Every two weeks I visit Sandra at the provincial Women’s Correctional Centre west of Winnipeg. When I arrive, I lock my belongings and outer clothing in a locker, pass through a metal detector, and wait until a heavy locked door opens electronically and a guard ushers me into the visiting area.
Sometimes Sandra and I sit and talk at a round table. More recently, because of a misdemeanor on her part, our visits have been “non-contact,” which means we sit in a tiny booth and talk via telephone, while separated by thick plexiglas.
I visit Sandra (not a real person but a composite of people I have met) because I am a volunteer with Open Circle. Open Circle matches inmates in several Manitoba prisons with people who commit to visiting them twice a month for at least a year. My job as a visitor is to be a friend — someone who doesn’t ask many questions, offer much advice, or judge. Mostly, I am there to listen and to be “radically present.”
When I signed up with Open Circle, I did so with some selfish motives. I wanted to connect more closely with “real” people who suffer from the real world and its very real structures of oppression. In our work in the Ottawa Office of MCC, we try to address systems and structures of violence and injustice and work for policy change. I believe in our work deeply, but I often feel myself losing touch with the very people who are the reason for this work.
Sandra has put me in touch with reality very quickly. I have learned so much from her. These are just a few of her lessons for me.
- Approximately 80-85% percent of the women at the WCC are Aboriginal – as Sandra is. I knew this intellectually before I ever entered the WCC. It is quite another thing to see it and comprehend it at a heart level. It is an absolute travesty that Aboriginal women should be so over-represented in prison.
- Virtually every one of the inmates, whether convicted or charged with committing an offense, has also been a victim of terrible violence, abuse, trauma and or neglect. I regularly hear about beatings, assaults and rape. Some of the violence is self-inflicted — Sandra’s arm is covered from wrist to shoulder with razor scars.
The prison is not a cozy place. The only chairs I’ve seen are plastic stacking chairs. Sandra wonders if her back and hip pain is related to the fact that she can never sit in a comfortable chair or lie in a comfortable bed.
- In Sandra’s unit there are two treadmills and a WII for about 120 women to share. Along with a prison diet that is heavy in high-fat foods, it is almost certain that the inmates will gain a lot of weight. Sandra tells me she has gained 40 pounds in six months.
- One of the most painful things, for Sandra, is being separated from her children for long periods of time. She loves her kids deeply and worries intensely about them, even though she acknowledges the mistakes she has made as a mother.
- The prison is located in a field outside the city and far away from any public transportation. This makes it very difficult for Sandra’s family members and friends to visit and it compounds her sense of isolation in prison.
- There are countless daily humiliations – the ugly grey sweatpants and T-shirts which all inmates wear, the overcrowded cells, the withdrawal of privileges such as time outside one’s cell, the lack of information about the status of one’s case.
- The prison can also be a place to celebrate small victories – as when one inmate can walk away from a fight, when another can stop biting her nails, when another can learn a craft. There is also the kindness of particular officers and prison staff.
- Although Sandra hates being “inside,” she is afraid about what it will mean to be “outside” again. She is fearful about how she will find food, clothing, and a place to live, about having to make decisions, and about being drawn back into a destructive lifestyles.
- Aboriginal communities view crime and criminal behaviour as resulting from a lack of balance in individuals and communities. Traditional restorative justice practices focus on helping people recover balance. Sandra doesn’t quite articulate it this way, but she lets me know that the prison system, with its focus on punishment, exacerbates imbalance and further diminishes some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
I always come away from my visits with Sandra with a jumble of contradictory thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with sadness and I cry a good bit of the way home. Sometimes I am filled with rage at a system which, rather than helping women to heal from a terribly wounded existence, only harms them further. Frequently I am reminded of the legacy of colonization of which both Sandra and I are a part. Always I am confronted with my sheltered and privileged existence. Always I feel like I’ve walked on holy ground.
I continue to believe that addressing systems and structures at a macro level and working for policy change is ever important. But that work must be rooted in relationship with “real” people. Sandra has also taught me that.
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.