Aisha Francis is the founder of Project: Restore Families Impacted by Incarceration (FIBI).
As Canadians learned with dawning horror the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ingredients for public-health disasters became clear: close quarters and limited access to proper health care, with disproportionate impacts on Black and South Asian communities. As a result, senior care homes became hot spots of transmission, while cities have worked to expand homeless shelters.
These realizations also prompted a call for both provincial and federal corrections to reduce the number of people in custody. To its credit, the Ontario government initiated a mass exodus that began in mid-March to mitigate the spread of the virus in the province’s jails, releasing more than 2,300 incarcerated people.
This was a victory, albeit a small one, and many continue to be released as a matter of public health. But broader structural, systemic and anti-Black racism issues surrounding incarceration, release and reintegration – concerns that had already existed – haven’t been solved. This pandemic-sparked exodus only exacerbates them.
I know this firsthand, because my husband received a seven-year sentence in 2004 that devastated our family. His incarceration, coupled with the insidious stigma of crime and being jailed that dismisses the needs and traumas of those in prison and their loved ones, led us to experience racism on the part of neighbours, corrections staff and in social institutions such as school and church. We also dealt with social isolation, housing precarity, employment and economic instability, and a lack of vital social and mental-health supports.
Our challenges only intensified during his “reintegration” – though that might not be the right word for his release and re-entry after his term, since the definition should involve fitting back into a broader whole of societal normalcy. Instead, my husband – suddenly without the physical and psychological structures of prison – became anxious, worried about the unknown, and hyper-vigilant of his comings and goings and surroundings.
Our experience is sadly relatively common, because our current frameworks and best practices for what a successful outcome after prison time should look like are not viable.
Right now, the reintegration process begins six weeks prior to release, and there is no continuum of services and support before or after that point. The individual is simply given their release date and their release papers are prepared. With their property in hand and bus fare as needed, they are released to their families, directed to their local social services, or referred to a community program.
This is what qualifies as successful re-entry. There is no formal process of reintegration once a person has been released; though Black and Indigenous families are disproportionately incarcerated and marginalized, there are no viable frameworks or culturally specific best practices.
Effective approaches to reintegration remain fraught, complex and uncertain, and the ones that do exist tend to focus almost exclusively on the needs of the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individual. But these approaches ignore the fact that incarceration effectively imprisons every person in the individual’s immediate ecosystem. They especially fail to acknowledge the collateral effects and experiences of family members who often have to take on responsibility for the released individual.
The experiences of prison widows – women whose partners and spouses are incarcerated – is often internalized or ignored by a society that has no empathy for trauma or grief that arises from incarceration. Marriages tend to end at a high rate for incarcerated people and, according to a 2014 U.S. study, every year of incarceration increases an inmate’s odds of divorce by an average of 32 per cent.
Nonetheless, families are charged with providing housing assistance for a safe transition from jail back into the family home while supporting their loved one’s economic well-being. This forces them to become first responders in mental-health crises and social workers with a specialty in conflict resolution.
Families must learn all of this on their own, often on the fly. If they stumble or fail, the risks of homelessness, mental-health crises, addiction and reoffending significantly increase. Relationships with an incarcerated person are challenging.
Right now, the gross impact and exorbitant cost of incarceration – overseen by the three, often independent-functioning factions of policing, judicial processing and corrections that comprise the criminal-justice system – is shrouded. Ample resources must be allocated to help people exiting prison and their families; in doing so, broader society would benefit. We need to have greater emphasis on what success and livelihood mean after incarceration so we can develop a better plan.
In our work with families stitching their worlds back together again and reimagining what their lives and families look like after prison, we have come to know that reintegration is a process that must consider the entire family unit.
The more our society understands that reality, the likelier it is that we fundamentally get reintegration and public safety right. And given the innovative approaches already taken in the justice system in the name of public health, the pandemic provides us a unique opportunity to do so.
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