Illustration of various items including a lease application, tools and set of keys

Illustrations By Meredith Sadler

Getting out of prison isn’t easy. Neither is staying out

Post-prison, rates of reoffending are high. Here’s how one man found help and broke the cycle

In 2000, a single joint sent David*, then just 18, to jail for the first time. That offence—which, under today’s laws, wouldn’t be illegal—launched him headlong into the world of Canada’s justice system. After his initial release, time spent in a shelter made it hard to adhere to his initial parole requirements. What followed was more involvement in criminal activities, including robbery and assault. “I’m not justifying anything I did back then. I was a kid, and I was making stupid decisions with my freedom.”

Now 35, David has spent years in and out of correctional facilities at the provincial and federal levels. And he isn’t alone in experiencing the cyclical nature of incarceration. According to the 2014 Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) offender population profile, roughly eight out of 10 male offenders and seven out of 10 female offenders have prior convictions. For that same year, in Ontario, the rate of re-conviction for adults serving sentences longer than six months was almost 40 per cent.

Illustrative gif of house plans being drawn

Those outside the system may not be aware of the massive barriers people face on the road to life after prison. Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, a United Way-supported agency that helps people who have been in conflict with the law, says prisoners need specific skills training and support based on individual needs, which is something the system doesn’t afford. She also paints a dire picture of what awaits prisoners upon release: The minimum amount of money an ex-prisoner needs to have in order to leave is $80 (“not enough to get on the train,” says Latimer) They get enough medication for just two weeks, which is “not enough time to link up with a psychiatrist,” says Latimer. Once out, they face issues like outdated government identification, and housing and employment discrimination that make reoffending more likely.

That was David’s reality. He spent years ricocheting in and out of institutions across Ontario on various charges. But when he was finally released from prison in December 2017, he was committed to doing things differently: He connected with a sibling in Toronto, who helped him buy clothes and put him up in a hotel while he awaited housing. He worked with the John Howard Society to find an apartment. And last March, he sent what he called a “two-page letter that bared [his] soul” to Building Up, a United Way-supported social enterprise that connects marginalized individuals with apprenticeships and jobs in the trades. He was appointed as a full-time supervisor-in-training at the recommendation of his caseworker, and says the organization changed his trajectory.

Building Up’s 16-week paid pre-apprenticeship program aims to fill the gap and support people like David who need skills training to transition away from the cycle of reoffending. Currently, 40 per cent of participants have some sort of involvement with the judicial system. “We’re dealing with people who are very far from being able to [easily enter] the labour market,” explains the program’s COO, Tarah Clark. “There are a lot of our guys who might sit in front of a lawyer, but have no idea what they’re saying. Or they can’t use computers. So much of the benefit of Building Up comes from our site supervisors being a bit more patient and skilled in dealing with those issues. The social enterprise model is the biggest tool we have to create financial stability for these people—you can’t just provide technical skills and expect them to be able to live.”

Illustrative gif of a construction uniform with supervisor written across the chest

Participants get eight weeks of in-class instruction on everything from tools to techniques to reading comprehension, and another eight of on-site labour/construction contracts to prepare them for the job market. Construction work, Clark explains, is a field uniquely suited to those looking to leave the prison system behind. One reason is demand: By 2020, Canada will face a labour shortfall of more than one million skilled workers, which explains why some tradespeople can pull in an annual salary of between $70,000 and $100,000 within two years on the job. Another is that construction is a sector that’s inherently less interested in the “bondability” of its employees, says Clark—that is, whether or not they have a criminal record. “It’s difficult because that [question] is on most applications,” she explains. “How do you get a new job when what you were doing before was being in jail? People get sent to us knowing they can divulge the truth. They don’t have to worry that we’re going to find out their past.”

The Building Up team’s experience with the correctional system makes them able to navigate any correctional overlap that workers might experience. “It’s not that regular employers don’t care or are bad people—we just handle a lot of logistics that they can’t,” Clark says. “I know that, when I make a schedule, I have to send it to my client’s parole officer. Or, if someone needs to leave the city for a job, I have to get permission a week in advance. We’re getting more and more employees [who were previously incarcerated], and whether they’re living in a halfway house or under serious restrictions, we don’t send them out into the world until they’re taken care of.”

For example, in the event Building Up grads find themselves out of work (or fresh out of prison), many call up the organization for temporary contracts. “When people call us up saying, ‘I’m off work—do you have anything for me?’” Clark says, “we help bridge that gap.”

That’s a service David came to rely on. Following a miscommunication with his parole officer last summer, he was detained again. He fell behind on his bills and rent. This time, though, his luck had changed: He had family he could call. Most importantly, he had an employer who could speak to his perfect attendance and work ethic. The forgiving safety net of Building Up has inspired him to, in the future, be the person on the other end of the line for someone like him: “I’d like to be able to be there for people when they get out,” he says. “If they need to call someone [for work advice], I want to be that person.” And for David? Those advocates are Clark and her colleagues at Building Up. “When you’re a great worker,” she says, “that’s all we really need to put you in front of an employer and say, ‘Hire them.’”

*Name has been changed.

• Share this story with your friends and family!
• Sign up for The Good News Letter to get more stories like this in your inbox every Saturday.