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Says Jason David, who had been in and out of prison for 20 years when he decided to head to college and turn his life around: “When your children are saying, ‘Daddy, the police are outside,’ that’s pretty heartbreaking.”

Says Jason David, who had been in and out of prison for 20 years when he decided to head to college and turn his life around: “When your children are saying, ‘Daddy, the police are outside,’ that’s pretty heartbreaking.”

Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

More Canadian prisoners than ever are being locked up until their mandatory release dates. Sean Fine examines whether it's time to let them earn an early release by changing their attitudes, their resumés and themselves

Partway through an eight-year prison stretch for trafficking in cocaine, Jason David came up with an audacious escape plan.

For 20 years he had been in and out of federal prisons. It was 2013, the height of the tough-on-crime, war-on-drugs years of the Harper government. And Mr. David's escape required the permission of the federal authorities. He yearned to go to college; even before he became eligible for parole, he wanted the system to let him out temporarily so that he could study business administration and marketing.

"Nobody believes in you when you're inside," he says, without bitterness. "You're trafficking in drugs, that's all you are. Not a father, not a son, not a cousin. That's what really hurts." But then he adds, "Don't get me wrong. Three or four federal 'bits,' it's hard to believe someone who is telling you the same old story."

A stocky man with some of the outward signs of the long-term inmate – a tattoo on his neck, a voice made husky by tobacco – he went to his parole officer inside Westmorland, the minimum-security unit of Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick, with a new way to frame his story. Weighed against all the negatives – the manifold failures of his past – he was not violent, and did not abuse drugs. He had a family to go home to. He had done the programs aimed at getting him to look at himself. And something had taken. Or maybe it was just that he wasn't 18 any more.

"You can take all the programs in the world. You still have to change yourself," says the 47-year-old from the small community of Hammonds Plains, on the outskirts of Halifax. "There's an old saying, 'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.'" He understood what he had made his children endure. "You're supporting your family but at the same time you're destroying them. When your children are saying, 'Daddy, the police are outside,' that's pretty heartbreaking."

The parole officer became his accomplice. She told him that if he stayed trouble-free inside prison for a year, she would support him. "There are people who really care about you and will stick their money on the line for you," he says. She believed he could be more than a drug trafficker. And so did the warden, who granted him a pass, known as an unescorted temporary absence, that would allow him to leave the prison grounds under certain conditions. (Because he had no violence on his criminal record, he did not need the federal Parole Board's permission.)

From prison, he applied for and obtained a federal student loan. Four times, accompanied by a guard, Mr. David took the four-hour return car trip to Success College in Lower Sackville, N.S., to fill out paperwork, including an academic entry test. (The guard respectfully waited outside the room where he wrote the test.)

Once admitted to the college, he lived at a halfway house, under conditions – no cellphone, no social media, no renewing his driver's licence. Every six weeks he had to return to prison for seven days, then renew his permission to be absent. The college administration embraced him, providing yet more self-affirmation for Mr. David.

"It was ties like that in the community that made me think I'm not an outcast. That made me work harder. I said, 'Jason, there are good people in the world.' "

After 20 years in and out of prison, Jason David began to turn things around in 2013 – but the support he received from a parole officer made him an exception rather than the rule.

After 20 years in and out of prison, Jason David began to turn things around in 2013 – but the support he received from a parole officer made him an exception rather than the rule.

Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

His academic ambition impressed the Parole Board, and eventually he was granted full parole. No more halfway house. He could return home – Hammonds Plains is 15 minutes from the college campus. A year ago, he graduated. In February, his parole ended. Free at last, with freedom's temptations, its rewards.

Mr. David is an exception in Canada's penal system – a man who shows what is possible when belief in oneself, personal initiative and the system's willingness to take a chance on someone come together.

Most federal inmates today do not "earn" their way out on parole. For the majority of prisoners, the gates open at the two-thirds point of their sentence because of "statutory release" – in other words, the law dictates that they must be let out (unless they are deemed a violent risk). It is near-automatic; no permission from a parole board is necessary. The inmate checks out of prison without needing to prove to himself and the Parole Board that he's made the effort to turn himself around.

In 2014-15, there were 7,867 prisoners released from federal institutions. Statutory release accounted for 5,355 of them, or 68 per cent, according to the Parole Board of Canada. That represents a dramatic drop in the numbers who have earned their way back into society. The shrinking of parole is partly a legacy of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, and partly the result of a longer-term trend. When Mr. Harper became prime minister in 2006, just 53 per cent of inmates got out through statutory release. Thirteen years earlier, when Jean Chrétien took office, the figure stood at 40 per cent.

Officially, the rise of statutory release and the diminishment of parole has barely been noticed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mandate letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees corrections and parole, was silent on the issue.

But those who monitor the situation of prisoners have noticed. "We've gone from a system based on the principle of the 'earliest possible release' to one based on the 'latest possible release,'" says Howard Sapers, who, as the country's Correctional Investigator, acts as ombudsman of the federal prison system.

The promise represented by Jason David is disappearing. The result is increasingly crowded jails, even as crime rates drop; a huge extra burden on government coffers; and, above all, a big problem for public safety. On a massive scale, Canada is releasing prisoners who have not been pronounced ready – except as measured by the clock. And yet, once cut loose, they are offered only a short period of support or supervision to help them move toward a productive life.

For them, the system holds its collective breath.

Says former Millhaven inmate Matthew McMillan, who now holds a job in landscaping, and lives in Quebec with his girlfriend: ‘You can’t let your past dictate your future.’

Says former Millhaven inmate Matthew McMillan, who now holds a job in landscaping, and lives in Quebec with his girlfriend: ‘You can’t let your past dictate your future.’

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

'I need to reintegrate slowly'

It all went wrong for Matthew McMillan, his previous time on statutory release. Only nine days after leaving prison, he joined in a home invasion with some former buddies in his hometown of Oshawa, Ont. Soon, he was back in maximum security. That was when he was in his early 20s. Last fall, Millhaven Institution, outside Kingston, set him free on statutory release once more. He was now 27.

The rules: He had to live at a halfway house, and physically report in there every four hours, except when he was at work. "I'm thankful, coming to a halfway house," he said. "I need to reintegrate slowly."

With a tattoo on his neck and another beside his left eye, Mr. McMillan has a face and shaved head that project toughness. The tattoo near his eye is in memory of his birth mother. The one on his neck spells out, in Chinese characters, Strength. Wisdom. Hope. "Without those three things, I think you're pretty much screwed." He has a wry sense of humour.

There is no question that Mr. McMillan got a rotten shake in life. His father died in a car accident when he was three. His mother was a drug addict and herself a convict. When he was 5, he and his one-year-old brother were put into a foster home. And then another, and another. By age 6, he was running wild, out all night, breaking into cars with older kids. By 8, when he was separated from his brother and adopted into what he calls a caring family – two teachers – he was, by his own description, "already a bad kid."

His new parents stuck by him, took him to counselling, and finally, when he was 14, sent him to a survival camp, out of the best of intentions, he feels now. But it revived feelings of being abandoned, he says, and since that age, Mr. McMillan has lived for the most part in lockup of one sort or another. Ordinarily, someone with his high-risk background would not be taken into Kirkpatrick House, a handsome old three-storey building, home to 22 ex-cons, on a quiet residential street 20 minutes' walk from the Parliament buildings where the policies for returning prisoners to the community are written into law.

Mr. McMillan is a convicted kidnapper and home invader, and he was no angel in prison, either. But he showed some initiative: From prison, he phoned the house director, Scott Hole, to plead that he was worth the risk. Mr. Hole decided to give Mr. McMillan a chance.

"If you were to read his file, you would say, 'Who wants this guy?'" But he was impressed by the prisoner's persistence. "He kept calling me."

The least-understood part of the justice system

Parole is the system's way of taking a calculated risk. Why take any risk at all? Because the alternative is seen to be worse: No incentive for good behaviour. That much longer immersed in the criminal culture inside. And no help making one's way from the penitentiary's regimented world into the dangerous choices of freedom.

To be paroled, prisoners must persuade a three-member board that they are – as federal law puts it, awkwardly – not an "undue risk" to reoffend.

The two most potent risk factors? One is criminal associations – will they hang out with the wrong kind of people?

The other: criminal attitudes. "Do they resent authority? Do they feel the law doesn't apply to them? Do they have a sense of entitlement? Do they think working at a regular job is for suckers?" asks Patrick Storey, a senior official in the board's Pacific Region. If there is any doubt, board members are trained to say no, "because," he says, "protection of society is job one."

And yet even Mr. Storey is quick to acknowledge that, to many Canadians, parole is the very definition of justice gone soft. "Most people think of parole as a gift – like a get-out-of-jail-free card," he says. He calls parole the least understood part of the justice system.

Statutory release is indeed a get-out-of-jail-free card. No Parole Board approval necessary. No matter how you behaved inside. No matter what your prospects or your attitudes, or whether you took treatment programs and worked on your "corrections plan" – or sat around doing nothing. No matter whether you've been rejected before as unworthy of parole – or got parole, but then breached your conditions or broke the law, and were sent back to prison.

Why give inmates something that many law-abiding citizens might consider such an easy release? For the same reason as parole: because tossing such people directly back to the streets without supervision, without support, may only increase the risks they pose – may make the protection of society, in other words, anything but job one.

Not that parole and statutory release are completely different alternatives. In both, the released individuals need to report regularly to parole officers. They may be required to bed down in halfway houses. They must keep the peace and, depending on their personal history, and the circumstances of their crime, meet other conditions, such as swearing off alcohol or keeping a distance from their former associates. Hence the term "conditional release:" If they break the conditions, they can be returned to prison to complete their term.

If parole has a bad rap, it's because many see it as near-automatic — a nine-year term, say, means just three years behind bars. But in fact, such early releases are infrequent. Over each of the past five years, an average of only 382 federal prisoners were let out each year on full parole within five days of their earliest eligibility date – that is, one-third of their full sentence – according to data supplied by the Parole Board at The Globe and Mail's request. That's just 3.5 per cent of all releases.

Day parole, too, tends to be delayed. The eligibility starts at six months before the one-third mark. But even for those granted day parole, the average time served is now 38 per cent of a full sentence. And for those who obtain full parole, the figure is 46 per cent; that's six percentage points higher than when Mr. Harper came to power.

The Conservative government was philosophically opposed to statutory release – and ending it constituted one of its first promises on coming to power in 2006; a year later, it appointed a commission to overhaul the penitentiaries. The commission's recommendation: Earn your way out on parole, or stay till the end of your sentence.

It's a finding that Rob Sampson, a businessman and former politician who led that commission, stands behind to this day. The rationale behind statutory release makes no sense, he says: "If someone doesn't want to change, how is that helping? Whether they're let out halfway or a quarter-way – with 'supervision' – chances are you're going to see them come back again. If you're not ready to go, you shouldn't go, period. Full stop."

And yet, for all his determination, and the government's, the end of statutory release didn't come to be. "I don't think there was a lack of political will," Mr. Sampson says. "There was probably a lack of bureaucratic will."

And there is some truth to that. Mary Campbell was the director-general in the Public Safety department's Corrections and Criminal Justice Directorate at the time. She is unapologetic that she and other civil servants spoke out, in no uncertain terms, against the idea. "We vigorously pointed out the downsides of that approach," she recalls. And she pinpoints one particular downside that she thinks caught the ear of those in power. "My conclusion is that the politicians got the message that it would be dreadfully expensive." (According to the CSC, the annual cost to house each federal prisoner was $115,310 in 2013-14.)

Mr. Sampson is a former banker who oversaw provincial jails while in the cabinet of Ontario premier Mike Harris in 1999. Now the managing director of Ceres Biosystems Ltd., which converts organic waste to fertilizer, he is aware that prison-law specialists such as Michael Jackson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, consider his 2007 report harsh and uninformed.

"Did I spend my career looking at the corrections system?" he asks during an interview at the boardroom table of his downtown Toronto office. "No. My background is banking and finance. I'm able to take a realistic perspective. I'm not biased in one direction or the other."

A big problem, according to Mr. Sampson, is that there isn't time to give many prisoners – who often don't even have a high-school education – the skills they need to support themselves on the outside. He wanted the jails to become training grounds for jobs like carpentry, electrical work and plumbing, and to reduce time spent on "cognitive skills." He had hoped to create partnerships with companies like Home Depot. That, too, didn't happen.

"The institutions should give them the first chance they never got in real life," he says – before adding that, in his opinion, maybe 20 per cent of prisoners would be able to grab hold of that chance. In other words, roughly the proportion of those qualifying for parole today.

He recalls meeting a federal prisoner who was taking Grade 12 calculus. "I said, 'What are you going to do with calculus when you leave?' He didn't know. They were so proud he was taking calculus." He shakes his head in dismay.

When interviewed last winter, ex-Millhaven inmate Mr. McMillan had managed to land two minimum-wage jobs – one, stocking grocery shelves and sweeping floors two nights a week from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.; the other, cleaning offices for a five-hour shift, four evenings a week.

"It's all about how you present yourself," he says.

During last year's football season he also worked as a short-order cook at Ottawa RedBlacks games, earning $12.50 an hour. All Kirkpatrick House residents must work or go to school; they can't collect welfare, unemployment or old-age pensions.

All that is evidence, in the eyes of Mr. Sampson, that the system failed him: "You've got a guy who's completely motivated but he's stocking shelves. Great job, but it's hardly a career."

Mr. McMillan also landed a two-bedroom apartment over a store for $900 a month. His supportive 23-year-old girlfriend joined him from Oshawa, and lived in the apartment alone until he didn't need to be at the halfway house.

But for all the progress he has made, the question is whether he has changed enough to keep himself out of jail.

He is still angry, he said when interviewed last winter. "I have a real problem: always thinking negative, always thinking the worst. I don't take any medication. I don't have any ways of dealing with things. I used to just deal with them with my fists and with alcohol."

In his stints in some of the country's toughest prisons (Ste-Quebec's Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Edmonton Max, Millhaven), he took programs – to discourage substance abuse and violence – but the first time around "I thought, 'Ah, this is just stupid.'" In his second stint, he paid attention. He even got his high-school diploma inside. "A lot of guys do it because you get paid for it. It's an incentive for guys to do something and get off their ass." The daily allowance in federal prison is $2.50; if you work or go to school, the allowance is $5.80, rising to a maximum of $6.90, "which goes a long way in prison."

Asked about his hopes and dreams, he replies, "I don't have any. I just don't want to fall back on my old life."

For all the Conservatives' determination, the end of statutory release never arrived, and neither did extra support for practical, skills-based job training of the kind Mr. Sampson thinks is so crucial. The system, in what seems like perpetual drift, has left people like Matthew McMillan largely to their own devices.

And how are they doing? The system doesn't even know.

The Parole Board tracks prisoners until their sentences end. But afterward – when they're out here with the rest of us – nothing.

The most recent large-scale recidivism study of federal prisoners by the Correctional Service of Canada dates from the mid-1990s. "It is too bad," says researcher Jim Bonta, who conducted that study, "that CSC doesn't measure recidivism every few years or so to see if [the corrections system] is having an impact."

The power of basic dignities

Joey Zinck of Nova Scotia trafficked in hard drugs – cocaine, methamphetamine, acid. Like Jason David, he spent 20 years, off and on, in federal prison, including at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia. By his own description, he feared nothing, in prison or on the outside. He expected one day to kill or be killed.

"What we've been taught as a rule is: Trust nobody in a suit," said the rugged 46-year-old, in an interview last winter, referring to himself and his fellow ex-cons. "If you ask for help, it's a weakness. We always lived that law."

But then, three years into a 10-year sentence, he suddenly looked in the mirror. "What did you do to yourself?" he asked.

Mr. Zinck made an appointment with a prison psychologist. "I learned about my brain. There's a lot of chemical imbalance with us, because we were never taught how to use the brain properly. To exercise your brain properly is to stop and think. We never, ever stopped. It was just take, take, take." Learning to stop and think before reacting "put my chemical balance in proper order."

Reaching offenders is an enormous challenge for any corrections system. Some of the obstacles: mental illness, low rates of prisoner literacy, and a lifetime of poor thinking skills only reinforced by being part of a criminal community in prison.

"Corrections is a most humane enterprise, a beautiful but challenging one," says Pierre Allard, who began his career as a Christian chaplain in a maximum-security prison in Quebec in 1972 and ended it in 2006 as assistant commissioner of corrections. Years ago, his brother was murdered, and in a time of emotional crisis he turned to restorative justice. Now in his mid-70s, he travels to Rwanda to bring together perpetrators and victims of the 1994 genocide. He has never lost his belief in the human capacity for renewal and change. All people, he says, offenders included, have the same basic human need: "to be recognized, to be called by name, and to belong somewhere."

Mr. Zinck talked about the power of such basic dignities. During his early years in prison, he felt he was not a name but a number to most corrections staff. Still, he was fortunate to meet a well-educated fellow prisoner who had been the captain of an oil rig. "I used him," he recalls, "as a human book." And in fact the man brought books to Mr. Zinck from the prison library. "He'd pick out books that I could read. I couldn't even spell at the time."

Others he knew in prison, however, turned inward instead. They "got comfortable and shut the door, they shut the world out. Took the key. Click."

And yet, Mr. Zinck said, Mr. Sampson is dead-on about job training: The most important thing the penal system can do is provide more training in the trades, and, even more specifically, one particular piece of paper: a pan-Canadian certification which allows its holder to work anywhere in the trades. "If you got papers, I can almost guarantee you'd lose about 60 per cent of your inmates."

Although Mr. Zinck worked as a drywall taper by trade, in his last stint in jail – 7½ years, during which the Parole Board rejected him twice – he came out with no such paper. That made it difficult to contribute to the support of his young daughter. "I've been out 10 years and I'm still struggling. As an ex-offender I feel I'm failing my child."

Addressing high-risk offenders with high-intensity services

Can treatment succeed with individuals so bound up, as Mr. Zinck was, in a lifetime of dysfunctional thinking, let alone those who shut out the world or those who struggle to support themselves and their families? In 1974, U.S. researcher Robert Martinson declared, after an exhaustive review of 231 studies on the subject, that "nothing works." In the wake of that assessment, the tough-on-crime movement in the U.S. took off. (Mr. Martinson recanted in 1979: "On the basis of the evidence in our current study, I withdraw this conclusion.") Some states even abolished parole; after all, rehabilitation had been deemed scientifically unsound.

But then Canadian researchers stretched their muscles and gave life back to the notion that people can change – the foundation for parole. First, University of New Brunswick academics Paul Gendreau and Robert Ross found that treatments produced reductions in recidivism of as much as 80 per cent in studies published in the 1980s. Then, in 1990, a Canadian classic appeared on how best to prepare prisoners for life on the outside. The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, by Jim Bonta and the late Carleton University academic Don Andrews, had an influence that reached beyond Canada to Britain and the United States.

Dr. Bonta would later become the head of research for the federal Public Safety department, and retired early in 2015. "He's like a rock star in corrections," Ms. Campbell says. "Like Keith Richards. When you go abroad to the U.S., Scandinavia, Europe, you realize he's a big deal."

In person, Dr. Bonta is unassuming and very much unlike a rock star. The system has within its grasp, he believes, the ability to turn around prisoners' lives. He doesn't entirely accept the view expressed by Mr. David – that it is ultimately up to prisoners to change themselves.

"If that's all you say, you can wait a heck of a long time for a lot of people to change." He says it is the role of staff in the prisons to "create the conditions that motivate people to change, rather than blame it on the offender – 'He doesn't want to change' – which then becomes an excuse for making no effort to try to help him."

His central idea, known as Risk, Need, Responsivity, is the who, what and how of corrections: Address high-risk offenders with high-intensity services (the low-risk need few, if any, services); focus on the "criminogenic needs" that set offenders apart (such as substance abuse, unemployment and criminal ways of thinking); and use cognitive-behavioural approaches that are concrete and that give offenders practice in how to handle challenges in their lives.

Wherever Dr. Bonta went in Canada, government agencies that dealt with offenders told him they were applying his RNR approach. But he was skeptical: Were parole and probation officers really focusing on criminal thinking, and not simply substance abuse and jobs? "What do they talk about?" he asked. "The hockey game?"

More than a decade ago, he deployed a test in Manitoba – audio-recording hundreds of sessions involving provincial probation officers (who perform a function akin to that of parole officers) and ex-offenders. Seventy-eight probation officers agreed to participate. He gave extra training in his RNR principles to one group of officers, and none to a control group of officers. And he followed the offenders for two years.

For prisoners whose probation officers had received the extra training, the reconviction rate was 25 per cent. In the control group, it was almost exactly double that. "Manitoba found that officers spending more time on surveillance and checking conditions had more recidivism; they actually made [their clients] worse. That kind of in-your-face questioning is not a positive way to build a relationship," he says.

Soon, a handful of provinces were clamouring to get training from the feds. Swedish experts came to Canada to inquire. Demand was heavy for the few federal researchers assigned to do the training.

The Public Safety department started backing away, protesting that it was a research unit, not a training unit.

"I used to argue that this is what the minister should be promoting, because this is exercising public leadership," Dr. Bonta says, of his efforts to convince the Harper government. But "effective treatment of offenders was of no interest to them."

By age 8, Matthew McMillan admits he was ‘already a bad kid.’ Being placed in a caring foster home didn’t help much: he was locked up as a 14-year-old.

By age 8, Matthew McMillan admits he was ‘already a bad kid.’ Being placed in a caring foster home didn’t help much: he was locked up as a 14-year-old.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

A risk-averse culture across the corrections spectrum

Nearly a year after coming to power, the Liberals have yet to begin undoing their predecessors' tough-on-crime policies that filled jails at a time of falling crime rates – let alone start fixing a 20-year slide in parole rates.

The Conservatives took a hard line on parole from the beginning. Of 36 new members appointed to the parole board in their first two years in office, eight were retired police officers and 15 were former corrections staff. The government also passed laws ending early day parole for first-time non-violent federal offenders and deeming that anyone denied parole once must wait up to five years, instead of two, for another chance at early release.

"The Conservatives had a well-articulated view that if you are an offender, that's all you are, and that's all you ever will be," says Ms. Campbell, the former head of the corrections and criminal justice directorate, echoing Jason David. She recalls challenging public safety minister Peter Van Loan when he and his chief of staff were referring to a sex offender as "the bad guy."

"Maybe he's not a bad guy, Mr. Minister. Maybe he's a good guy who did something wrong." Mr. Van Loan's response, she says, was "gales of laughter." (Mr. Van Loan declined to confirm or deny the anecdote.)

Even before the Conservatives came to power, however, a more risk-averse culture had begun to permeate the corrections system and the Parole Board, according to UBC's Prof. Jackson. "If you are working in a prison as a parole officer, you are primarily the one writing assessments for the parole board, and if you know you have bosses – both political bosses and people sitting over you in regional and national headquarters – who have an agenda to be more conservative, more risk-averse, and you have an eye on your future career advancement, that's the tone you take."

Justin Trudeau's Liberals have shown little interest in making big changes. "I don't get any sense that these issues are in the top five, or the top 10" for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, says Ms. Campbell.

But some observers, including those who work with ex-offenders, insist it is time for a massive rethink – one that might well call into question the very idea of parole as we know it. "Maybe we should go with a more structured statutory-release mechanism," says Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society. That is: Scrap parole, save $57-million on the annual administration of the parole board, and try something like the format used on youth offenders – for every two days served in prison, one day spent under community supervision.

But would that take the onus off both prisoners and institutions to focus on rehabilitation that could improve ex-inmates' chances of success on the outside? "Whatever is motivating them or not motivating them," she says, "is not working now."

Whatever might work, there are no quick fixes. "It's like the whole system is ground down," says Anthony Doob, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Toronto. "If I were advising the minister on this, I'd say this is one of those areas that we should actually study properly."

Mr. Goodale declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Parole Board Chairman Harvey Cenaiko and Correctional Service Commissioner Don Head. Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Mr. Goodale, says the government will take an evidence-based approach as it reviews the past decade's changes. "As with all criminal-justice policies, we will be guided by evidence of what works to facilitate an offender's safe and effective reintegration as law-abiding and productive members of society."

"Guided by evidence" is a shorthand way of saying the government favours rehabilitation over punishment. But favouring something and achieving it are different things.

'We have to help ourselves, but they could help us, too'

For Pierre Allard, the chaplain turned commissioner, the most important question facing prisoners upon their release is this: Will they belong to a community of friends – or of criminals?

Mr. McMillan recalls that, although his birth mother turned herself around after getting out of prison – she got a master's degree in criminology, and a job at a halfway house in Toronto – things suddenly went awry. "Then, I don't know what happened in her life, she started drinking, doing crazy things, and committed suicide."

For Mr. McMillan himself, it has been an arduous road to whatever strength, wisdom and hope he has attained. "You can't let your past dictate your future," he says. "It's weird how maturity happens, and when it happens." He smiles mischievously. "Overnight!"

That was in January, a month before he became totally free of supervision. Today he is struggling somewhat, he says, but is holding down a job in landscaping, and living in Quebec with his girlfriend, to whom he is now engaged.

Joey Zinck did not fare as well. He had wanted to write a book about his experiences. He was working as a drywaller and living with his father in Spryfield, outside Halifax. Then, on May 18, Joey died. "His body shut down and that was it," says his father, Kenneth Zinck. He said he is still waiting for an autopsy report on his son's death.

Before Joey Zinck died in May, he spoke to The Globe and Mail about meeting with a prison psychologist:

Before Joey Zinck died in May, he spoke to The Globe and Mail about meeting with a prison psychologist: “I learned about my brain. There’s a lot of chemical imbalance with us [convicts], because we were never taught how to use the brain properly. To exercise your brain properly is to stop and think. We never, ever stopped. It was just take, take, take.”

Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

As for Jason David, he made good on his plan to escape. He found new friends when he went to college in Lower Sackville. "My mind was spun. I wasn't used to that kind of work. Talking about real things in life. Not drugs. Not the price of kilos. Not the next quick score. School. Family. Getting a job. Completing the course. In a nutshell, we have to help ourselves, but they could help us, too."

He has a dream: He would like to create a help line that ex-convicts could call anywhere, any time they need a friendly, understanding voice. And it would be staffed by ex-offenders.

Though it has proven difficult as an ex-con to find work in business administration, he's getting by driving a truck for a bakery, and politely but firmly resisting the invitations from some in his former community of criminals to return to the old life. His spouse has stood by him through all the federal "bits."

"My God," he bursts out, "I have an angel!" And the rewards of his new life, such as respect from his children, are unimaginable, he says, to the person he once was.

One day one of his daughters stunned him, declaring that when she grows up, she wants to be a police officer. "Congratulations, honey," the former drug trafficker replied. "A wonderful occupation."

Sean Fine is the justice writer for The Globe and Mail.