Published in The Globe and Mail
Rosemary Green spent five years in a United States prison, separated from her four children. She says visits from volunteers – who provided a consistent connection to the community on the outside – kept her going.
After being released and returning to Canada, she began to volunteer in prisons herself. But she stopped after recent changes to the requirements for volunteers to get into federal prisons have made it harder for people like her to volunteer.
A year ago, the Correctional Service of Canada issued a directive requiring volunteers to obtain “reliability status.” In order to enter a prison, volunteers are now subject to the same screening and scrutiny as staff. This includes fingerprinting and a credit check, in addition to the prior requirements of a criminal record check, application and orientation class.
Groups in Ontario and B.C. that work in prisons, as well as the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which sends advocates into prisons across the country, are concerned with the effect these requirements are having on current and prospective volunteers.
Joint Effort, a small Vancouver-based group, has protested the new policy, writing a series of letters to government officials questioning both the necessity for and purpose of the change.
“Why are volunteers who have been donating their time, energy and resources for decades now having to submit to this higher more stringent level of security clearance?” Lora McElhinney wrote in a letter to the CSC commissioner.
Ms. McElhinney said her group, which has been facilitating workshops at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women since it opened, has been trying to either get an exception to the requirement for reliability status or to get the directive reversed. So far, they have been unsuccessful and they have stopped sending volunteers.
Phil Higo, acting director-general of security with CSC, said the screening requirements don’t preclude people with criminal records or bad credit from volunteering.
“We believe in the rehabilitation of people,” he said. “We may have volunteers that come in that have a checkered past and we’re able to look at them and say the person looks like they’ve done a really good job, they may have some experience that would be beneficial for our inmates.”
Ms. Green volunteers with the Stride program, a community-based initiative that sends volunteers into the Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal prison in Kitchener, Ont.
“Being in prison and having people from the outside coming and taking their time, just being there with you, knowing what you’ve done and not judging you based on your past, I know what it did for me,” Ms. Green said. “I wanted to be able to do that for a woman.”
Ms. Green went almost every week for three years into Grand Valley. She still volunteers her time helping women after they have been released, but she doesn’t go into the prison any more. She said when she found out what would be required to go into the prison, she worried she wouldn’t pass and that the requirements made her feel vulnerable.
“I looked at the volunteer co-ordinator and I was like, there’s no way. There’s no way I can do this,” she said. “I felt like I was a criminal all over again.”
Kate Crozier, who co-ordinates the program, said the new policy has decreased their overall capacity to recruit and retain a diverse group of volunteers. She said the group’s volunteer training sessions used to draw between 10 and 15 people; now they attract between six and eight.
Prospective volunteers under the new rules face are also experiencing longer wait times, Ms. Crozier said. While the old process took anywhere from two days to two weeks, she said the new one can take up to eight months and otherwise eager volunteers are discouraged by the wait.
Ms. Crozier said the screening process is particularly daunting to women such as Ms. Green who have been in conflict with the law, poor women who may worry they won’t pass a credit check and women from communities and cultures that have been subjected to repressive or violent policing.
She said in the 21 years the program has been running, there has not been a security issue. “There was no problem to solve,” she said.
Mr. Higo said he couldn’t say why CSC implemented the new policy but said the screening requirements are in place to guard against the possibility of volunteers who are vulnerable to being compromised. He also said he is not aware of any instance in which a volunteer has been found to have taken bribes, smuggled contraband or otherwise posed a security risk.
“The standard is more stringent, there are more checks that are done and I’ll say it’s more intrusive,” he said.
CSC said they haven’t experienced a drop in the overall number of volunteers since the directive was issued.
Senator Kim Pate, a former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the new requirements – particularly the credit checks – place unnecessary barriers for qualified volunteers.
“Reduced numbers of volunteers means fewer prisoners have access to critical community support, which negatively impacts prisoners’ preparation for and eventual release in to the community,” she said.
“In short, the new screening measures are unnecessary and only serve to exacerbate the increased isolation of prisoners.”