Beyond Bars

Rehabilitation and reintegration key to recovery for ex-cons

Terry spent the better part of his adult life in and out of jail, struggling with drug addiction and repeatedly turning to crime. It wasn’t until his time in William Head that he turned it all around.

Rehabilitation and reintegration key to recovery for ex-cons

Terry looks up at me momentarily before he speaks. His eyes are wide and, for a second, his gesturing hands are motionless. Sipping his water carefully, he is at ease. We are talking about his childhood memories, of which there are few.

“I basically lost my whole family before I was 19,” says Terry casually, as though this is a typical occurrence within his social circle.

His father died when he was two months old, and the succession of abusive stepfathers never filled the mentor role that most young children require. His mother, who died of a drug overdose when he was eight, is the only person Terry speaks of when discussing his childhood.

He says little about her, but alludes to the years of grief and trauma counselling he has had as a result of his rocky upbringing.

Terry is cheerful as he candidly discusses these memories, and I take it as a testament to what everyone who knows him describes: an open book with nothing left to hide.

Terry spent the better part of his adult life in and out of jail, struggling with drug addiction and repeatedly turning to crime as a means to support his habit. Each time he was released from prison, he vowed to turn his life around. Within hours of being released, Terry would be drinking heavily and using his parole identification to gain entry to bars.

Despite concerns from friends and family, nothing changed.

“It was a repetitive pattern . . . you’re in jail, then back on the street with nothing but a slap on the ass,” says Terry.

With neither the resources, nor the determination to control his addiction issues, Terry’s life was a revolving door.

Then, in 2005, after a series of minor convictions and multiple stints in provincial prisons, Terry was convicted of tampering with a witness causing death. At the age of 30, he was sentenced cumulatively to three years in a federal prison.

When he arrived at William Head Institution, Terry had only heard rumours of its expansive grounds and pseudo-luxurious living arrangements. Five men share what Terry describes as a collective condo. Inmates are able to fish, compete in chili cook-offs, and meditate on ancient Buddhist grounds.

Dedicating time to pursuits that facilitated reintegration to society is something Terry took seriously during his stay. He completed his entry-level trade certificate in carpentry and joinery by attending classes five days a week, while also attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

He reconnected to his native roots, finding solace and guidance within the Native Brotherhood. Through the Brotherhood, Terry learned traditional native carving and used sweat lodges on the William Head grounds twice a week. With the use of day passes often granted to inmates, Terry also participated in long house ceremonies, spoke at Victoria high schools, and met with native foster children in Duncan as part of the Brotherhood’s “Speaking From the Heart” program. These activities gave Terry perspective, while also allowing him to connect spiritually with other members of the native community.

Like a little village perched on the southern-most tip of Vancouver Island, William Head is a drastic change from Terry’s previous prison stays. At others, such as Matsqui and Wilkinson, life consisted of staring at the walls, counting down the days and using a rusted Folgers can as a toilet. The environment did little to motivate inmates, and gave Terry little hope of ever making a change in his life.

“I was waiting for a federal sentence,” says Terry.

He hoped going to a minimum-security federal facility like William Head might make the difference he was looking for in his rehabilitation.

At William Head, reintegration is the main agenda. There, Terry was able to become reacquainted with some of society’s routines — like grocery shopping — and he was finally able to participate in beneficial programs such as violence prevention, substance abuse management and harm reduction.

The lifestyle at William Head enabled Terry to eventually make the gradual transition that so many repeat offenders need in order to survive the outside world. Unlike other correctional facilities, William Head empowered Terry through support, treatment and training.

In reference to the people he’s known who haven’t been able to make the same changes he has, Terry says, “They just don’t have the tools . . . and without coping skills they might never come around.”

Nearing the end of our conversation, Terry pauses while thinking about the most meaningful thing he can tell me about his experience.

“It’s a cycle,” he says, “and I’m just done with it.”

At 36, Terry is much wiser than his 30-year-old self. For decades, he believed he could do everything on his own. Growing up without parents negatively affected his behaviour and attitude towards school, friends and society. He was alone for years, depending solely on himself.

Now, he admits that sometimes you need to get help. In his eyes, his last sentence at William Head was exactly what he never knew he needed until he got it.

Terry has spent the last three years as a free man. He lives with his girlfriend in Victoria, has two cats and tries to spend as much time with friends and family as he can. He has been sober since William Head, and has been undergoing aggressive treatment for Hepatitis C, which recently was declared dormant.

A spiritual and holistic man, Terry continues to meet with elders in the Native Brotherhood, and plans to pursue street outreach as a profession when he is finished his treatment.

Finishing his water and gracefully placing the cup down while smiling, Terry looks at his feet, shuffles earnestly and sighs. He tells me his story is not unique. He tells me everybody needs help. M

Megan Mills is a freelance writer from Victoria.

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