'The gift of incarceration'

Barb
Barb Sweet
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

New program helps prepare inmates for life on the outside

Most inmates in a new program for the mentally ill at the Pen are walking through the gates of the St. John's prison with nowhere to rent.

It's hard enough for the average apartment hunter in a tight market, but near impossible for someone with two strikes against them - a diagnosed mental illness and a criminal record.

Heidi Edgar is the justice project co-ordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association in St. John's. The program is aimed at helping inmates with mental health issues readjust to society. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Most inmates in a new program for the mentally ill at the Pen are walking through the gates of the St. John's prison with nowhere to rent.

It's hard enough for the average apartment hunter in a tight market, but near impossible for someone with two strikes against them - a diagnosed mental illness and a criminal record.

"It's terrible, even with our support housing. It's at a premium," says Heidi Edgar, co-ordinator of the Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador's justice project.

"So this person is showing up with their social worker looking for a place and a lot of our people may or may not have been on the news and that kind of thing and in the paper. ... Google is a wonderful tool when you are trying to track down who is going to be living on your property."

Even with a subsidy program through Newfoundland and Lab-rador Housing, the project hasn't had luck finding safe, clean places for the men to live.

"There is nowhere to attach these subsidies because everyone is getting turned down. But our folks still need a place to land, because if not, they are going to be going back to HMP," Edgar says.

Then The Pen becomes a "warm place in a cold winter," she said, with some committing small crimes to get back in, even though that's the last place they want to be.

Edgar's office on The Boulevard has a perfect view across Quidi Vidi Lake to her clients' temporary home - Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

But the project she runs has a much closer connection to its clients - a presence inside the facility.

The justice project is funded by the provincial government and operated by the mental health association with a team of three people who help inmates with diagnosed mental illnesses.

Participation is voluntary and there's a cap of 25.

The program focuses on the inmates' release and securing basic needs like food and housing and advocating for services like counselling and addictions treatment.

There are currently 14 men in the program, some of whom have been released.

Case managers can follow each one for up to a year, but will help them transition to other programming if that's what's needed.

The project fills a longtime gap in the system.

Mentally ill prisoners used to be released with little help in navigating the outside world.

Now, case managers start building relationships with inmates on the inside.

"I call it, rightly or wrongly, the gift of incarceration," Edgar says of the time spent preparing the inmates for release.

"People were getting released looking up the road and down the road with their clear bag (of belongings), wondering where to go and what to do and trying to find $2.25 for a bus. Now we're that $2.25. We pick them up and take them where they are going."

Housing is the biggest issue the case managers have encountered since the project began early this year.

The men either end up in shelters or rundown bedsitters, or couchsurfing or homeless, which can make it difficult to tackle their other issues.

"Until they have a safe place where they can land, I can't work on those other items with them," Edgar says.

"So that's our biggest struggle."

A lot of the clients - who range in age from about 25 to 55 - have spent a lifetime in and out of prison, even the younger ones, whose criminal rÉsumÉ includes "graduation" from the Whitbourne youth correctional facility.

Being institutionalized is what they know.

"In the community, if you ever stand on the road and just listen, it's a very loud world," Edgar says.

"And it's hard to know the devil in the community when you know the devil inside. Nobody wants to be at HMP, but it's become their safe place. Everybody always says, 'I am not coming back here again,' and the addiction takes over or family dynamic issues take over."

The project also struggles to get released prisoners in to see psychologists and psychiatrists on the outside. They go on the waiting lists with everybody else.

But even though it's too early to gauge the success of the project, Edgar says there are good signs.

Government and prison officials have been supportive and prisoners have said they're relieved to have help with such tasks as filling out social assistance forms.

"My goal is I'd love for them all to come out and never go back," Edgar says. "That's not reality."

But she said already some people who previously had turnaround times of three to seven days have stayed out of jail for a couple of months already.

And she said there are inmates who are breaking down personal barriers and connecting with the project's staff - reaching out to them when they are not well.

"That's success for me," she says.

If the demand for the project increases, Edgar will try to find funding to hire additional case managers.

Her goal is to eventually have the project operating near each correctional facility in the province.

Organizations: Canadian Mental Health Association Newfoundland and Labrador, Google, Newfoundland and Lab

Geographic location: St. John's, Quidi Vidi Lake

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • Helene
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    Yes hats off to Heidi for caring and trying to improve the live of so many who for a reason or another got themselves in situation that wouldn't almost be impossible to get out of without help from peolple like her and yes thank to Danny for making the program a reality and not just talk in the wind. Life will be safe, society will be better for it and hopefully many of them will get a life back.

  • Robert
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    darls, now that is 2010 I would suspect that it is probably time for you to upgrade your thinking on mental health to at minimum 1950 standards and not the asylum islands of the 19th century.

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    Edgars is saying, as I understand it, that people coming from HMP with mental health illnesses are more venerable are routinely denied housing options based on these factors. Without stable housing, they are unable to re-establish themselves and are quite likely to re-offend. This hardly excuses the lack of affordable housing for everyone, but, as with many elders and those who need hospice care, these people should be given the chance to reconnect to society. The other option is that we continue to kick them while theyre down while self-righteously castigating them for not getting up. Unfortunately, the latter is easy and the obvious choice for legions of intellectual weaklings.

  • rj
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    It's 2010 and we still have to contend with opinions like those of Darls . That's both sad and scary.

  • Concerned Citizen
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    It sounds to me like Ms. Edgar is trying to make our community a safer place for all of us to live. If we can put a few dollars into helping these men stay clean, sober and crime free, then that sounds good to me. I can not imagine how much it costs to keep repeat offenders going through the court system and then keeping them housed in conditions worse than the local animal shelter. Hats off to Ms. Edgar! The Telegram finally wrote an article outling the positive things going on, both inside and outside the walls of HMP.

  • Mary
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    Wow, that's a great program. Hats off to the Williams Government/Justice Department to finally see this need. It's a vicious cycle when a person has layers of issues and it is society's responsibility to help. I hope you are successful in placing these offices outside all prisons in this province, after all, once these individuals are back on the street, society is much better off if they contributing to their own well-being.

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    Darls, in a modern society (post-1900) we no longer lock people with mental health illnesses in asylums. And if you're wondering why so many are on the streets, try reading this article. But, essentially Darls, it is because people make uninformed assumptions about people living with mental illnesses and ask 'and why would anyone want someone like that living in their basement apartment... '

  • darls
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    to Rj and politically incorrect....until you tell me that you interact with these people as i do on a daily basis in my job ..you take them into your place and see how long you have them there....if theres something mentally wrong with these people then they should have a place to live where they don't scare the bejesus out of law abiding citizens...so don't give me any of your s#$t until you've walked in my shoes...

  • mercedes
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    I know Edgars' heart is in the right place, but why shouldn't these people 'go on the waiting list with everyone else'? There are people waiting for these specialists for over a year, people who've never committed a crime in their lives, and the suggestion here seems to be that people who've been criminals should be given preference because they are criminals?

  • Bonnie
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    Heidi What an awsome job you do. That is a great program and Im sure a tremendous help to these people

  • I AM
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    Darls: I am a wife. I am a mother. I am a post-secondary (honours) graduate. I am a permanent full-time employee. I am a home owner. I am surrounded by tons of friends. I am a landlady with tenants who LOVE to live in my apartment. I have bi-polar disorder. I have never been and will never be locked away in any institution - hospital or penal. br Please, I beg of you, get informed remove your blinders.

  • Dave
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    Personally I would not want to live in Darls apartment. It's obvious to me and I'm sure to others that she definitely has anger management problems. Am I jumping to conclusions about someone I know something about, you say?? Well, obviously SO IS SHE.

  • Janiece
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    If Ms. Jones could re-read the article she may see that this service is provided by the mental health association. It does not 'fast track' these people into more or better services ahead of anyone else. The 'specialists' are part of CMHA and as far as I can tell, act as liaison between the mentally ill person leaving the penitentiary and services on the outside.

  • darls
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    my question is why are mentally ill people on the streets in the first place ...shouldn't they be in the waterford...and as we all know alot of these crimanals hide behind being mentally ill ...and why would anyone want someone like that living in their basement apartment...

  • Nicole
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    I'm the mother of two small children and I have a basement apartment in my house, and no I would not rent to someone from HMP or someone with a known mental illness. you've gotta be kidding me!

  • Addictions worker
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    What scares the bejesus out of me is the fact that someone with your antiquated, and quite frankly ignorant, attitudes works with (or against) 'these people.'

  • Helene
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    Yes hats off to Heidi for caring and trying to improve the live of so many who for a reason or another got themselves in situation that wouldn't almost be impossible to get out of without help from peolple like her and yes thank to Danny for making the program a reality and not just talk in the wind. Life will be safe, society will be better for it and hopefully many of them will get a life back.

  • Robert
    July 01, 2010 - 20:14

    darls, now that is 2010 I would suspect that it is probably time for you to upgrade your thinking on mental health to at minimum 1950 standards and not the asylum islands of the 19th century.

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 01, 2010 - 20:12

    Edgars is saying, as I understand it, that people coming from HMP with mental health illnesses are more venerable are routinely denied housing options based on these factors. Without stable housing, they are unable to re-establish themselves and are quite likely to re-offend. This hardly excuses the lack of affordable housing for everyone, but, as with many elders and those who need hospice care, these people should be given the chance to reconnect to society. The other option is that we continue to kick them while theyre down while self-righteously castigating them for not getting up. Unfortunately, the latter is easy and the obvious choice for legions of intellectual weaklings.

  • rj
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    It's 2010 and we still have to contend with opinions like those of Darls . That's both sad and scary.

  • Concerned Citizen
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    It sounds to me like Ms. Edgar is trying to make our community a safer place for all of us to live. If we can put a few dollars into helping these men stay clean, sober and crime free, then that sounds good to me. I can not imagine how much it costs to keep repeat offenders going through the court system and then keeping them housed in conditions worse than the local animal shelter. Hats off to Ms. Edgar! The Telegram finally wrote an article outling the positive things going on, both inside and outside the walls of HMP.

  • Mary
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    Wow, that's a great program. Hats off to the Williams Government/Justice Department to finally see this need. It's a vicious cycle when a person has layers of issues and it is society's responsibility to help. I hope you are successful in placing these offices outside all prisons in this province, after all, once these individuals are back on the street, society is much better off if they contributing to their own well-being.

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 01, 2010 - 20:03

    Darls, in a modern society (post-1900) we no longer lock people with mental health illnesses in asylums. And if you're wondering why so many are on the streets, try reading this article. But, essentially Darls, it is because people make uninformed assumptions about people living with mental illnesses and ask 'and why would anyone want someone like that living in their basement apartment... '

  • darls
    July 01, 2010 - 20:01

    to Rj and politically incorrect....until you tell me that you interact with these people as i do on a daily basis in my job ..you take them into your place and see how long you have them there....if theres something mentally wrong with these people then they should have a place to live where they don't scare the bejesus out of law abiding citizens...so don't give me any of your s#$t until you've walked in my shoes...

  • mercedes
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    I know Edgars' heart is in the right place, but why shouldn't these people 'go on the waiting list with everyone else'? There are people waiting for these specialists for over a year, people who've never committed a crime in their lives, and the suggestion here seems to be that people who've been criminals should be given preference because they are criminals?

  • Bonnie
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    Heidi What an awsome job you do. That is a great program and Im sure a tremendous help to these people

  • I AM
    July 01, 2010 - 19:51

    Darls: I am a wife. I am a mother. I am a post-secondary (honours) graduate. I am a permanent full-time employee. I am a home owner. I am surrounded by tons of friends. I am a landlady with tenants who LOVE to live in my apartment. I have bi-polar disorder. I have never been and will never be locked away in any institution - hospital or penal. br Please, I beg of you, get informed remove your blinders.

  • Dave
    July 01, 2010 - 19:50

    Personally I would not want to live in Darls apartment. It's obvious to me and I'm sure to others that she definitely has anger management problems. Am I jumping to conclusions about someone I know something about, you say?? Well, obviously SO IS SHE.

  • Janiece
    July 01, 2010 - 19:50

    If Ms. Jones could re-read the article she may see that this service is provided by the mental health association. It does not 'fast track' these people into more or better services ahead of anyone else. The 'specialists' are part of CMHA and as far as I can tell, act as liaison between the mentally ill person leaving the penitentiary and services on the outside.

  • darls
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    my question is why are mentally ill people on the streets in the first place ...shouldn't they be in the waterford...and as we all know alot of these crimanals hide behind being mentally ill ...and why would anyone want someone like that living in their basement apartment...

  • Nicole
    July 01, 2010 - 19:44

    I'm the mother of two small children and I have a basement apartment in my house, and no I would not rent to someone from HMP or someone with a known mental illness. you've gotta be kidding me!

  • Addictions worker
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    What scares the bejesus out of me is the fact that someone with your antiquated, and quite frankly ignorant, attitudes works with (or against) 'these people.'