Former offender Bill Sands, with the support of Reverend James Post, founded what is now known as the Seven Step Society at the Kansas State Prison in 1963. Their goal was to help reduce recidivism among the ‘incorrigibles’ within the prison population - otherwise known as the toughest, hardened convicts.
The first Seventh Step Chapter group in Canada was created in a BC provincial correctional facility in 1967. The following year, the very first chapter opened in a federal institution inside the former BC Penitentiary located in New Westminster (closed in 1980). The society was incorporated in Canada in 1969 and currently operates in six provinces, including:
- Newfoundland and Labrador
- Prince Edward Island
- Nova Scotia
- Alberta, and
- British Columbia
The Seventh Step program was adapted from the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, another self-help program that focuses on peer support, narrowed down to just seven steps. The seven steps spell out the acronym “FREEDOM”. Once applied, these steps support offenders with changing their mindsets - to get out of prison, and stay out.
The Seventh Step core program is based on the belief that freedom can be achieved and sustained by following and practicing seven basic self-help concepts. Peer support is at the heart of everything the Seventh Step Society does, and ex-offenders play an integral role in being the example and motivation for new members to shift their thinking, and be successful in their participation in the program.
The Seventh Step core self-help groups are designed for, and restricted to, current and ex offenders, with many convictions, who are respected and have credibility amongst their peers. The groups can also include non-offender community volunteers as supports. Core group meetings in an institution can occur weekly or bi-weekly and they are voluntary. Usually the meetings are two hours in length, where the focus is on behavioral change through:
- realistic thinking
- a positive mental attitude
- a sense of purpose, and
- an honest appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses
There are currently active groups only at Drumheller and Bowden Institutions and previously, Seventh Step was also active at William Head, Matsqui and Dorchester Institutions. Their core program in the community, referred to as “Street Groups”, has remained active during the pandemic virtually.
In addition, the Seventh Step Society recently developed the Taking Responsibility program, which is a 7-week, 7-session program delivered by trained Seventh Step facilitators. This program, as opposed to the core self-help program, is open to any offender, no matter the nature of their offence(s). While it was designed to be delivered in a group format, it has been adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic. A small group of Queens Correctional Service Volunteers (QCSV), a student-led club at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, have already trained as facilitators for the program.
The Seventh Step Society has also created a program for training offenders to become peer-support workers. Piloted during the pandemic, Seventh Step Society plans to implement it nationally to support offenders across Canada. This is open to offenders currently incarcerated as well as those in the community. Evidence suggests that trained peers show increased understanding of problems offenders face and retain credibility that staff and volunteers lack. These shared experiences lead to an increased value of the solutions and perspectives offered by peers, as witnessed in the Peer Offender Prevention Service (POPS), an initiative started by institutional staff at Stony Mountain Institution that has been running since 2008. Evidence from the St. Giles Trust in the UK has also shown that peer support programs are adaptable and responsive to different communities and every £1 invested in services led by this approach saves an estimated £8.50.
Seventh Step Society of Canada is hoping to grow their self-help program in more CSC institutions, and provide options for offenders in the Structured Intervention Units (SIU). In late November 2021, George Myette, Peter Brown and others from the Seventh Step Society toured the Millhaven Institution SIU, and met with staff. CSC’s Citizen Advisory Committees (CAC) are also spreading the word! Millhaven’s CAC members will meet with the Inmate Committee to share information and generate interest in Seventh Step’s programs.
CSC values the many groups and organisations that support us in fulfilling our mandate. Together, we all have an important role to play, whether it is to support:
- those on parole
- individuals, or
CSC values this partnership with the Seventh Step Society of Canada and is looking forward to seeing their programs grow and flourish. The efforts and dedication of Seventh Step Society’s staff and volunteers are also greatly appreciated.
Anyone interested in volunteering with Seventh Step Society are encouraged to reach out to Seventh Step Society.