Building a new life after prison - How the John Howard Society helps clients find their way

Josh Pennell Josh.pennell@thetelegram.com
Published on February 9, 2013
Cindy Murphy - executive director, John Howard Society
— Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

If you think you could never find yourself knocked down so hard by life you wonder how you’ll ever get up, you might want to talk to Dave.

He’s asked to remain anonymous, but Dave has a lot to be proud of. It wasn’t always that way.

With the help of the John Howard Society and self-determination to see the light through the dark, Dave is creating a new life for himself.

It wasn’t so long ago Dave had what a lot of people might view as an enviable life. He was a graduate of Memorial University working a $55,000-a-year job. He rose every day and put on a shirt and tie, often even a suit. He was married and had a child.

But Dave’s marriage started to crumble and with it, so did Dave. He went on sick leave from his job. He started to drink a lot, often alone.

Worse, he started to drive while under the influence. Dave racked up two impaired driving charges in a couple of months and found himself behind bars at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary on a 60-day sentence.

Drinking and driving may have put him behind bars, but the speed with which his life spiralled out of control was sobering.

“I don’t care who you are or what you are. A person begging for money on Water Street or the prime minister. You can find yourself in a dark place very quickly.”

Dave was out in 28 days on temporary release, but had to stay at Howard House, a community residential centre for adult male offenders run by the John Howard Society.

At this point his former job was gone and his EI funds were slipping through his fingers pretty fast. Dave was broke.

“I went from top unemployment to a little bit of jail. Once I got out of jail, I got two cheques and then my EI cut off. So there I was, stuck, with no income.”

If Her Majesty’s Penitentiary is where Dave’s life struck its lowest chord, it’s at Howard House that his new life took its first steps.

“I decided to get something positive out of this negative,” he says. “I knew I was a better person than someone behind bars waiting for someone to open up my f--kin’ cell.”

Dave is just one of the people the John Howard society helps.

Cindy Murphy is the executive director of the society and says they have a lot of programs that can benefit people, but each case is unique.

“For many of our clients, there are complex needs. It’s not just about employment. It’s not just about substance abuse. It could be about a variety of things. It could be a lack of education, a lack of family support, a lack of community support.”

In Dave’s case, he had good family support, but he needed somebody to believe in him and help him figure out what his new life was going to look like.

“When you’re going through this, it seems like it’s only yourself,” he says. “You’ve got to be a little self-driven because it’s easy to fall through the cracks.”

He enrolled in the C-STEP program offered by the society, a program that Murphy says focuses on employment and employment initiatives, but has a therapeutic counselling aspect, as well. Dave was thinking about going back to MUN, but after some sessions with the society staff, he changed his tune.

“I told the lady of my background. How I got here and how I was going to change. And we both agreed on a (skilled) trade,” he says.

With the economy roaring and tradespeople in high demand, Dave thought the change might be good. A brand new career for a brand new start.

He chose a trade and entered the program. On Tuesday he graduated with a 92 average. He’s now contacting unions and looking to hook into one of the megaprojects in the province.

He could split west for Alberta and work right away, but he wants to give life here a shot. His parents are here and there’s ample opportunity. He’s getting another crack at things and he wants to give this province a chance at being the setting for his new life.

But he’s not wasting any time letting unions and employers know about his eagerness to work.

“I’m not 20 years old anymore. That realization kind of smacked me in the forehead. I graduated with a 92. I’m quite proud of myself. But it’s not over. It’s not over because I haven’t got the first cheque yet,” he says. “I’m going from a shirt and tie and nice suits to steel-toe boots and a hard hat.”

The bustling economy and the need for tradespeople have helped clients of the John Howard Society, says Murphy.

“The labour market has played a tremendous role in that it’s allowed our people to get more labour experience.”

When someone’s punishment is over, there has to be something else, says Murphy.

“Once we get some of the priority issues around crime and their criminal involvement, then it’s looking at how do we successfully reintegrate them back into the community.”

In Dave’s case, she sees somebody who is now ready to give back. Helping those with some kind of criminal background actually has created the biggest misconception about the John Howard Society, says Murphy — the belief that somehow they’re getting people off the hook for what they’ve done.

“We hold them to account for their criminal actions and help them find new ways of existing in the community that’s not creating more victims and more criminal behaviour” she says.

“It’s not enough to just lock people up. You have to provide an array of rehabilitative services if you want those people to be able to come out and have some sort of chance of living as a productive member of our community. That’s John Howard’s focus. If we do nothing, there’s more risk because you’re making somebody probably a better criminal by just locking them up.”

Dave may be carving out a new existence for himself by getting a trade, but some people are in a situation where they just need to get into the workforce.  

Len Power is the owner of Computer Liquidation Centre Inc. His business deals in computer sales, service and repairs. In the last five years he’s grown his company to include an electronic collection and recycling aspect and it’s this function of the business that has allowed him to get involved with agencies like John Howard and the C-STEP program.

“This line of business lends itself very well to people entering or trying to enter the workforce, especially to people who have particular barriers to employment and things like that,” says Power.

It’s a factory-like setting where the work is straightforward and it’s easy to supervise.

From Power’s point of view, getting involved with the C-STEP program makes good financial sense. The program is provincially and federally funded so the wages are significantly subsidized.

There is also moral compensation.

“You get a sense of satisfaction that you’ve played some small part — like a little cog in the big wheel, so to speak — by helping someone along the way,” he says.

As for whether there are risks in taking such people on as part of your workforce, Power shoots it straight.

“We’ve had a few ups and downs with some people. But, I mean, it’s no different than any other employee. … The experience is very positive. I cannot think of one particular instance in which we’ve had any level of concern that has not been super-addressed.”

He adds that he would certainly recommend that other companies get involved in the program.

As for Dave, he just learned that he’s the recipient of the Terry M. Carlson scholarship, an award named for the former executive director of the John Howard Society that recognizes people who have been in criminal conflict but have enrolled in post-secondary education.

But he’s not resting on his laurels just yet.

“Dave is still working on Dave. I’m the new me. I’m very positive. I have many more positive steps to go.”

As for the role the John Howard Society played, for Dave it goes beyond just helping him find his legs when it felt like his had been knocked out from under him.

“It made me a better person when it comes to treating people as you want to be treated. Because in a matter of a second, you could be in this position.”

josh.pennell@thetelegram.com