By Gabriel Wu
When Kent Institution Correctional Officer Alice Zador learned how big of a shift in institutional operations the new structured intervention unit (SIU) was, she immediately volunteered to be part of the team working in it.
“The SIU is always busy,” said Alice, who started at CSC in 2019 in the mainstream population and moved to the SIU in 2021. “But I like the structure and the teamwork. Not only that, but you are also constantly talking with inmates which builds a rapport and develops your dynamic security skills really fast.”
The SIU at Kent Institution, near Agassiz, British Columbia, opened in November 2019 after administrative segregation was abolished. It was a drastic change that had an impact not just on inmates but on the staff. The SIU provides inmates who cannot be safely managed in a mainstream inmate population with more structured and effective interventions to address their specific needs and risks. The goal of the SIU is to help them reintegrate into the mainstream inmate population as soon as possible.
Inmates in the SIU can spend a minimum of four hours a day outside their cell. This includes two hours to interact with others. However, often many are not interested in coming out of their cells or interacting.
Alice said she often needs to come up with out-of-the-box ways to overcome inmates’ objections about coming out and participating in activities. Although this can be challenging, she has also seen the changes that some inmates have gone through while in the SIU.
“We had an inmate that, when they first came to the SIU, was very quiet and did not associate with anyone,” said Alice. “But once he got familiar with the routine and developed a rapport with staff, he began to come out more and participate in programs. You can definitely see a change in their behaviour as they progress through their programs.”
Kent’s SIU team brainstorms ideas to encourage inmates to participate in programs and activities, such as playing cards or board games, discussions, or simply getting fresh air in the yard.
SIU Social Programs Officer Cathey Slovick noted, “I find inmate’s guards are let down when there’s no pressure,” said Cathey. “By making small talk, they are more open to chat about families, kids, or just how tired they are with being incarcerated.”
The SIU team connected with volunteers in the community to come in and offer services that could assist individuals to develop life skills. They have seen some positive results with offenders willingly participating in and sharing their experiences in the volunteers’ programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The sessions taught them how to implement these skills into their daily lives.
Educator Christine Zyla has been teaching in the SIU since it first opened. Like Alice, Christine volunteered to join the SIU team as she wanted to start on the “ground floor of new things.”
She compared her experience teaching classes to the mainstream population and noted that the SIU, with its smaller class sizes, has more targeted and focused learning sessions. One of her more memorable moments was when an inmate finally attended her class after endless encouragement, and after making significant progress told her that he “didn’t think he’d be able to learn that.”
She also uses a laptop to assist offenders with life skills, such as creating and editing resumes and spreadsheets for record keeping. For some offenders, it is the first time they have used a laptop or computer. They become engaged, discovering how they can apply what they learn upon their release into the community.
Art as more than decoration
Art supplies are also available to encourage offenders to find creative outlets in drawing or painting. Former SIU Elder Caroline Buckshot suggested the idea of creating a mural in the Spirit Room, a classroom primarily dedicated to Indigenous interventions. Inmates who initially began working on the mural openly encouraged each other and offered positive and constructive feedback. As the mural project progressed, staff were impressed with the inmates’ creativity and encouraged their efforts.
“The paintings done by inmates in the SIU Spirit Room portray images and teachings that the Elders have shared with them,” said Christine. “The act of creating art can contribute to overall improved mental health and interpersonal relationships, as well as foster productive self-reflection towards change, positive self-esteem and overall emotional resilience.”
Though the inmates who began the initial mural have moved on from the SIU, their unfinished art offered an opportunity for other Indigenous inmates to pick up where they’d left off. Nearly four years later, most of the walls in the SIU Spirit Room are decorated with artwork and mural pieces worked on by other Indigenous inmates. This art has helped provide a safe and welcoming space. It has also strengthened cultural identity among the Indigenous inmates who live in the SIU.
These are some of the successes the Kent SIU team is proud of. The dedicated staff go above and beyond to find activities that encourage inmates to spend time out of their cells and be more engaged in their plan to leave the SIU. More than that, they’re efforts contribute to the inmates’ overall reintegration journey.