It is not the kind of statement you would expect from someone who just finished visiting a person in prison. John has been a volunteer with Open Circle for two years and was moving on so he could dedicate more time to other things. He voiced his comment as I spent some time debriefing with him, asking what his experience with Open Circle was like. His comment was not voiced in a negative light. To the contrary. He felt everyone should have an opportunity to “go to prison” so they could experience first hand some of the realities of the Canadian prison system.
In some respects, it is another reason Open Circle exists. Besides providing friendship behind bars, we also provide individual volunteers the opportunity to undergo what could be called an educational experience. Along with the opportunity to interact with those serving time, learning about their struggles, hopes and dreams. They also have the chance to connect with staff, encountering first hand the complexity of corrections and toll it sometimes takes on those who live within the system and work within it. All of which, begins to put a far more human face on a world few understand.
There is a famous quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him”. One of the roles of Open Circle is to provide people with an opportunity to follow Lincoln’s sage advice and perhaps discover that the person they don’t like may in fact be far more human than they thought.
We settled into our seats at the local coffee shop to catch up on the latest news. James had seen his fair share of rough spots in life. Prison, mental health issues, struggling to hold a full time job. As we talked we were interrupted by someone sitting next to us, “Do you know how much a Timbit costs?” James and I looked at each other for a moment, “Just a few cents.” There was no verbal response from the next table, just a nod. I had not paid any attention to our neighbour till then. He had no coffee, was dressed in an old weary coat that matched the tired worn look on his face. It wasn’t a stretch to assume he was there just to find a warm place to hang out on that cold December day.
James leaned over to me, “I am going to buy him a coffee and donut”. Turning to his neighbour James offered a coffee and a donut. The response was quick, “Dark roast, triple cream and a honey donut.” We both smiled at each other as James went off to fill the order. Soon he was back. He offered the coffee and donut and was met with a quiet, “Thank you”. As James and I continued our conversation I couldn’t help but reflect on the years James and I had known each other, both in prison
It is almost as if the hardships, pain, rejection and failures of life have crafted and shaped a special kind of care for people others ignore. James sized up his neighbour quickly. His actions, although miniscule on a worldly scale of good deeds, was in some respects a major deal. It spoke about the decisions he had made in life. Decisions not to let the struggles and difficulties of life continue to encase his heart in stone. Instead, he let the losses and pain craft a heart of compassion and care for others.
Jesus words wandered through my mind, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. The word that repeatedly catches my attention is “whatever”. We often miss the profound wisdom of using a word like whatever. “Whatever” sets no limits on how big or small the act is. It simply doesn’t matter. The very act itself reveals something about the one offering it, whether it is big or small.
On occasion, when I have been asked about what I do, the response is met with a smile and an unvoiced question, “Why would you ever work with those people”? The answer is simple. It lies in watching someone you have invested time and energy in, someone who was written off years ago, someone who once had a heart encased in stone, offering “whatever” to another human being.
It is the hidden side of prison. The side that gets little mention in the press. The side that serves a different kind of time.
I met her just as she was entering Stony Mountain Institution for the first time. She stood in the entrance to the prison, fear etched on her face. English was not her first language, her husband had just started serving a federal sentence and she was trying to drop off some personal effects. I noticed her standing there, uncertain of what to do, so I walked over and began to talk with her. The tears were not long in coming as she talked in broken English about her husband who had just been sentenced. She was trying to drop off some personal effects. She didn’t know who to talk to and had no idea what the process was.
As someone involved in prisons for a number of years my interactions with families have been many. Few are aware of the burden loved ones carry: uncertainty about their sons, fathers, boyfriend, husbands safety, confusing prison rules and regulations, restricted and limited contact. All these and many more combine to make the term, “serving time on the outside” a reality.
Over the years The Canadian Families and Corrections Network has worked hard to raise these concerns and provide resources for the families and those who have loved ones serving time in Canadian prisons. I would encourage you to visit their website. They have a wealth of information.
Although Open Circle’s primary role is to provide friendship to those in prison, sometimes we also connect with families. Providing them with an opportunity to talk, shed a few tears, and hear some kind words of encouragement.
So J. is back in prison again. He violated one of his conditions and his freedom was removed. What do we do with him? After all, he has been in and out of prison a few times over the years. Maybe we should just throw away the key? It seems like a nice neat solution. In reality it is not. When you throw away the key, you throw away hope. In the 14th century Dante Alighieri wrote an epic poem about what heaven and hell were like. Above the gates of hell he suggested these words were chiselled, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. Interesting. Humankind has for centuries understood that life without hope truly is a dark place.
From its earliest beginnings Open Circle has understood that hope is central to helping individuals change their lives, and offering practical grace is the foundation for nurturing hope. Without it change will not happen. So in the days, weeks, and months to come we will continue to extend grace to J. as Open Circle staff visit, as his volunteer visitor visits, and as we help him plan for his next release.
It has been a few weeks now and the challenges of making it on the street have proved to much for J. as he ended up back in prison on a parole violation. O. continues to do well. Why the difference? Well, one part of staying out is relying on the supports that are there. After a few weeks on the street J. seemed to disappear, no longer connecting with his supports. O. on the other hand continued to connect regularly.
It seems like such a small thing, a phone call, a text, a conversation over coffee or lunch – yet they aren’t small things. They provided a connection, a place to reflect, an opportunity to reassure yourself that your not alone, and on occasion a voice that may gently hold you accountable, help you look at a situation different, and encourage.
We underestimate the value of such simple human connections, but for those who already feel somewhat alienated they can prove to be a valuable lifeline.
As O. and J. continue their journey of integrating into the community they will face numerous challenges.
My name is Hank Dixon and am presently the Interim Director of Open Circle. For 15 years I was a prison chaplain and over the years I have walked with a number of individuals through the challenges of moving back into the community. Over the next few weeks we will look more closely at some of those challenges. One of the first that arises can best be framed in a conversation I had with Murray Barkman, who for years was the Director of Open Circle. In one of our many conversations about this transition back into the community we both agreed that the word reintegration, which is often used in corrections circles is often not quite accurate. For many individuals returning to society, especially if they have served a long sentence, the world has changed substantially. Personal possessions have often disappeared or been taken, such as a vehicle, clothes, sentimental items. They arrive back in society with practically nothing. Connections with people they may have worked with are different, strained or just don’t exist anymore. Families have grown, friends have moved on, relationships they once understand are now very different. Added to this the world around them has changed. In our fast past technological world simple advances we take for granted can pose a real challenge to individuals who have been inside for many years.
Added to these is the reality that the person coming out of prison has often changed also. They have grown older, and depending on their experiences in prison they will have changed dramatically from the person who first walked into a prison. As Murray and I came to realize, along with many others; sometimes, this process of moving back into society is not so much about reintegrating as integrating changed realities. Reintegration implies that we are restoring something that was before. For some individuals what was before no longer exists. Who they were has changed. Society has changed and most significantly, how society views them has changed. This process of moving back into society then becomes one of integrating a changed person into a changed society.
Both O. and J. are discovering that reality first hand as they try to shape new lives on the street.
Last year, Open Circle was awarded the contract from Correction Service Canada to initiate a new Faith Community Reintegration Project (FCRP) in Winnipeg. This program matches recently released federal inmates who are interested in becoming a part of a faith community with churches and religious institutions that are interested in welcoming these people into their congregations.
Jim was invited to St. Paul the Apostle church on the evening of February 25th to talk about this program and brought along two recently released men, J. and O., to talk about their story and experience of prison life and life on the outside to a group of parishioners who gathered as part of St. Paul’s Year of Mercy program. Jim later talked about the FCRP followed by a lively question and answer period led by J.
Many men seem to be drawn to Chapel when they are in prison and receive a true benefit from it. Upon release, however, it appears that the interest fades as they relax back into the routines they held before they went in. I will report back in a couple of months on the progress of J. and O.’s integration into a faith community.