The Doing Time Study – Changing Lives

According to recently gathered data, “For every 100 women released from a British Columbia jail this year, 45 of them will be back behind bars next year.” This astonishing fact comes from a study done by researchers at the University of British Columbia entitled Doing Time. The reason for this statistic, according to the study, is the lack of health care and social supports available to the women once released from prison. When I asked a few of my colleagues what they would propose as a potential solution to the issue, the common response was, “too bad, don’t commit the crime in the first place.” I get that. This opinion isn’t uncommon in society, but it is also one that (based on the statistics) is unrealistic. The underlying fact is that whatever the system is currently doing (or not doing) is clearly not working.

I think that, as a society, we are afraid to help those with past criminal records because we see it as turning a blind eye to crime. We fear that helping “criminals” translates into forgetting the victims or we believe that people who have messed up once don’t deserve more chances. I understand this rationale, but again, this way of thinking hasn’t solved anything. I believe that if we want to resolve the issue, then something in our system needs to shift so that we can offer a fair chance to those who want to make positive changes. Helping someone who actually wants help is not a dead end. I believe that many people can get back on their feet and help themselves once they have the appropriate resources and information available to them.

It’s very easy for people to resort to an uncompromising opinion when it comes to the way we “should” treat ex-offenders, but in the grand scheme of things, we cannot judge someone until we’ve seen what they’ve been through and where they came from. Many “criminals” have suffered trauma, abuse, violence, homelessness, addiction and abandonment. We must not pass judgement until we see the realities that they face once they are released: having nowhere safe to go, nowhere to call home, nothing on their backs with the exception of what they wore the day they were put in jail, many of them with little job experience and perhaps not having received the proper treatment (substance abuse, psychiatric ect..) while incarcerated. Even if   those who have the right intentions and want to start off by getting a job encounter many obstacles. As Suzanne Leduc, a research assistant on the Doing Time project, says,"How do you get a reference for an apartment, when your previous landlord is federal corrections?" Leduc found it very difficult to get a job after getting out of jail, despite her university degree. She is also now earning a master's degree at Simon Fraser University.

The unique part about the study is that it has former inmates doing the research- people who have been there and know what’s missing- in order to enable their reintegration into society. What most people don’t know is that a lot of the programs in the prison system are geared towards men. This is something that I learned at an Elizabeth Fry event in Calgary where I had the opportunity to hear Jen Sputek speak of her experience.   What I love most about Jen when she speaks is that she’s real. She tells it like it is, she is upfront about her past and is out there, today, to guide those who have done their time. One quote of Jen’s that will always stick with me (it’s also the same one that appears in this article) is:   "I will do my time for the rest of my life if we don't stand up and tell people we're just like them.” This phrase describes a sad truth and an unfortunate reality.

Jen has also presented a few issues to consider when designing assistance programs for women:

-Many women don’t feel that they deserve help. They need to regain their self-worth.
-Applying for help is extremely difficult without an address.
-There is a severe lack of addiction treatment available to women.
-Transitional housing is scarce.
-Women who face medical and mental health concerns have nowhere to go.
-Programs and services available need to be linked; currently there are too many gaps.
-More peer support needs to be available to provide non-judgmental understanding.
-Culturally specific spiritual help is critical.

Jen Sputek now works within the Inside Out Group Action Research Group, which is pushing to change the community’s perception and raise awareness of the barriers that incarcerated women face, to identify gaps, and organize peer support. She is living proof that a little help in the right direction can go a long way for someone willing to turn her life around.
"If we are supporting our women, we are supporting our children, we are supporting our families and our communities," Barbara Pickering.