Resources abundant for rehabilitation at Canada’s female prisons

By Cristina Howorun

It’s a one-stop shop for computer courses, post-secondary classes, anger management and even fork lift operation.

If you want your food handlers’ certification, you can get it. Need assistance in coping with your addiction? Want to learn more about traditional Indigenous teachings? They’ve got you covered.

If you need to delve back into primary school before even attempting your GED, they’ve got that too. The cost of admission? Your freedom.

The Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal prison for women convicted of crimes and serving sentences of two or more years, may not be viewed as a beacon of higher learning, but its a secure campus-like facility that helps inmates prepare for life on the outside.

Unlike provincial jails and detention centres, Canada’s prisons offer extensive programming and courses to help inmates better prepare for life on the outside, education and skill-wise, but also emotionally.

“I owe a lot to that place. I got my high school diploma while I was in there. I took computer classes. I took all kinds of workshops on compartmentalizing and relationships and family and anything you could think of they offer a program for,” said Melissa Bailey who was released from the Kitchener, Ontario prison in 2018. “Honestly, I just soaked as much of it as I could,”

And it shows. Bailey moved away from the city when she was released to rural Ontario, closer to her mom and away from her triggers. She’s now fully engaged in her now five-year-old’s life.

“Staying clean is a huge, huge part of it. Honestly, being happy inside myself, being happy with just me because I think, for a lot of years, I just was sad inside and I was lost and I just masked it all with drugs, alcohol, wrong relationships,” explained Melissa. “I have my own place, which I never had.”

“Nobody can take it away from me. Nobody can take it out of my place. And to me, that is the biggest success right there.”

For Faye Higgins, success means returning to her family. She’s taken employment, post-secondary and anger management courses, but she said her work with Indigenous elders and Indigenous teachings has best prepared her for life on the outside.

“I got help with the right avenues here and programs, the Elders and the Indigenous Liaison Officers, who help you through, help you deal with your emotional turmoil that you go through and your behaviour,” started Higgins. “They helped me deal with everything and now they’re helping my son. Without those, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Higgins was serving a life sentence for murder, but was released on day parole in May 2023. She said she’s confident she can stay on the right path because of her work at GVI. “It just helped me so much. I have better tools and know how to react, right?”

In Edmonton, Danielle Ouellette said the intense programming at Edmonton Institution for Women has helped her stay sober and keeps her grounded.

“I’ve done the women’s engagement program, which is one everybody has to do. It’s twelve sessions and it basically talks about like community, it talks about triggers, it talks about substance abuse,” said Ouellette. “And then I do the Moderate Intensity Programme, which is a lot more in depth into all of that stuff.”

Ouellette was released in the summer of 2023.

Her criminality stemmed from an addiction, but she’s been sober now for nearly two years, has continued with addictions work on the outside, and has gone from having a part-time job, to becoming an entrepreneur, with two businesses, including a hand-made jewellery online shop with her friend.

“I’ve got my fork-lift operator licence, I got my food handler’s licence,” said Tabitha Eliot, who is still incarecerated at Grand Valley.

“It’s important that I can show my son that I can be productive and still accomplish things,” she explained. “I want to be the best role model I can be from the inside.”

Eliot’s son took his food handler’s course at the same time, at home. It’s one of many ways Eliot has worked to stay connected with her teenage son.

While every program at the institution is focused on reintegrating the inmate into society and community, Eliot is part of the non-residential Mother-Child program.

Even though these program participants don’t get to live with their children in the prison, it works to make sure the inmate doesn’t need to be reintegrated into their family because they are always a part of it, whether through video calls, extended in-person and overnight visits or read aloud programs, where moms read and record books for their kids to listen to at home.

Higgins, because of her son’s age among other issues, wasn’t eligible for the residential program, but said her bond with her son bent, but never snapped.

“The line of communication has never been broken. That period that he had to absorb what I’ve done and that’s about it, on the phone, and then eventually here. He’s 16. The more honest you are with him. The more honest he is with you. And he trusts me. And I trust him,” added Higgins.

Bailey said she thinks if you believe you can change, that’s when change can actually happen.

“It can be done, you know, if you put your mind to it, if you want to make any change in your life. If you don’t want it, no matter how many resources or how many, how much support or how much anything you have at your disposal if you don’t want it, it’s not going to happen,” said Melissa.

You can catch “VeraCity: Prison Moms” Sunday May 28 at 10 p.m./9 p.m. CT on CityTV.

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