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Community in Corrections

Fostering a sense of belonging can lower likelihood to reoffend.

TERRI-LYNNE MCCLINTIC made headlines in 2018, almost 10 years after she was convicted for her role in the 2009 kidnapping, rape and murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford. She was originally handed a life sentence and sent to Grand Valley Institution, a federal women’s prison in Kitchener, Ont.

At the end of 2018, however, it was revealed that McClintic had actually been transferred from Grand Valley to a very different type of prison. As of April of last year, she had been serving out her sentence at Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge.

News of the transfer sparked outrage among Canadians, especially the victim’s father, Rodney Stafford. He, and many other Canadians, believed McClintic was getting off easy with her sentence and led the charge to send her back to a higher security prison.

Eventually, protests on Parliament Hill and increased backlash about the transfer led to McClintic being moved again – this time to a medium-security prison in Edmonton. The situation left many Canadians with questions about what healing lodges are and why they even exist.

The healing lodge McClintic was at is located on the Nekaneet First Nation in Southern Saskatchewan. While it is indeed run by Correctional Services Canada (CSC), the inmates at Okimaw Ohci aren’t kept in cells, and there aren’t even fenced boundaries. Instead the lodges are designed with Aboriginal healing values and communities in mind.

Vicki Chartrand is a criminology professor at Bishop’s University who focuses on indigenous incarceration. She believes that Canadians are misinformed on prisons in general.

“Ninety to 95 percent of people have never been inside an actual prison, and the majority of understandings are generated from news media, popular culture, and museum tours of decommissioned carceral sites,” said Chartrand. “So it is often a sensationalized representation.”

Case in point: media outlets compared healing lodges to health spas and even resorts in the wake of the Terri-Lynne McClintic news a few months ago, giving Canadians the wrong impression of what these lodges are all about.

“Stability, resources and support are some of the best predictors if someone is going to do well. People in prison are cut off from these while inside,” Chartrand explained. “A healing lodge will reintroduce some of these tools because, in addition to security measures, there is also a focus on healing.”

Chartrand says that graduated systems that create personal connections, like moving inmates to these healing lodges prior to release, are optimal for helping offenders ease back into the community.

This sentiment is echoed by CSC who say that one of the main goals of healing lodges is to prepare offenders to reintegrate into society after their release. They do this primarily by using programs to teach offenders about the consequences of their actions within the community and to make better choices.

Currently there are nine healing lodges in Canada funded or operated by Correctional Services. They are located mostly in the prairies with the exception of one in British Columbia and another in Quebec, but all of them are located on or near First Nations territory. When the first healing lodge was opened in 1995, it was designed to allow Indigenous women a space to practice their culture and focus on rehabilitation and aboriginal teachings.

Today all of the lodges provide holistic, culturally sensitive programming such as work skills training, counselling and vocation training. They also have programs addressing family relations, substance abuse and independent living. And because the lodges are built and run with the support and involvement of the Aboriginal community they are close to, programs also focus on community building and creating connections. 

One of the founders of the first healing lodge, Sharon McIvor, told Global News that when they were discussing the ideals that the lodges should be built upon, they first thought of indigenous world views. Some of these views relate directly to community; for example, one worldview states that feeling comfortable is based on the quality of your relationships, while another focuses on doing things for the good of the community. 

A study out of St. Catherine University in Minnesota in 2013 found a link between community-focused programs and recidivism rates, which are higher in the United States than any other country in the world. (The U.S. also incarcerates more people than any other nation. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, states south of the border “spend $50 billion a year on corrections, yet more than four out of 10 prisoners wind up back behind bars within three years of release.”)

The study, which was done by Paige Paulson, looked at a number of participants who were working with social agencies for ex-offenders in Minnesota. Interviews with participants revealed that having community ties is one of the keys to success for people being released from prison. It is also important that these ties start while the person is still incarcerated so that they maintain an emotional support system when they are released.

A study done by the Department of Corrections in Minnesota also made this connection. They found that offenders who had regular visits while they were behind bars were 25 percent less likely to reoffend. Their chances were even better if the visits were from close family members or friends.

The Criminal Justice Policy Review included a 2013 study on offenders jailed for substance abuse, including their likelihood to reoffend, and found that, “A key factor … to effective treatment and prevention is human ‘connectedness.’”

When offenders develop close, positive relationships, they also develop trust and care for someone else; in turn, they also feel connected to a community outside prison walls – key components when talking about lowering the chances of reoffending.

In Canada a group called CoSA (Circles of Support and Accountability) is putting these strategies into practise. Bonnie Weppler is the Executive Director of the Ottawa-based Church Council on Justice and Corrections (CCJC) but also volunteers with CoSA. She says the program provides community-based support to sex offenders, once they are released.

“You’re not just a friend, but you’re an intentional friend, because he’s coming out with not knowing anybody, not having any support, needing a lot of help at the beginning,” said Weppler.

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She mentioned another program built out of CCJC called the Empathy Project, where prison chaplains help teach inmates to put themselves in the shoes of other people, especially their victims.

“A lot of people who have come from hard circumstances don’t have this compassion and empathy,” said Weppler.

She explained that they are trying to encourage offenders – while they’re in prison – to be able to move out of themselves, and to think about what they did, who they hurt, and why they did it.
“And if I got in that situation again, what would I do differently?”

This focus on personal connections, community-building and empathy are the same principles behind the creation of Emma’s Acres, a farm program for Canadians currently in prison, as well as survivors/victims in Mission, B.C. The farm was started in 2010 by Glen Flett, a former inmate himself who wanted to build a community for offenders and their victims.

While it started simply as a community garden for victims in the area, the farm now welcomes up to 50 inmates each year, most of whom are still serving time but are on a work release with Corrections Canada. Working at Emma’s Acres gives them a new outlook on their crimes and their lives.

“They want to do it because they’re helping people. They haven’t had that opportunity. They haven’t that chance to act sorry. This gives them the chance,” Flett said in a new documentary about the farm.

All the crops grown on the farm are given to victims in the community, as well as sold at the local farmer’s market or donated to the food banks and community kitchens in the area. Beyond that it creates a safe space for the victims to forgive and for offenders to empathize.

“They start to empathize with the people that are here,” Flett said of the offenders at Emma’s Acres. “When people have empathy for others they start thinking about the harm they’re doing.”

This is part of what Flett calls transformative justice, which he says is a better label for their program than restorative justice.

“Especially when you’re talking about homicide. You can’t restore that,” Flett explained, “But we do need to transform that tragedy into something that’s not just grief, not just anger and seeking revenge.

“The core of transformative justice is the community and the offenders working to help heal the harm that’s caused by whatever happened,” he continued.

“If we can find a way to help people feel like they fit, their risk [of reoffending] is so much reduced.”

Not all the offenders who go through Emma’s Acres are religious, but for Flett, finding God and having a place in the Christian community has been a big part of his healing journey.

“When I started learning about restorative justice it was through being a Christian and recognizing that the teaching of Jesus is really important to restorative justice.”

He added that it’s his belief in God and in forgiveness that has allowed Emma’s Acres to grow and be successful over the last 10 years. When asked if he believes that community based programs like his lower the rates of re-offending, Flett responded definitively.

“Absolutely, 100 percent.”

If that doesn’t speak to the importance of programs like these, Chartrand also has a reminder for Canadians. 

“I think it is important to remember that 80 to 90 percent of people will eventually leave the prison,” she says. “A gradation system that reintroduces people back to community has been shown to be the optimal setting to ease the transition to community.”

As for Terri-Lynne McClintic, despite being handed a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years, she could be granted early release soon. Due to an old rule called the faint hope clause, she could apply for early parole in 2024, after 15 years in custody. 

If McClintic is granted parole, which would be done through a judicial review, and released, her chances of re-offending are hard to predict. But testimonies from people like Chartrand, Flett and Weppler suggest her chances of success are much better if she finds support and a sense of belonging from her community.  

  • Elizabeth is a Toronto based writer and life-long Anglican. She completed her Bachelor of Journalism at Carleton University, where she also developed a passion for Canadian justice.

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