* A note to readers: Citizen Advisory Committees (CAC) bring a valuable community perspective to federal corrections. They help CSC build stronger links between offenders and communities, and are committed to making a meaningful contribution to public safety. Over the course of the following months we are highlighting one CAC success story per month in Let’s Talk Express. Last month we featured a success story out of the Pacific Region.
When 57-year-old Diane was sentenced to 16 months in prison for committing fraud over $150,000, she was devastated. She knew she had made a mistake and should pay for her actions, but nothing, she says, could have prepared her for the moment when she was escorted from the court house after sentencing to the Women’s Correctional Centre in Winnipeg.
“I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t focus. I was completely out of it,” she says. “I was in total disbelief. It was absolutely terrifying.”
One week later, Diane, still lost and confused, attended a resource fair at the Centre, where she and her fellow inmates had the opportunity to meet with over 90 community resource agencies about issues such as housing, employment, education, health, family support, addictions, mental health, and many other areas that could help facilitate a successful reintegration into the community. That is where Diane met Jeannette Acheson, a Parole Officer in the Women’s Supervision Unit of the Winnipeg Parole Office.
“Jeannette gave me hope that everything would be ok,” says Diane. “She gave me all of the information I needed about parole, she told me what she thought my chances were of getting it, and she said she would help me to navigate the process. She was honest and tough, but she also made me feel like I wasn’t alone in this.”
What Diane didn’t know is that the resource fair she attended was part of the Women’s Network Project, an initiative of the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Winnipeg Parole Unit/Osborne Community Correctional Centre. Inspired to tackle the complex needs of women offenders, the CAC developed the Women’s Network Project to identify barriers and challenges for women in conflict with the law and increase their access to community resources by leveraging key government and community stakeholders.
Sharon Taylor, a member of the Winnipeg Parole CAC explains that the idea to host these resource fairs came to be after over thirty local organizations came together one evening years ago to discuss how they could better support women who were incarcerated.
“This is what we do,” says Sharon. “We help at-risk and disenfranchised people in the community. We saw a need in these women, so we all worked together to come up with a way to help them.”
Since 2012, the Women’s Network Project has successfully hosted 10 resource fairs at the Women’s Correctional Centre with an overall attendance of about 850 provincially and federally incarcerated women. The project's success is in part a direct reflection of the strong collaborative partnership between government and local community agencies including: the Winnipeg Parole CAC, Manitoba Justice, the Correctional Service of Canada, Inner City Women’s Ministries, SEED Winnipeg, Women’s Health Clinic, North End Women’s Centre, Youth Employment Services, and countless other community agencies.
These agencies provide information and services that could facilitate a woman’s transition back into the community. The women themselves are also invited to fill out surveys with their feedback and suggestions for additional resources that may be helpful to have in attendance in the future. According to Sharon, these resource fairs are invaluable to the women who attend them, as well as the agencies themselves.
“The benefits are two-fold,” she says. “Not only are we helping the women, but we also benefit because we get to see what the other groups are doing in their work. It helps us to learn and make sure that we are providing the best service possible to those in need.”
Jeannette also sees the impact these resource fairs have.
“These women would have no idea that these agencies and resources existed if not for these resource fairs,” she says. “These events are all about connecting – connecting women in trouble to people who can help them.”
Jeannette emphasizes the fact that most of the women she encounters at the Women’s Correctional Centre have no support systems whatsoever on the outside. They don’t have family they can go back to – in fact, many times their families are the ones who victimized them. Issues around abuse, substance abuse, abandonment and neglect are also common. This, says Jeannette, is why it’s important for these women to be given information about the positive support systems available to them.
“More often than not, these women have nothing and no one. They have zero support. If they attend one of these fairs and make even just one connection out of the forty or fifty there, we’ve done our job.”
Working in corrections for over thirty years, Jeannette has seen what can happen when offenders are given the help they need to succeed. The day we spoke, she had been at a local school earlier on to talk about her job and to educate youth about the correctional system. She shared with them a letter from a former offender who wrote to Jeannette to thank her for changing her life. That former offender is now a college student. This is just one example, says Jeannette, of success stories she has seen happen firsthand.
“I believe people can change. I believe that if a person wants to be better, they will be. All they need is some help along the way. You don’t always hear about our success stories, but I know of hundreds.”
“I think that everyone, no matter their circumstances, deserve a chance. These women come from chaos, but once we educate them about the resources and supports available to them, they can move forward. Knowledge is power.”