After seven months living in correctional facilities, Ashley Schmidt is out on her own.
The 34-year-old is serving the remainder of a nine-month sentence in a rented room in Saskatoon, after stints at Pine Grove Correctional Centre and a transitional home in the city.
“I’m feeling nervous, but excited,” Schmidt told Global News. “I’m just ready to get on with my life.”
She credits the Women’s Reintegration Unit (RU) in Saskatoon for helping prepare her for independent living. While the women at the RU don’t live behind bars and have access to the community, they’re still technically incarcerated.
Staff at the transitional home, operated by Saskatchewan’s corrections ministry, connect incarcerated women to education, employment, housing and counselling.
RU staff helped Schmidt start working toward her high school diploma, and connected her to income support and counselling. While Schmidt received addiction treatment in Pine Grove, she said the supports available in jail don’t compare to those at the RU.
“The minute I got there, I had the one-on-one support,” she said. “It feels like home there.”
She moved out on Monday.
There are a handful of other reintegration units and low-custody facilities in Saskatchewan, but Schmidt said more are needed.
Kayleigh LaFontaine, a former RU correctional officer, agreed. Giving people ample support can be far more effective than locking them up, she said.
“The difference is honestly night and day between your regular institution and the reintegration unit,” said LaFontaine, now an integration worker for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan.
“The reintegration unit is so successful because… it’s a home — because there’s warmth there.”
Similar homes should be established for people who are remanded because they don’t have stable housing, she said.
RU deputy director Tammy Holmes said in her three years at the unit, every woman has been released with housing.
“These women come from really traumatic backgrounds,” Holmes said, pointing to addictions, poverty and homelessness as key risk factors.
“(We) help them with the barriers they face day to day in order to give them a better chance at living in the community and not becoming involved in the criminal justice system again.”
The unit can house 14 women at a time, she said, with up to 100 people living there each year. Low-security inmates with a good track record at Pine Grove can apply to the program, she added.
By establishing necessities like photo ID and housing prior to residents’ release, Holmes said RU staff give women a better chance at rehabilitation.
“When we do see success walk out that door, it’s very rewarding to see the change from transferring in to their release date,” she said.
Schmidt is one of those success stories.
“It was really my saving grace,” she said.
“I definitely don’t think I’d be where I am today without them, so I’m very grateful.”