PRISONS: Harsh Volunteer Security Checks has Impact on Canada’s Inmates

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Sketch from the book ‘Songs From The Slammer’ by Jeannette Tossounian

By Jeannette Tossounian

January 10, 2019

In the last year, changes to policy from Correctional Services of Canada included strict measures to scrutinize volunteers entering prisons.

A criminal record check has always been in place for volunteers, but now Corrections is forcing individuals to go through finger printing and credit checks if they want to gain access to prisoners, limiting those who can enter.

Many organizations who send volunteers into Canada’s prisons are now publicly reporting that new requirements have had a negative effect on some volunteers who don’t feel they are worthy enough to pass security checks so they could bring joy and hope to those damaged souls stuck inside.

For those who have been locked in a cell long enough, they need a break – any break.

Anything to get out of that same gruelling routine of barely living, or at the very least, a different view. So there are few activities to choose from and most inmates, whether out of sincere search for ways to improve or connect – or just out of sheer boredom – will discover what they could do at the library, gym, yard or some program – even church. Yep, when there’s not much to do and nowhere really to go, even the most devout atheist will eventually find themselves in some kind of religious service that’s offered.

So I remember that time I was in jail for a bit, making rounds of whatever there was to do and hitting up all the volunteer services possible just to talk to someone who comes from the outside world to chat about things that are not the usual jail babble of drugs and violence. They bring kindness and compassion to a stark cold place where the staff are as institutionalized as the inmates, or even worse because the inmate eventually gets to leave after a few months or years, while staff will do 20+ years.

The volunteers generally come in with some kind of service group.

Although there was quite the variety of groups who seemed to get funding and passes to enter jails with the mission to help lost souls, the women’s institutions in Canada are dominated by the Elizabeth Fry Society. Each branch of this society has reps that go into local jails and do whatever they are limited to do, whether it’s to hang out with the women and paint nails and chat, or run programs on how to fix your life and properly fit into society. These programs come with certificates to say you completed the course that both the Elizabeth Fry Society and your lawyer says it’s proof that you are taking the steps to better yourself and will help your case before the judge; meanwhile, in reality, these pieces of paper have no influence on a judge’s opinion of you whatsoever.

Attending the programs are actually a bit demeaning. You sit there for an hour or so listening to some well-meaning nice lady give a speech all about it’s good to take a shower and dress up and be on time for a job interview and graphs showing statistics on poverty and stressing it is important to pay your rent on time – you know – information that even the most simplest person in the room already know and probably have done it many times. However, since this is what you get, you accept it. Talking to the program instructors, they admit it’s kind of demeaning, but they need to come up with this stuff just to make contact with the inmates. Besides, there are some inmates who find some the information useful anyway. I guess the jail doesn’t want advocates running programs that are more useful, like how to stand up for your rights and win against an oppressive system so you can get that job and pay your rent without burden.

Then there are the church ministries.

All different kinds of religions come in for their flock, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Judaism… the Buddhist down the range from me didn’t have anyone approved to come in for her, unfortunately.  Inmates who haven’t practiced their religion since they were kids now cling tightly to their faith finding Jesus or inner peace and becoming one with the world. It’s hard to knock down religion after seeing every religion do what religions supposed to do, sending out volunteers that have spirit-filled hearts into places where the goal of the institution is to break the spirits of human beings. Volunteers try to give these beaten down people a shred of hope to carry on this world. Since I have witnessed and experienced it myself, I respect all religions and see their use in this world.

So, limiting volunteers is not a good thing for society in general. Since the police have been given more rights to come into any regular law abiding citizens home, make arrests without evidence and throw them into jails where statistics prove most people locked up are technically innocent and awaiting trial. The inmate death counts just pile up.

Jeannette Tossounian is the author of three books she wrote while locked up, documenting her jail experience in Ontario, including the deeply compelling and informative journals ‘The Human Kennel‘ – published by Ankle Bone Books.


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