A local advocacy group that helps inmates gain access to books and literacy tools held a panel Monday to mark Prisoners’ Justice Day in Halifax.
The event was held to honour those who have died while in prison but also called for improved funding of community services and programming the panellists say will help keep more people out of jail.
Putting investments directly into the community and social programming like affordable housing, mental health initiatives and improving access to education could help keep people out of the criminal justice system, say organizers of the Prisoner Justice Day panel discussion.
“A lot of the reasons that we see people are incarcerated are actually related to things like poverty, things like mental health, and things like racism and structural inequalities,” said Nicole Maunsell, a volunteer with Books Beyond Bars, a Halifax initiative that brings books and literacy tools into the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility.
“The issues that affect incarcerated people are issues that affect the entire communities,” said Maunsell. “So people that go to prison, it just doesn’t affect them. It affects their children and their family members and that affects the whole community.”
Panellist Sarah Tessier, who spent five years in prison for armed robbery, spoke her traumatic upbringing with her abusive father and the mental health issues she suffered from that abuse.
Tessier said the trauma only continued in prison, where she alleged she was sexually assaulted by a prison guard, and so finding rehabilitation behind bars was difficult.
“Prison is no better, it’s just a place for more trauma,” said Tessier. “It’s not rehabilitative, it’s not healing in any way.”
Tessier found support in the Books Behind Bars program and further support from the Elizabeth Fry Society and now she’s advocating on behalf of others who are incarcerated, and those who feel they might not have a voice inside a jail.
“I started just by helping people file complaint forms and grievances and realizing there’s so much more that I can do,” said Tessier. “There are so many people inside that don’t have the skills and the resources to do these things for themselves.”
Patricia Whyte was incarcerated in federal prison during the same time as Tessier and she found support from the Elizabeth Fry Society as well. Since her release, she has worked with the organization as a peer support worker and she, along with Tessier, will be attending Dalhousie University in the fall to pursue a law degree.
“I’ve never thought I would ever go to law school until I had dinner with Emma Halpern (executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia),” said Whyte. “I am going to work for Elizabeth Fry, I don’t care what I make. I just want to work for them and fight for Indigenous women.”