once they leave," said Saddleback.
"Allowing them into our community gets that life back into normalcy for them instead of keeping them institutionalized. We are really grateful for the help that they give us."
The prison, which opened in 1997, was modelled after a healing-lodge concept to promote reintegration of mostly Indigenous offenders, although it houses up to 60 inmates of all ethnic backgrounds.
It is built in the shape of a medicine wheel with buildings and houses surrounding a sacred circle.
Saddleback notes that the inmates learn and apply Indigenous culture in their lives. They help with ceremonies and sundances and even help to upkeep community infrastructure such as building decks for elders.
"There's a cultural aspect to it. In our culture we call them 'Oskapew' — those ones who serve. When we're growing up as young boys, we work and we serve the people. When [the inmates] come out to help us, that's what they're coming out as. They're not coming out as prisoners picking up garbage in our ditches," said Saddleback.
'A part of the community'
Richard Preston has been in jail for 25 years for second-degree murder. He's originally from Victoria, B.C., but has been serving his time at Pê Sâkâstêw since 2014.
Although he is non-Indigenous, he said he's chosen to follow Indigenous spirituality and culture because it has helped to rehabilitate him.
"It's given me balance in life. It's helped me look at my life and give back to community rather than take," said Preston.
"To me, [coming to the community is] awesome. I've met so many elders in the community. I sweat in the community.… I've been in prison for a long time and this helps me reintegrate back into society as a law-abiding citizen."
Guards from Pê Sâkâstêw accompany the inmates when they go out in groups of up to a dozen to serve in the community. But Preston qualifies for day passes and can come and go to volunteer at events as he pleases.
He said some people know he is a convicted criminal but he's experienced positive interactions with community members.
"It's like I'm a part of the community. I know a lot of people in the community here and they know [about me], but it's not advertised. But if anyone asks I'm very open and honest."
Community member and hamper-drive organizer Janet Swampy agrees.
"It's all gone smoothly. We've never had any issues," she said. "We are welcoming — it's just the way the Aboriginal community is, we accept them. I hope we keep it going," she said.
"Most Aboriginal jails do not allow [inmates] out in the community. Here, we're not looking at them as jail inmates, we're looking at them as people. And that's what's unique about it."
Chief Saddleback assured locals not to worry about prisoners escaping during their visits to the community. He said that's never happened when the men are out volunteering.
"We've never had anyone break away or take off when they're working in the community. All the guys who come out and assist you, they're here to work and give back. They've been wonderful."