Mo Korchinski is no stranger to the justice system. For 10 years, she was in and out of British Columbia's provincial jails, mostly on drug-related charges. She has now taken those years of experience as a former inmate and addict to run a peer-support program for women coming out of the very jails in which she spent nearly a decade of her life.
The Unlocking the Gates Peer Health Mentoring Program helps inmates released from the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women – B.C.'s provincial jail for women in Maple Ridge – get on their feet during their first days of freedom. Mentors help the women with basics such as making it to appointments, finding housing or entering treatment.
It's designed as a 72-hour program, but Ms. Korchinski says she's kept in touch with some women for years. "My phone is on 24/7 and I won't turn my back on anyone," she said. "We are a really close-knit family and I'll support a woman for as long as she wants support."
The program started in 2012 as part of a University of British Columbia project in which inmates acted as part of a research team to identify and study their own health concerns.
"The women told us they needed someone to hold their hand and help them [during] the first few days after their release," said Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Medicine. "The first three days of their transition [are] so hard because they have immediate, unmet health and social needs which are just so overwhelming for them."
Those findings shaped the program, which acts as a support system for women after their release. This can include driving a woman to the ferry, taking her to probation appointments and even buying her clothes. Mentors can also help a woman enroll in social assistance or find safe housing.
There are currently five mentors who have worked with 275 women. But the program's future is uncertain – its three-year funding from the First Nations Health Authority comes to an end this year.
"I am optimistic that we can get more funding – I mean we have to," said Ms. Korchinski. "We're a lifeline for these women."
Colby Kristjanson had been in and out of the women's jail for five years before she enrolled in the program in 2015. Now that she's two years clean, sober and out of the corrections system – a milestone that all aspiring mentors must reach before they can volunteer their time – Ms. Kristjanson hopes to become a mentor herself.
"Meeting Mo and knowing where she came from, and how she overcame all these hurdles that I was facing, really inspired me and gave me hope," she said.
"For me, I saw Mo as someone who was now a successful law-abiding member of society despite her past. … It's just so much easier to accept help from people who know exactly what you're going through. It gives you a sense of what you really can achieve if you try."
Both Ms. Korchinski and Dr. Martin hope the program – which is the only one of its kind in the country – will eventually become a permanent fixture instead of relying on unpredictable funding. There are also thoughts of starting a similar program for incarcerated men and of making the mentor role a paid position.
For now, Ms. Korchinski says B.C.'s recent fentanyl crisis has made this program more important than ever.
"Women who come out of prison are more vulnerable than women on the streets because their tolerance level is down and they're desperate," she said. "Right now the women are terrified to come out of jail because of fentanyl, and we need to support them. We are an essential service to these women."