Change the program

Alisha Morrissey & James McLeod
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Prison programs promise change for the better

Part 3 in a four-part series

It's almost inconceivable to think a criminal would beg a judge for a harsher sentence.

But for years, in courtrooms across the province, people have been asking for more jail time in the hope of getting help that, until recently, was practically non-existent in correctional facilities here.

Last May, a man convicted of stealing a TV from a house objected when the judge gave him an 18-month sentence, arguing he'd have a better chance of being rehabilitated if he was given a two-year sentence that would allow him to participate in federal prison programs.

(From left) Rod Harris, Cindy Murphy, Bill Ranson and Steven Barrett of the John Howard Society chat about programs recently made available to inmates at provincial prisons in the programming room at Howard House, a halfway house run by John Howard in St.

Part 3 in a four-part series

It's almost inconceivable to think a criminal would beg a judge for a harsher sentence.

But for years, in courtrooms across the province, people have been asking for more jail time in the hope of getting help that, until recently, was practically non-existent in correctional facilities here.

Last May, a man convicted of stealing a TV from a house objected when the judge gave him an 18-month sentence, arguing he'd have a better chance of being rehabilitated if he was given a two-year sentence that would allow him to participate in federal prison programs.

In June, a woman left a courtroom distraught because her friend was being sent back to the Clarenville women's prison to finish serving her sentence, rather than to a federal facility, where she would be more likely to receive the mental health and addictions services she needs.

Now, with new programs in place or starting soon at all of the province's prisons - there's hope that pleas to leave the province to get help at federal institutions won't be heard as often.

The new programs - involving general and mental health, addictions, education and employment training - have been introduced as a result of Decades of Darkness, a report into the province's correctional system. It suggested programs were sorely lacking and recommended increased spending, space and opportunities for inmates.

Justice Minister Felix Collins says a big chunk of the $7 million allocated to prisons almost immediately following the release of the report has gone into programming.

"Is it going to prevent crime? Prevent recidivism and returning to prisons, and so on? Certainly that's the attempt. The big concern of inmates has always been that we need more programming," Collins says.

"We're trying to put in programming that's practical, affordable and reasonable. And it can only help. It can only help inform inmates lives for the better."

But according to at least one inmate, some of the new programs may not be accessible to those who need them.

Albert Power says it's tough to get into AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) on the inside, and from where he sits, it doesn't feel like millions of dollars have been spent on upgrades.

"There's a new universal (exercise system) down in the gym, and it doesn't look like a cheap one," he said.

He does seem pleased with the changes in the menu, and the new psychological services.

"It's someone to talk to, but it's also ... it's almost something to look forward to," Power says.

"You're one person on the range. In front of the inmates you're trying to hold your own and be tough, or look tough, or whatever. But when you go up to (the psychologist), you almost - I don't know - you can shrink a little bit. ... You don't have to pretend nothing."

The John Howard Society runs an addictions treatment program - one of the many rehabilitative programs the group provides inside and outside of Canadian prisons, with a goal of advocacy, research and education about the criminal justice system.

Rod Harris, the director of Howard House, says the new programs are one of the most tangible changes brought about by the prison report, and they've changed everything at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, and other institutions as well.

"Just by opening up programs for them on the inside, allowing them to have something to do and get help and treatment for their addictions," Harris says.

"You can see it when you walk in down there, the atmosphere is different. It seems like generally the guards are happier, the inmates are happier, and they're being productive, the inmates. They're not just sitting around any more. Whether it be ABE (Adult Basic Education) or MIMOSA(Moderate Intensity Management of Offender Substance Abuse) or any of the programs down there, it's something to get up for in the morning."

Bill Ranson, John Howard's addictions services co-ordinator, says one of the biggest changes in the last year has been the provision of psychological services - allowing inmates to identify the mental health issues that go along with the addictions they suffer from.

Cindy Murphy, the John Howard Society's executive director in this province, agrees. She said there was always a psychiatrist on staff at the prison to prescribe medications and see to prisoners' immediate needs, but there was never any follow-up or case management.

"It was an area where the resources simply weren't allocated."

But Murphy is quick to dispel the notion that life in prison is ideal now.

"I guess, as a general kind of comment, we're pleased. We're seeing a lot of things happening as a result of the report ... in spite of the fact that we know we need a new institution. It's a given," she says. "We're making do, basically."

George Skinner, the new executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in this province, has started looking for staff for his organization's justice project. It's an initiative that would see case managers work with prisoners with mental health issues, and continue to work with them once they've been released.

A co-ordinator and two case managers will start work as of Jan. 1, he says. These will be some of the first in-reach programs of their kind, Skinner says, and he's hopeful they'll have an impact.

"My perception of HMP is that it's often been a very closed community within a community, and I think to have outside resources coming in - and it's not just us - is an amazing step forward for the system and the community," he says.

Skinner recently toured HMP and says there's not much to say about the state of the facility that hasn't been said before.

"The building needs to be replaced," he says. "I think they've made the most of what they've had there. They've added a couple of trailers now and extended on the physical plant, which gave them more space obviously, but ... no new penitentiary is not an option."

Ron Fitzpatrick, the director of Turnings, has been working with sex offenders at HMP since April. He says the report has made it possible for him to start working with inmates sooner, after they've been incarcerated, and to better prepare them for release.

Before, he only dealt with inmates six weeks before they got out, and once they were free, many of them would just disappear. Now that he has a longer lead-time, he says he has a better chance of convincing convicts to continue treatment on the outside.

Fitzpatrick also lauds the introduction of psychological services to the prison system.

"If you get involved in them and you get the prison thinking out of their heads (you have a better chance of helping) ...," he said. "You've got to remember, 99.9 per cent of violent offenders are violent because they grew up in such deplorable conditions."

But Fitzpatrick said the new programs have their failings, too. People on remand awaiting trial or sentencing can't access them, and in some cases space is limited, leaving some inmates out in the cold.

And, echoing others, he said what's needed most is a brand new facility.

"There's a lot of work that's got to transpire down there, and some of the things that have to take place, they really can't take place because of the building itself," he said.


New programs and services being offered at provincial prisons are considered to be a huge step forward by the Justice Department. These are the programs now available:
Psychological services have been implemented at every facility.
Programs with a focus on violence prevention, life skills and arts and crafts have either started or are in the process of being implemented at all provincial prisons.
An orientation kit is now being provided to people who are incarcerated, including an inmate handbook and necessities.
There is expedited receipt of correspondence.
An Enhanced Recreation Account is being used to purchase recreational equipment.
Her Majesty's Penitentiary - St. John's - Currently housing 166 inmates
A Canadian Mental Health Association program will provide in-reach, intensive case management, transitional planning and follow-up community services starting in January for inmates diagnosed with mental illness. The program will retain a psychologist and an addictions co-ordinator.
A mental health case-management team has been meeting.
A second full-time nurse has been hired on contract.
A dietician was consulted, new menus were developed, and a higher standard of nutrition and greater quantity of food is being provided to inmates.
An addictions program has started through the John Howard Society.
A Circles of Support and Accountability program is available through Turnings to any high-risk offender preparing for release.
Arts classes, including drama and creative writing, are available.
Employment training programs are set to begin before the end of the fiscal year.
Approximately 1,600 square feet of space has been made available for programs and medical services.
The special handling unit is being used to house inmates who are thought to be suicidal.
There are daily visits to the segregation unit by the duty captain, a sergeant and the lieutenant in charge of the unit.
Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women - Clarenville Currently housing 19 inmates
Recruitment has begun for a part-time aboriginal prison liaison officer.
Stella Burry Community Services programs, including three eight-week group sessions in empowerment, education and addictions have started.
A senior correctional officer works in the medical office to co-ordinate the activities of medical personnel visiting the prison.
A local nurse practitioner provides a women's wellness clinic once a month.
Labrador Correctional Centre - Happy Valley-Goose Bay - Currently housing 35 inmates
A fetal alcohol spectrum disorder project co-ordinator has been made permanent.
Preparation has begun to hire an aboriginal liaison/community relations officer, who will promote and co-ordinate the recruitment of aboriginal people to work in the provincial prison system, as well as to promote and develop aboriginal programs.
Development of a land-based program is underway and will involve community elders to teach traditional hunting, fishing and survival skills.
Employment training programs have begun.
Bishop's Falls Correctional Centre Bishop's Falls - Currently housing 25 inmates
A part-time classification officer has been upgraded to full-time.
Addictions, empathetic listening and stress management programs have already taken place, with more being planned.
An employment training program is being tendered.
West Coast Correctional Centre - Stephenville - Currently housing 48 inmates
Employment training programs have been tendered and will be taking place in the next few months, as will additional woodworking projects.
Additional nursing services have been put in place.
A contract has been signed with a physician to ensure regular and consistent medical services.
Source: provincial Department of Justice

Organizations: John Howard Society, Alcoholics Anonymous, Canadian Mental Health Association Howard House Department of Justice Stella Burry Community Services

Geographic location: Clarenville, St. John's, Happy Valley Goose Bay West Coast Stephenville

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