In 2007 Dwayne Cole was a Correctional Officer walking the ranges at Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba. He had just over a decade of experience under his belt, but that didn’t mean his job wasn’t full of challenges – challenges that often presented themselves in the middle of the night when the rest of the institution was quiet.
“We had a lot of difficult guys on our range,” he explains. “They were struggling and needed extra support. This one guy though, he was particularly hard to work with. It would be one, two, three in the morning and no matter what we did, we just couldn’t get anywhere with him. I remember thinking, there has got to be a better way to do this.”
As it turns out there was, it just took some out-of-the-box thinking by Dwayne and a supportive management team who let him try something different. A new way of helping inmates who, seemingly, didn’t want to be helped.
“This one guy was very upset with us one night,” says Dwayne. “He wouldn’t talk to us, he wouldn’t listen to us, he just wanted nothing to do with any staff member. So I thought, what if instead of sending in an employee to talk to him, we send an inmate down to hear him out?”
Dwayne chose an inmate that he knew was in good standing and would be well received by the person who was struggling. This inmate was serving a life sentence, commonly called “a lifer”, and was more than happy to help. “He went down the range to chat with the guy. I’m telling you, five minutes later he had calmed him down. It was remarkable.”
This began what is now known as the Peer Offender Prevention Service, or POPS, within Stony Mountain. Dwayne is the founder and coordinator of this program that, since, 2010, has performed over 24,000 interventions with inmates who need a listening ear. The program is made up of a handful of carefully selected inmates who are serving life sentences, are respected by inmates and staff at the institution, and are trained to provide non-medical or clinical interventions to their peers. They are a small, informal support system within the institution that make themselves available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help any inmate that needs it.
“The POPS motto is ‘we’ve taken a life, now we save a life,” explains Dwayne. “For these guys it’s a chance at redemption – a chance to do some good in the world. They do this by providing support, advice, and comfort to their peers who may be dealing with stressful situations and just want to talk to someone who isn’t in a uniform.”
Each lifer in the program receives training from qualified, outside organizations as part of their role in POPS. They also work closely with Dwayne on a daily basis to ensure the program is running optimally and providing the best possible service to inmates within the institution. POPS operates with confidentiality, except in cases where they believe an inmate is a danger to themselves or others. In these situations, staff is notified and mental health professionals are called in to work with the inmate.
Despite its success at Stony Mountain, Dwayne cautions that implementing a program like POPS is not an easy thing to do, nor is it something that should be done without proper consideration and planning. For him, the safety and security of the institution, staff, and inmates always has been and always will be the top priority.
“You can’t just send any inmate in to talk to any other inmate,” he explains. “You need to know the dynamics of the institution and its population extremely well before you do this.”
Still, Dwayne is proud that his idea has been so successful. It’s rewarding for him to see struggling inmates being helped and lifers taking an opportunity to do something positive. For him, it’s about people helping people – what Corrections is all about.
Dwayne has witnessed first-hand the connections that are established between a POPS peer and an inmate who is in need of an ally. He has overheard a peer say, “I want you to call me anytime you need me. I’ll be there.” Dwayne continued, “That’s a pretty amazing thing to see in a place like this. There’s lots of good going on here and I’m happy to be a part of it.”