The transition from incarceration to the free world is incredibly daunting. Challenges such as finding work, a place to live, and a supportive community in which to heal can be extremely difficult and feel nearly impossible. For women being released from Canada's provincial and federal institutions, these barriers to mental health and general well-being become even more complex.
Edited by Ruth Elwood Martin, Mo Korchinski, Lynn Fels, and Carl Leggo, Releasing Hope: Women's Stories of Transition From Prison to Community (Inanna) is the recently released follow-up to its predecessor, Arresting Hope (Inanna), which collected stories of five women from inside the walls of a British Columbia prison, documenting their moments of despair, hope, and joy with authentic and unforgettable detail.
Releasing Hope answers the question "what happens when these women get released?" by following them along their journey of transition back into the community. Tackling financial, social, and systemic hurdles during their reintegration, the book becomes a moving portrait of strength, resilience, and survival.
We're very excited to feature an excerpt from Releasing Hope on Open Book today.
Excerpt From 'Releasing Hope: Women's Stories of Transition From Prison to Community'
Ruth Elwood Martin
I wish we’d had the tape recorder today. But I’m writing in my journal now. During our research meeting, Mo (one of the peer research assistants) told us that a woman with incarceration experience, whom she was mentoring as a project assistant, has disappeared, and she fears that she has relapsed into substance use. Mo says that she is trying to not take it personally.
The woman had been passionate, motivated, hopeful. She had supports in place, and she was being welcomed into the community.
In fact, all of her nine health goals were achievable—everything looked promising. But clearly the nine health goals were not enough and something was missing—she was not done yet.
We all feel devastated. I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me. I asked, “What are we doing with this PHR in the community? Are we deluded?”
We then had a deep discussion about whether we should bring this up in the research interview, if we should ask participants, “Are you done yet?” That discussion led to the question, “What brings you to the point in your life where you feel you are done? What leads you to it? Is it a spiritual awakening?” We then decided to add a question about spiritual health in the Doing Time research interview, because we thought that maybe this was the missing piece.
During our meeting, women peer researchers shared that their mental obsessions with substance use persist long after their body physically finds it repulsive. I didn’t know this. Then, during the meeting, we talked about the Indigenous medicine wheel, and about ways that we each need to learn to integrate spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional health.
I am now reflecting on the factors that lead people to that place in their lives where they can finally feel like they are done. We need to introduce these factors into our prison systems—maybe it relates to hope?
Participatory health research projects inside prison were constrained as to what they could do to improve the health of incarcerated women. Through analysis and synthesis of all of the prison PHR data, incarcerated women identified nine health goals as necessary:
1) improved relationships with children, families, and partners;
2) improved peer and community support;
3) increased access to safe and stable housing;
4) improved access to individualized healthcare;
5) increased job skills, relevant education, and employment;
6) improved dentition and oral health;
7) improved health awareness and integration;
8) improved health and disease knowledge; and,
9) increased ability to contribute to society. (Martin et al.)
Look again at these nine health goals the women identified. Don’t we all want these?
However, it became apparent that the majority of these nine health goals were dependent on conditions that women would face after their release from prison. Therefore, our research question became, “What are the facilitators and barriers for women in achieving their health goals following their release from prison?”
Our third application to the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) was successful, and we received funding for Doing Time at about the same time that the PHR project ended inside the prison. Therefore, the funding enabled us to employ women who were released from ACCW as the project coordinator and as part-time community-based project assistants. We trained women with incarceration experience as research interviewers.
Together, we developed an interview guide that asked about barriers and facilitators to the nine health goals for women when released from prison. We interviewed 400 women immediately following their release, and we re-interviewed them at intervals during the following eighteen months. Our analysis demonstrated that good nutritional health, positive spiritual health, and high school graduation protected women against committing future crime (see Janssen et al.).
The overall conclusion of this research project confirmed what we were already so familiar with—that health-related strategies are urgently needed to support women who are released from prison.
When I Was a Little Girl
When I was a little girl, I lived a life of trauma.
I stood on the battlefields of parental damnation, slowly losing my innocence never to be found again.
I faded into seclusion, tried to remain hidden from the world.
No words No cries
Unprotected, I began to build an arsenal of destructive mechanisms
that shielded me from the pain of neglect, abuse, and mistreatment. I developed an education of lies, deceit, silence, and manipulation. Those who should have cherished my heart and soul dismissed me. I became a casualty of addiction, warped love, and dashed dreams.
No peace No relief
I am tired of searching for peace. I have no control over my life,
going in and out of jail. What has my life become? No one tries to find me. No one cares that I’m lost. There has to be more
to my life. This cannot be what God has planned for me.
WishingI could change Wishing I could make it better
No one comes. Life and time unfold. I become a soldier.
I arm myself with kindness, empathy, and love.
I now stand tall, proud of the woman I have become, yet humble with the knowledge of my past. I offer new hope for future women who have faced
a traumatic childhood, by lending an open mind and listening with an open heart.
Knowing I can change
Knowing I can make it better
No longer am I a casualty of a traumatic history. I am
a mother, sister, aunt, and grandma. I survived, and I am stronger today because of my past. Don’t let the darkness from your past block the light of joy in your present. What happened is done. Stop giving time to what no longer exists.
There is always so much joy to be found.
I Wasn’t Going to Be a Victim1
Searching for connection—running was my only companion.
After more than three years clean, I competed in races,
earned a diploma
(Addictions Community Support Worker), re-created my life.
But I was lonely.
Then something happened.
I found another woman named Amanda. She was like my reflection;
she too had heartbreak and loss.
Our relationship was equal.
We started a journey on her couch,
where I cried, where I dug deep.
She too was finding her way, and I walked back
into the rooms where addicts come together to find a new way to live. I cried lots of tears, went to meetings, and kept showing up for my life.
I felt like a badass. I got a car.
I got a job.
It wasn’t easy; no one told me it was easy.
It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.
I wasn’t going to be a victim.
My son, Terence, is recovering too. My first love, my son.
We re-connected in those rooms.
The journey continues.
I completed the twelve steps.
Now I walk into the federal prison with a message: I have my freedom.
I use my freedom.
My recovery is to give back.... I made my mess into a message.
Ruth Elwood Martin worked as family physician in Vancouver from 1983 to 2009; she also worked part-time in the medical clinics of BC correctional centres for men and women for seventeen years. She is a Clinical Professor of the School of Population and Public Health, University British Columbia, and an Associate Faculty of the Department of Family Practice. Her experiences as a prison physician participatory health researcher during the time period of Arresting Hope changed her, such that her goal became to foster the improvement of prison health and to engage patients’ voices in the process. She co-founded the Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education, which is a group committed to encouraging and facilitating collaborative opportunities for health, education, research, service, and advocacy, to enhance the social well-being and (re)integration of individuals in custody, their families, and communities. From 2011 to 2017, she served as Chair of the Prison Health Communities of Practice Group of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. Ruth continues to live and work in Vancouver, BC.
Since writing Arresting Hope/Releasing Hope, Mo Korchinski is now a proud member of society. She graduated in 2014 from the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology with her Bachelor of Social Work degree and works as a project manager with the project Unlocking the Gates to Health peer health mentor program at the University of British Columbia. She spends most of her spare time helping others in her community and she feels that the key to turning one’s life around and keeping it moving in the right direction is to help others turn their lives around. She co-directed several documentary films, which are about individuals’ release from prison, and when the prison gate is unlocked, but the doors to society are kept locked. Her passion is to take her experience of addiction and the justice system and show people that changes are needed: to get the voices of women who are still inside prison heard; and, to get policy-makers to understand that change is needed in the prison system and in the communities. She lives in Vancouver and is a proud grandmother to two beautiful granddaughters, who have taught her what unconditional love is.
Lynn Fels is an Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada, and former Academic Editor of Educational Insights, an open-access journal that reimagines curriculum, research and education (www.educationalinsights.ca). With George Belliveau, she co-authored Exploring Curriculum: Performative Inquiry, Role Drama and Learning (Pacific Educational Press, 2008), and has also authored numerous articles and chapters exploring performative inquiry, arts across the curriculum, and curriculum as lived experience. Alongside Ruth, Carl and Mo, she is co-editor of Arresting Hope: Women Taking Action in Prison Inside Out (2014). She is co-investigator in a five year SSHRC Partnership Grant, researching arts for social change in Canada.
Carl Leggo was a poet and professor at the University of British Columbia. His books include: Come-By-Chance; Lifewriting as Literary Métissage and an Ethos for Our Times (co-authored with Erika Hasebe-Ludt and Cynthia Chambers); Creative Expression, Creative Education (co-edited with Robert Kelly); A Heart of Wisdom: Life Writing as Empathetic Inquiry (co-edited with Cynthia Chambers, Erika Hasebe-Ludt, and Anita Sinner); Sailing in a Concrete Boat; Arresting Hope: Prisons That Heal (co-edited with Ruth Martin, Mo Korchinski, and Lynn Fels); Arts-based and Contemplative Practices in Research and Teaching: Honoring Presence (co-edited with Susan Walsh and Barbara Bickel); Hearing Echoes (co-authored with Renee Norman); Poetic inquiry: Enchantment of Place (co-edited with Pauline Sameshima, Alexandra Fidyk, and Kedrick James); and Provoking Curriculum Studies: Inspiration/Imagination/Interconnection (co-edited with Erika Hasebe-Ludt).