Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a spotlight on the Canadian prison system in public discourse. This has largely been due to the need for rapid and strategic action to maintain the safety of people incarcerated, corrections staff, and the wider community.
As an organization that supports justice-involved individuals, both while they are in prison and once they transition to community, we see firsthand the barriers that individuals face due to COVID-19 and the impacts that the pandemic has had on this segment of the Canadian population.
Today, we are sharing the experience and perspective of two JHS Pacific staff members working in our reintegration programs: Veanna and Fouad. They share how COVID-19 has impacted their programs and, more importantly, how it’s impacted the people they serve.
Throughout COVID-19, BC Corrections and the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) have worked to reduce the spread of the virus in their facilities. One strategy that’s been used to achieve this has been to drastically limit the volume of traffic going in and out of prisons. This resulted in service providers such as JHS not being able to provide in-person supports to folks experiencing incarceration.
While the inability to see people in-person created an initial barrier to both of our reintegration programs, our team worked fast to adapt our approach to service delivery to prevent service users from falling through the cracks.
We (virtually) sat down with Fouad and Veanna to learn more about delivering programs in corrections amidst the pandemic.
Meet Fouad, our federal Reintegration Worker
Fouad works for our Reintegration Program, a program that provides support to individuals residing in federal correctional facilities throughout the Fraser Valley in their release planning.
While Fouad is currently unable to provide the in-person supports he once did, he has been determined to continue providing necessary supports to the people he serves through the program.
“We kept going to support guys. We were affected by the pandemic, but we weren’t going to shut down the program.
The isolation being experienced by people in prison right now due to COVID-19 has made us so much more than a reintegration program; we are a source of connection, a friend, somebody to talk through their frustrations with, somebody that’s there for them through these really difficult times.” – Fouad
Fouad speaks further to the isolation and challenges experienced by the people he serves at federal correctional facilities throughout the Fraser Valley, which is something acknowledged by many in our sector.
The inability to see their loved ones (even virtually), restrictions on who they can see within institutions (such as other units), and reduced interactions with service providers and other support networks essential to their wellbeing and reintegration capabilities are all conditions which exacerbate experiences of isolation and loneliness.
“It’s been a really difficult time for people in prison. Some of them have felt really alone in all of this, but we’re trying our best to fill the gaps, to be there for them and provide them with whatever support that they need.”
While the challenges faced have increased, our teams are doing everything we can to provide support for individuals in prison and as they reintegrate back to the community.
Once it was clear that we would be unable to deliver in-person supports through our Reintegration Program, our team pivoted to providing services over the phone through the use of our toll-free number made available to people on their units.
“Even though we aren’t going into the institutions, guys can just pick up the phone… they can call us when they need us and request whatever they need or receive assistance with whatever issue they’re having. But it’s not just the toll-free number that has allowed us to keep running. Our relationship with CSC has been really important, too.”
While Fouad has seen rising challenges faced by the people he serves through our Reintegration Program, he also speaks to the immense determination of those individuals and our program teams working to support them.
“The bottom line is that we are working with people through these difficult times. It’s difficult to manage cases but we are trying to help out, face challenges head on and be flexible.”
Meet Veanna, our Community Reintegration Worker
Like Fouad, Veanna works to support individuals experiencing incarceration with their release planning. The primary difference, though, is that Veanna works to support individuals at North Fraser Pretrial Centre (NFPC) which is a provincial correctional facility (rather than a federal facility).
“Before COVID, I’d be on the units all day talking to the guys and working with them on different parts of their release planning. Once COVID hit, I had to think ‘how am I going to make this work?’”
That’s when Veanna started using paper memos to communicate with residents and assist them in planning for their transition back to community.
“I’ve used memos in the past, but now they have literally taken over how I do my job. Thankfully, it’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
A big reason for the smooth transition has been Veanna’s ability to collaborate with her network to find solutions to challenges as they arise.
While Veanna used to sit in a room with her clients to facilitate phone interviews between them and the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction to help them navigate the process and complete any forms they may need for their transition, she’s since had to rethink how she goes about this.
“I spoke with my contact at the Ministry to figure out a way to switch to paper applications. So now, when individuals need income assistance for example, I send them the application for them to fill out, they send it back to me and I work with my contact at the Ministry to submit it and follow up on its status whenever necessary. This way they don’t have to directly speak with a welfare agent by themselves. I can still help walk them through the application and submit it for them.
I also try to use as much plain language as possible to help make it clear what they need to do. If a client needs to fill out an application, I try to make it easier for them by making little notes along the side to explain pieces.
There have been some instances where I’ve noticed there’s some miscommunication through the memos, and that’s when I will go sit with them in the visitor’s area just so the communication becomes clearer. There is glass in front of us as a layer of COVID safety, but it’s pretty rare that we do that as it’s a last resort. Luckily the memos have been a really effective way to communicate with the guys for the most part.”
You might have caught that Veanna shares that in rare circumstances she has been able to meet with NFPC residents in person to support them with their needs.
While this is circumstantial, and has evolved along side the pandemic, Veanna has had the opportunity to work within NFPC at times throughout the pandemic when most service providers have not.
“NFPC decided to keep delivering our program during COVID as they believed it was an essential service. I help with identification, recovery, income assistance, housing, etc., and these services are necessary for an individual’s release. There were discussions on which services were necessary for the guys to get released, and with the services I provide being so important to that, I was kept on.”
COVID has undoubtedly been a challenging time for folks reintegrating back to community. We asked both Fouad and Veanna if there were any stories of success, resilience, or growth that have stuck with them lately, and they both had something to share.
One individual has been in and out of NFPC for quite awhile. He faced a lot of challenges when it came to housing and finding the community supports necessary for him to stay out in the community.
He was homeless for quite some time, and he was living in the Downtown Eastside which wasn’t ideal for him. I never really saw him look forward to the future. He struggled with trying to find the right path to go down. When he’d come here, he would have a lot of information available to him but hadn’t made the connections to bridge the gap. He would walk out the door thinking ‘now what?’
He had a good breakthrough during COVID. I noticed a big change in him; he was excited to be released and start his new plan.
I met with him a few times in the visitation booth, and we were able to actually find him housing while he was at NFPC, which is quite rare. I was also able to connect him to Unlocking the Gates and other community supports.
As soon as he started to get connected with the housing organization, it was like there was a huge weight lifted off his shoulder. He could start focusing on other things rather than being swarmed with the idea of where he was going to go once he got released.
With COVID, it’s been difficult trying to get a full plan in place for people’s transition. But with him coming in and out for a couple of years, it was cool to see that even with COVID happening, it was still possible to get him housing and a solid support system. Knowing he had somebody to meet him walking out the doors to help him on his path.
One of my clients has been involved with the justice system for a few decades, and I’ve been working really closely with his Case Management Team (a team of stakeholders that work to support an individual in their transition to community) to help him prepare for his release coming up.
My job has been to help find him housing, and it’s an aspect of his reintegration that he’s been really stressed about.
He’s never had a job, so he wasn’t sure how he’d maintain anything, and he didn’t want to end up homeless, or have to go to a shelter during COVID. I was able to connect with a landlord in the Fraser Valley who had a small furnished space, and after setting up a three way call for them to meet (the landlord and the individual Fouad serves), he was able to secure the unit.
He’s getting out this Friday and he is really excited to have a place to stay.
The Case Management Team is working really well together to prepare this individual and make his transition as smooth as possible. One organization is picking him up from the institution to take him to his home, and another is working to get him ID. The work we’ve been able to achieve by working together has been fantastic.
COVID-19 has immense impacts on every individual in our society. For people residing in corrections, the pandemic has posed numerous challenges, both inside the institutions and as they transition back to community. Our reintegration programs have worked to mend gaps and navigate through these barriers with service users to support them as best as they can, and we can learn so much from their experiences.