Tears are rolling down Larry´s face and a knot is in his throat. The folks at Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) have just surprised Larry with the first birthday party that he has ever had. Daryl has a few tears, too; he is there together with other volunteers to wish Larry a happy birthday. Daryl is farther along the road than Larry – he has been free and clean for two and a half years now. After fourteen years in prison he is now established with a job, a car, an apartment, and a girlfriend, whereas Larry has only been out for four months. With the help of CoSA volunteers, he is managing to stay clean and sober this time and has recently landed a job.
Larry has been in and out of prison for just about all of his adult life and he is now forty years old. Both Daryl and Larry sought help from a chaplain in prison, because they seriously wanted to lead more productive life after their release. What surprises most people when they meet Larry and Daryl is that they are such caring people – but statistics show that without the help of CoSA, both Larry and Daryl would probably end up back in prison.
Moira Brownlee is the co-ordinator for CoSA, a program of Mennonite Central Committee Alberta (MCCA). Its mission is to support high-risk released individuals in their task of integrating with the community and leading responsible, accountable lives after serving time in prison. The Circles of Support and Accountability are groups of four to seven volunteers, primarily from the faith community, who are committed to enhancing public safety by coming alongside former high-risk offenders and meeting with them regularly. Brownlee organizes events and recruits volunteers to help the newly freed ex-convicts learn the skills they need to survive in society. Camping trips, baseball games, movie nights, river rafting, bowling and social events such as birthday parties all contribute to a sense of belonging. Brownlee is especially proud of the fact that before she was given the position by Mennonite Central Committee, CoSA did not exist in Alberta.
Peter Worsley, a colleague of Brownlee’s, is a community chaplain with MCCA’s Restorative Justice Ministries. He visits offenders in prison and helps them to re-integrate into the community upon release. A study done in 2012 indicates that of the 233 offenders met by Peter between 2006 and 2008, 95% have not committed another federal offense.
Collaboration and teamwork play key roles in these efforts. Worsley is a Catholic, Brownlee is a Presbyterian and they are given office space and support by the Mennonites. Funding is provided by Correctional Services Canada (CSC), the National Crime Prevention Centre, the Calgary Foundation, Catholic Charities, MCCA and many anonymous donors.
Funding from Correctional Services Canada is tentative at best. CoSA has recently been granted CSC funding for one year due to community lobbying efforts after CSC cut their contracts. Although Brownlee has many years experience working for non-profits, she is frustrated because it would be very difficult to hire and train anybody to replace her.
“Who would want to start a job like this knowing that it might be terminated a year from now?” she asks.
Worsley is also concerned about the funding; a renewed CSC contract for 2014-15 for Community Chaplaincy has not yet been provided. He is working at finding other funding sources and has made efforts to ensure that ex-prisoners will continue to be received into the community.
One of those endeavours is New Life Fellowship Dinners, which bring ex-prisoners and community volunteers together twice a month to share a meal. A partnership has been struck between MCCA’s Community Chaplaincy, the Catholic Diocese of Calgary’s Prison Ministry, and After-Care Ministries (an inter-denominational Christian organization), who take turns providing the food and hosting the meal. Volunteers and ex-prisoners alike enjoy the fellowship and food. The meal, which takes place at a local Baptist Church, provides a safe place for ex-prisoners to meet new friends and develop positive relationships with community members.
In spite of statistics showing that our crime rate here in Canada has reduced markedly, the current trend in government policy is to lengthen prison terms, stiffen laws to create more prisoners, and build more jails. Incarcerating prisoners costs almost $111,000.00 per year per inmate, while it costs between eight to fifteen thousand dollars per year for each released prisoner that is supervised in the community – roughly a saving of $100,000.00 per year per person. As well, a released and working person pays taxes.
Both Worsley and Brownlee are adamant that prisoners should be welcomed back into our workplaces and our communities, albeit with the support and guidance of committed volunteers and professionals. This is restorative justice. Worsley stresses that what is often lacking for those trying to change their lives is compassion and mercy in our society.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of these programs and are always needed. New volunteers receive excellent support, and will find the opportunity both challenging and immensely rewarding. If you are interested in helping in this effort, more information is available from Moira Brownlee or Peter Worsley at 403-275-6935, or visit http://mccalberta.ca/programs/rjm Donations are always welcome also.
Check out this excellent short video about MCCA’s Restorative Justice Ministries, produced by 100 Huntley Street: