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Time served: Those who have been incarcerated need fresh start

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Years ago on a Toronto subway, Lois Powers noticed a poster of a man leaving prison. The caption read: “Freedom. Now the punishment begins.”

Inspired by this powerful image, Powers went on to work for justice through various positions in social services, including the Toronto John Howard Society. Today she is the executive director of the John Howard Society (JHS) of Kawartha Lakes & Haliburton.

Columnist Judy Paul.

So what does it take to help people released from the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC)? Community safety is the highest priority of JHS and their experience has shown that the more supports people have both in jail and upon release, the lower the recidivism rate.

One of the myths about people released from the CECC is that they end up living in Lindsay. The majority (80 per cent) are from the Greater Toronto Area or York Region; sentences are short (78 per cent are around three months) so the reality is that families do not relocate. JHS works with those individuals who lived in Lindsay before incarceration.

What is Reintegration? 

Like any disruptive life event, some planning goes a long way to ease the transition. The men who are released from prison face challenges securing stable housing, employment or educational programs, and services to deal with physical or mental health issues. On top of these challenges, they face the stigma of being labeled an “ex-con” or an “ex-offender.”

Reintegration plans developed by Lindsay JHS begin with an assessment of the individual’s needs, and their public safety risks. Next a treatment plan is created for each individual; followed by the identification of programs that will help the client. Finally they coordinate the plan to make sure it is followed. This final step is important to ensure there are no gaps in care. The chances of success increase when these four areas are addressed.

Reintegration should begin in the correctional facility but shortages of social workers and discharge planners means that many people do not receive help preparing for life after their release. At CECC there are only 6-10 discharge planners for 600 men. You may not be surprised to learn that many of the people incarcerated have significant diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues.  The sheer numbers and complex needs of the men overwhelm the resources available. 

Getting a Job 

Securing employment is a key aspect of reintegration. Unemployment is one of the top three predictors of recidivism, with a lack of housing and social supports making up the other two predictors. For individuals with a record Powers describes the difficulty getting hired:

“Imagine what it would be like for an individual who has met all the justice requirements, is doing well, however is turned away at every point because of their record, often for offenses that happened decades ago. We have received calls from people who had completely forgotten about their record as it happened decades ago, being turned down from employment when a criminal record check is completed. Many had jobs elsewhere for years, however, had never had to apply for a criminal record check until seeking new employment opportunities.”

For individuals who have spent time in a correctional facility, the increased use of criminal record checks has hindered their ability to find work. If they have to tick a box on an application form indicating they have a record, they may not get an interview even if they fulfill the job requirements. Research indicates that a person with a record is no more likely to be a problem than any other new worker.

If a person’s record proves to be a barrier to employment, staff recommends getting a record suspension (formerly called a ‘pardon’).  JHS helps with this process, which can take from 5-10 years depending upon the offense. In the meantime, clients need work.

Finding Employment with a Criminal Record

New to the Lindsay branch of the JHS, this program is designed for persons 18 years or older with a criminal record. According to Bob Gaudette, JHS Skills development coordinator, the main goal is to address stigma, including the self-imposed stigma that results when individuals perceive that their record will prevent them from getting a job. Self-stigma affects a person’s sense of worth and individuals experience anxiety about getting and keeping a job. If not addressed self-stigma gets in the way of the participant moving on with their lives. In response to these concerns, staff point out that many people experience barriers to employment.

Long-term goal setting becomes a key part of the program because participants may initially find only entry level, or low paying work. If they don’t see this work as leading to something better in the long run, they may lose motivation. Individuals in the program actively participate in plotting their trajectory, seeing the jobs and training programs as incremental steps toward their goal of securing satisfying work. Getting a job is important, but the quality of the work is a contributing factor in avoiding re-offending.

The flexible approach to program delivery includes group and individual support, using the expertise of other agencies and being available to clients every step of the way. Staff also facilitates a support network for the participants, which is key component of successful reintegration.

What role can the community play in helping individuals with a criminal record become contributing members? Work provides an essential connection to society and some Lindsay employers have been responsive in hiring persons with a record. With a strong incentive to put the past behind them, persons with a record often work hard and become valuable employees. Gaudette would like to see more experiential learning opportunities in Lindsay to provide a place for individuals to learn new skills, and receive coaching when needed.

Social Enterprises

To provide ‘real world’ experience, some agencies are creating social enterprises to bridge the skills and confidence gap. A social enterprise is designed to fulfill a social mission. “Building Up”, a Toronto social enterprise uses their business to train and employ people in the trades.

Brenda Roxburgh of Victoria County Career Services sees a strong potential for social enterprises:

“I have always seen social enterprises as an opportunity to learn employability skills – both technical and soft skills in a way which inherently allows for mistakes and builds on them rather than penalizing the individual.  Working in a more structured and supported environment also allows the employee to develop some strong and effective work habits which then makes them much more attractive to prospective employers later on.”

Despite the challenges of financing and finding an underserved market, a social enterprise may be in Lindsay’s future.

A social enterprise “is something which I feel my organization will pursue in the coming years, likely in collaboration with our community partners as a means to better prepare individuals for the workplace,” says Roxburgh.

Community Collaboration

Social service organizations in Lindsay send a staff person to a bi-weekly forum called ‘The Situation Table.’ This group includes a representative from Kawartha Lakes Police Services and works to address the immediate needs of a struggling individual. Powers describes its effectiveness: 

“I think one of the strengths of this community is service providers who work well together which enhances the response to those in need. This is a very caring and collaborative community with a high level of expertise among service providers.”

Consider:

  • we need to be open to the idea that a person has done their time and wants to put it behind them
  • we should challenge the need for ‘police checks’ in jobs that do not have an applicant in contact with vulnerable persons
  • we should know that people who have done time are likely to internalize the stigma which affects their self-esteem and ability to move on
  • we must encourage employers to play a role and be open to the possibility that an applicant with a record could be a great employee
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Judy is interested in promoting ideas that shift our society in a more just, sustainable direction. Newly retired, she spent her career facilitating positive change in the areas of adult and family literacy, mental health, community development, and outdoor recreation. As a volunteer, she worked on climate justice issues, peace education with youth, and blogging about local food. Judy lives in Haliburton where she loves to ski, paddle, read and watch the birds.

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