Sara Jewell, United Church Observer
A New Brunswick congregation proves that a little creative thinking can lead to new energy and hope
The man with the face of the devil tattooed on the back of his skull sits in a comfortable chair in the church’s main parlour and laughs. A big man with a beard laughs with him. A woman wearing a hot pink suit places a hand on his shoulder. The tattooed man, named Derrick, does not himself have the face of the devil himself. He is smiling, his posture completely relaxed. You wouldn’t guess that at the medium-security prison in Springhill, N.S., the 46-year-old is known as a “lifer” — but one with a growing hope of parole.
Enter Carol Smith. She is the facilitator of St. Luke’s Renewal Centre, a restorative justice organization that operates from a separate building on the grounds of the Springhill Institution. Last year, Smith took a close look at Escorted Temporary Absences — accompanied day trips that are sometimes required by inmates up for parole — and realized many of them don’t have friends or family nearby to help facilitate these outings. She created a pilot project called Community Accompaniment for the Reintegration Process (CARP). “[Inmates] need meaningful contact to help them see what the outside world is like because life inside the institution is very different,” Smith says. “This program gives them a place to go and meet people who will help them interact with others in a healthy, positive way.”
Derrick and Sackville United in nearby New Brunswick soon became the first participants in this new program.
Rev. Jane Doull recalls receiving Smith’s request last spring. “Derrick is coming up for parole, and he needed to have some Escorted Temporary Absences, but he doesn’t have family around to spend time with,” Doull explains. “Carol asked if we’d be open to forming a group that would do that, to be like a family or support system.”
Doull then approached Sackville United’s Council, wondering if anyone would be interested in participating in a series of meetings with a longtime inmate of the nearby prison. The response from four people was immediate and enthusiastic. “Everybody needs somebody to support them, and I knew this was a safe way to do it because it was Jane, the minister, who asked,” says Beth Briscoe, one of the four members of Derrick’s church-based support group.
The first time Briscoe met Derrick, she hugged him. “I wanted him to know that there are people who are there for him, because for him to be where he is, there are a lot of people who haven’t been there for him.”
Derrick admits he was nervous the first time he met the group because of what he feared. “Rejection,” he says. “That they wouldn’t take to me. That they would be afraid of me.”
No particular expertise is required of Derrick’s CARP team; the program simply requires them to accompany him once a month on various outings around town. They go to the coffee shop, to the art gallery, out for lunch or shopping. “We’re not here to be experts, to tell him what to do,” Doull explains. “This is very much letting him take the initiative and letting him have experiences.”
According to Doull, the group is valuable because it offers a kind of normality. “Because we’re not in the correctional system, we can relate to him in a different way.”
For group member Bob Gray, the fact that Derrick is “trusted enough to come here unescorted is very profound for me. The price has been paid to society, and this man earns every chance he gets. So if we have helped give him that chance, then we will have accomplished everything we were expected to.”
For Derrick, the experience of meeting people outside of prison — without a guard at his side — is life-changing. “The administration is more at ease with me now knowing that I’ve been successful; they had their reservations about how I was going to respond. In the past, their response was ‘Church? You’ve got to be kidding me’ because they’re used to seeing only one side of me.”
He even talks to his buddies back in the unit about his experience. “I tell those guys, these people just want to help you. They don’t want to judge you, they don’t sit you on a chair and prod you and induce answers. They assure you there’s more to life than sitting in a prison cell thinking about your next crime.”
Read more stories about out-of-the-box churches in the print edition of The Observer.
Meredith Egan, Quaker Concern
Springhill, Nova Scotia is wellknown as the home of icon Anne Murray; a productive source of geothermal heat (extracted from the abandoned coal mines), and Springhill Institution. On the outskirts of the town on the way to Springhill Institution is a home called “Spring House”. When you enter the back door, a sense of quiet calm, of welcome and safety pervade. In summer 2007, Vince Zelazny, John McKendy (both of New Brunswick MM) and myself visited Spring House where we shared a meal with Sr. Christina Doyle. We conversed about the house, St. Luke’s Renewal Centre inside the walls of Springhill Institution, and fundraisers held in snowy February in PEI.
In the early 1980s, Judy and Rev. Pierre Allard and Rev. Dr. Charles Taylor dreamed into being the
Christian Council for reconciliation (CCR). This charitable organization is responsible for running both St. Luke’s, and Spring House; Quakers Fostering Justice (QFJ) offers small annual grants to support this important work. The relationship between our organizations is nurtured carefully and is meaningful to us.
Spring House offers hospitality for families and friends of prisoners while visiting Springhill Institution. Because this prison, like many others, is in a fairly rural community, services for families are sparse and expensive. Often friends and families must travel long distances to maintain contact with those who are incarcerated; Spring House is often described by guests as “a home away from home”. It was staffed by the Sisters of St. Martha of Prince Edward Island until the recent retirement of Sr. Christina; currently the role of hostess has been taken up by Millie Munn, a volunteer with CCR. She and her husband, Walter, offer both spiritual nourishment and hospitality to all who visit.
St. Luke’s Renewal Centre is unique in Canada in that it is a spiritual retreat house maintained within the walls of a federal prison. Springhill Institution is a medium security prison with a rated capacity of 450 men. The Renewal Centre has six bedrooms and can accommodate up to five inmates for overnight programs. A wheelchair accessible washroom and ramp make the centre completely barrier-free.
The most popular room in the centre is the meditation room–an all glass room looking out over the hills of Cumberland County. The room is furnished with a very comfortable easychair, positioned so one can sit in the chair and gaze over the fence at the hills. Men speak of finding freedom for their spirit to imagine a new way of being.
Programs are offered to prisoners in a setting where there is quietness, opportunity for reflection, and meaningful conversations with the Facilitator and resource people. There is also opportunity for reading and watching resource materials–and even cooking a meal. This “time away” is especially important for long-term prisoners as it allows them to remove themselves from the routine of the Institution for brief periods of time. In effect, it encourages the participant to step outside of the prison environment and outside of the prison persona he may have become. This enables contemplation–similar to the vision early Quakers had for prisons when they advocated for prison reform.
In this time, when the current Canadian government is encouraging more punitive measures in prison, it is an honour to support this important resource with its unique spiritual work. We hope this is a model for spiritual support that can be spread across Canada.
Meredith Egan is the
Programme Coordinator for
Quakers Fostering Justice, and a member of Vancouver MM.
Much material for this article was cultivated from CCR’s Executive Director
Peter Hoar, and their website, <www.CCRprisonministry.org>