A recent decision by the Salvation Army to bar women from its halfway house — and a lack of risk-avoidance programs for criminals in the justice system — has spurred two women into action.
“There were females being incarcerated because there was nowhere else to go,” said Nora Peters, president of the Yukon’s newly created Elizabeth Fry Society, an advocacy group for women inmates.
Speaking of the Salvation Army’s decision in June to stop housing women at its publicly funded Adult Resource Centre, Peters explained the situation went against the society’s philosophy.
“They got separated from their children,” she said of female inmates barred from going to the centre.
“We didn’t know why the decision was made, so we said, ‘We’re going to start our own’” halfway house for women, she said.
In the interim, the Yukon government has established a stopgap halfway house for female inmates.
But Peters and volunteers who helped get the Elizabeth Fry Society off the ground are determined to build a dedicated halfway house anyway, she said.
Joining her in the struggle to help inmates before they’re released into society — and thus increase their chances of successfully integrating — is Debbie Parent.
Parent is the president of the Yukon’s newly created John Howard Society, an advocacy group for male prisoners.
Parent established the society in September.
Both Parent and Peters were involved in the government’s public consultations on corrections, an experience that showed them the need to set up the societies that, for decades, have been helping inmates in other parts of Canada.
“They’re in for three months, out for three months, then back in,” said Parent of inmates.
“Nothing will change for these people until we have an intervention,” she said.
“We realized incarcerated people in the Yukon don’t get help until they walk out the doors,” added Peters. “Things weren’t in place for them until they’re out.”
The Yukon is the last Canadian jurisdiction to see at least one of these societies established.
Both hope the two societies can get funding from the United Way, churches and other charities.
After that, they hope to hire a full-time worker for each, who will write grant proposals and begin assessing inmate literacy.
“We really, really need them now,” said Parent.
The societies have already gathered needed security clearances for volunteers to go into the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, said Parent.
And they will soon begin meetings with inmates to determine what programs are most needed, she said.
The key is to go into the jail before inmates go out, she explained.
“We don’t want them to be cut loose at WCC in the dead of winter with $20 in their pocket and nowhere to go,” said Parent.
The Fry Society’s long-term goal is to build a halfway house for women within the next fiscal year, said Peters.
“If it happens quicker we’ll be even happier,” she said.
“Our view is that it should be separate anyways,” added Parent, explaining that both she and Peters admire the work the Salvation Army does at the Adult Resource Centre.
“All we’re trying to do is fill in all the gaps,” she said.
The Salvation Army’s decision to bar women at the Adult Resource Centre was taken because of safety issues, said Sharon Hickey, director of community and correctional services.
“They just felt it was not in the women’s best interest, or the men’s best interest, to be co-housed,” said Hickey.
“They try to meet the needs of their community, but in the end for them, the safety needs of their clients outweighed the administrative convenience of having clients co-located.”
The Salvation Army is an independent contractor and has the power to create its own policies, she explained.
With no halfway house for women, a sole-sourced contract was given to a retired female social worker to house female inmates in two beds in her house, said Hickey.
“We have found that two beds is quite adequate; most women are managed in the community,” she said.
The contract will go to public tender in the spring, she said.
Extra funding has currently been found for the female facility, but it’s unclear that funding is secure over the long term, added Hickey.
“We need to stop the revolving door,” said Parent.