Heightening Awareness: Narratives on the
Dis/advantages of Correctional and Post-Correctional Services
This past semester I have had the pleasure of taking a course on human rights under the instruction of Dr. Shayna Plaut. As part of the course, students were to engage in a specific human rights and/or social justice issue of interest, and present it through a medium of their choice. Having exposure to photo collaging and its method of communication, I chose to couple my familiarity with a subject I was (and continue to be, to a lesser extent) not so familiar with: the mental health services provided to inmates and ex-offenders both in correctional services, and in the wider society following their release.
I am indebted to all the folks that (a) lent their ears to listen to the kerfuffles I faced during this project; (b) provided resources to not only connect with participants, but to actually get to different destinations to conduct this project (i.e., means of transportation); (c) had their arms go numb and necks go sore while setting up the display after making sure each and every image was balanced; and (d) offered their thoughts and opinions about this issue I am still wrapping my brain around.
What are you Looking at Right Now?
Participants for this project are (a) those from a range of occupations that have some link to correctional facilities, and work first-hand with the individuals who are still in and/or have gone through ‘the system’; as well as (b) formerly-convicted individuals themselves. I initially presented the very general question to participants: “what are your views/opinions about the mental health services provided to inmates/you in British Columbia’s correctional facilities, and the mental health services provided following their/your release?” and to present their views/opinions through creating a collage. While these images, for the most part, speak directly to the questions presented, the conversation broadened as participants not only discussed their experiences in correctional facilities, but the stigmas and stereotypes in the wider society that contribute to what can generally be rendered as a downward spiral in terms of health and well-being.
To be sure, these pieces are not to entirely portray the deficits in mental health services in correctional facilities and/or post-correctional environments. Rather, the images created and reflections compiled by participants should offer an idea of what types of support and services have/have not worked, and can perhaps provide some guiding points in future services focused on mental health as it pertains to inmates and ex-offenders. Hence the title HANDS: a suitable acronym; the very organ photographed; and most importantly, the message to lend a hand – a strategy used by these individuals to work around some of the factors impacting the health and well-being of inmates and the formerly convicted.
“These images reference the culture of masculinity for boys and men and how these roles and beliefs shape behaviour. There is an inevitable link between the criminal justice system and mental health system. Behind unhealthy behaviours are unhealthy beliefs and often unhealthy environments. One of the images demonstrates the importance of a positive childhood mentor in navigating these challenges. The quote, “just fine, thanks” references the history of silence around mental health and the ongoing impact of that history.
As a probation officer, I have found that part of my job is to seek to understand – sometimes even what is on the surface incomprehensible. It has been very sad to witness the tragedy of those struggling with mental health who never accessed help, for either lack of opportunity or lack of insight.”
(CS [pseudonym], Probation Officer)
“The pig is what we used to call the cops in the ’70s. Even now they call them that. If we gave them respect, maybe they’d respect us. They’re good people. A rat is someone who tells the police the truth. They make deals with the cops. You’re told to be solid; keep your mouth shut. I used to believe that lie. The Lord has changed all that. One of my little sayings is ‘baby spoke’. A wheel is someone who’s really important – a top dog. I turn that around and say I’m just a baby spoke. I do lots of thinking.
I went into Kent penitentiary and it was on Cemetery Road. Not too many people go to Kent and get out of Kent. It was kill or be killed. I thought ‘what am I doing here?’ One guy got stabbed seven times for being in PC [protective custody] with population. They were gonna kill him just for that. Under the Canada Evidence Act if you got charged with a murder beef one of your friends would go up to the judge and say he was the one who killed him and explain how he did it. You’d both walk. We had total run of the jail. We used to make moonshine in there.
Prison is a cage. Locked up. Confined. Dogs get locked up and confined and they turn vicious. That’s what happens to guys in prison.
The word ‘guns’ represents surviving multiple shootouts. I was shot through the neck and that’s just one of the stories…
Growing up isn’t easy. When I look around my church, one of the priorities is taking care of our kids. How do we do that? Lots of grace and lots of love. I never had any of that. My dad’s girlfriend taught me how to steal and I was molested as a child. There was no love.
When I was in Mission Penitentiary I had a drop dead gorgeous girlfriend. She visited be every day for a year and a half. I’ve been very blessed in my life. I’d always wanted a Harley Davidson and I got a Harley Davidson.
The Lord’s been watching over me like crazy.”
(John, Former Inmate at Kent Institution)
“Creating a collage helped me reflect upon my eight years of working as a Correctional Educator within the provincial system, a time in which there has been so much attrition in the provision of services to yet another vulnerable sector of the population.
I hope the collage speaks for itself, and allows for personal interpretation. However, I would like to elaborate on a few of the symbols. Many of them speak to the restrictions on educational materials, and the consequent effect on inmates’ abilities to re-integrate into society. The central image refers to the fact that students have no access at all to computers – and I would invite the viewer/reader to reflect upon how the lack of basic computer skills would impact their own lives. The ‘Dollarama’ logo illustrates the source of cheap calculators which the teachers have to purchase themselves.
Despite these and multiple other barriers, it has to be said that the School District is extremely supportive of the program, and deserves thanks. But there is always a sense of fragility in the continuing support of the program.
Many of our clients have upbringings which would boggle the imagination of the ‘average’ viewer: poverty, physical and sexual abuse, previous parental and personal addiction issues, racism, neglect, and so forth. And yet, mental health services are minimal at best, in a place where they are most needed. Almost every day, I realize that, in multiple ways, ‘There but for the grace of god go I.’
It is well-known that the Correctional system is largely a revolving door; what is less well-known that dollars spent on education, mental health services, and other interventions are value-added services – that for every dollar spent on these services, the overall savings for society are multiplied many times over. And that is only the financial cost. More important is the cost in terms of wasted lives, in lives that could have been turned around if governments had the political courage to invest in these services, and make ‘Correctional’ systems truly that, rather than mere systems of punishment.”
(ML [pseudonym], Teacher at Disclosed Pre-trial Centre)
“In my experience in [British Columbia] corrections, the services offered are very limited, and difficult to access. Your [television] becomes your school, drug and alcohol counsellor AA [alcoholics anonymous] and NA [narcotics anonymous] meeting, and your mental health caretaker. I have waited ten days after putting in a request to see a doctor, only to see a nurse who makes an appointment for me to see a doctor in three or more days. I have seen guys wait two or three weeks to see a drug and alcohol counsellors You are basically on your own to deal with your own problems.”
(Tanner, Resident Trilogy Houses operated by The Realistic Success Recovery Society)
“My collage represents a portrayal of some of the real-life experiences of individuals and families whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The artwork also reflects some of the broader social problems that seem to target specific members in Canadian society, such as Aboriginal persons, who experience adult incarceration rates that are an estimated 10 times higher than the incarceration rate for non-Aboriginals (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2013).
The theme of imprisonment affecting one’s mental health is displayed through the confluence of dreary-looking eyes with the images of chains, fencing, and workers standing solemnly in an empty yard. Pre-existing mental health issues are exacerbated in the institutional environment, which is often under-stimulating, unsafe, and highly regimented. Everyday creature comforts are stripped from one’s enjoyment, forcing inmates to adapt quickly to an alien world where they are under the constant supervision of prison staff, as well as experiencing being profiled by other offenders who have little to do but spend time analyzing the most common social interactions.
Working in a non-profit community-based setting has led me to become familiar with many of the barriers offenders face as they attempt to reintegrate back into their communities. Entire neighbourhoods- like the Downtown Eastside- have had a large percentage of their population being uprooted by our legal system, which extracts deprived members of our society from their homes and registers them into a cyclical experience of re-traumatization, stigmatization, and marginalization. The advertised opportunity for a “fresh new start” is somewhat ironic, when the only available affordable housing often comes with the promise of pests, a lack of quality infrastructure, and substandard management practices.
For a person to find things like housing, a job, or even getting ID in the community while living on parole/probation results in the individual bearing an incredible amount of pressure to succeed, often with few to no supports, and having door-after-door being closed on them as they seek out for aid. The eagle, a prominent symbol of freedom, is shrouded by the face of the law, resulting in the “glass ceiling” effect encountered by individuals making an active effort to re-enter their communities.
Through our participation in this project, our organization hopes to inspire action and critical thought among the next generation when it comes to thinking about criminal and social justice-related issues in Canada. Our criminal justice system is designed to keep members of society safe and to provide rehabilitative support to those who need it the most, in order to reduce harms stemming from crime and to mitigate the risk of crime in the future. As a non-governmental organization that supports offenders and multi-barriered individuals, it is our mission to do our part in promoting a safe and peaceful community by improving the lives of its members, one person at a time.”
(Eric, Program Coordinator at John Howard Society)
“My experience of accessing programs in prison is not very good. I have been in the correctional system for the batter part of fifteen years and have noticed the programs getting less and less, and the punishment greater instead of offering any work programs or schooling (other than GED [general education development] and mopping floors). They give us televisions and keep us inside. It takes weeks to see A&D [alcohol and drug] abuse counselors or to access health care, and although they are nice, they are limited in the way they can help. There are some good recovery programs that work if you are fortunate to find one once released although it sometimes isn’t that clear which ones are good and which are shady.
In my collage I put pictures of daily struggles we have to deal with: rats – people who tell on you or even dealing with being labelled a rat; the drugs; the organized crime; not having an address when released; God; and the picture of of fishes (the saying “new fish” means the new guys on the unit). The word “corrupt” represents the corrupt prison guards and the justice system in general.”
(Tyrone, Resident Trilogy Houses operated by The Realistic Success Recovery Society)