Mable Solomon displays one of the many quilts made by inmates at the Edmonton Institution for Women.

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Mable Solomon displays one of the many quilts made by inmates at the Edmonton Institution for Women.

August 20, 2012
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

When the Edmonton Institution for Women opened its doors in 1995, the Catholic Women's League wanted to provide for the inmates.

The CWL member leading the initiative was Rose-Marie McCarthy. She wanted to improve the lives of women, not just while they were incarcerated, but to give them purpose, positive direction and the ability to change their lives when they had finished their sentences.

Originally, the Edmonton CWL wanted to set up a business at the prison similar to a flower shop operating at the Burnaby institution. However, Burnaby had about 250 inmates, whereas Edmonton, while it can now accommodate up to 140 inmates, only had about 60 at the time. The federal government rejected the idea.

Instead, the CWL formed a committee to brainstorm ideas. Since it had allocated some money for prison programs, the women wanted to spend it where it was most appropriate.

"We brought in children to visit their mothers, especially from the North. We would pay for that, so they'd get to see their mother once in awhile," said McCarthy.

Introduced at one meeting was Martha Dobbin, who was overseeing the Fireweed Education Centre, a school within the prison. Through this school, the federal government provided high school education for the female inmates. Some inmates already had high school diplomas, and were candidates for higher learning.

"At the time there were teachers who accepted people to work one-on-one with the inmates, and I would sit and read with them," said Mable Solomon, one of McCarthy's first recruits.

"Sometimes I helped them with elementary math because many of them didn't even have Grade 8 education."

Studies have shown that a lack of education is directly related to the recurrence of crime in women. Those who are uneducated have fewer chances of finding work and a new way of life following release. They are, therefore, more likely to re-offend.

The Zone 9 Council, which was comprised of 22 parish councils from Edmonton and Sherwood Park, raised money for bursaries so inmates could buy textbooks or take a pet nutrition course. The Fireweed Education Centre was expanded in 1997 to include opportunities for further education beyond high school.

McCarthy said the Zone 9 CWL held one of its meetings at the prison, enabling its members to see the institution and how the inmates were learning to be independent.

"That's when so many became really involved in trying to help them."

In 2002, the Edmonton Institution for Women opened a maximum security wing, many of the inmates relocated there following the closure of a prison in Prince Albert, Sask.

A project was started to allow the maximum security inmates to assist Our Lady of Grace, an organization in Edmonton Catholic Schools that provides baby items for young mothers and their newborns.

Kathy Martel

Kathy Martel

"Teaching them to sew was a very good occupation for women who had no other training. Those prisoners in the max unit could not go out to the rest of the prison. They couldn't go to school or jobs outside of their unit. But they could go to the sewing room," said Solomon.

Sewing projects gave these incarcerated women a sense of purpose, the fact that they could do something worthwhile for others.

"What these sewing projects have done is remarkable. It is totally remarkable because these women have achieved some sense of ability and self-worth," said Solomon.

Many CWL councils donated money and materials for the inmates to work on various sewing projects.

"We inundated them with material," said McCarthy. "Women were really good about giving us wool and handicraft things, and we bought a number of sewing machines. We helped them learn a skill."

The inmates sewed baby blankets, receiving blankets, bibs, diaper bags and bunting bags for the Mustard Seed and the Bissell Centre.

"They made beautiful quilts. They were taught to make native star blankets, which are quite significant in native culture. It's turned out to be a wonderful project," said Solomon.

The history of star blankets dates back before European contact. Buffalo-hide robes worn during ceremonial events were decorated with an eight-point star design. The tradition of the star blankets stems from the honour, protection and ceremony these robes represented.

CONVENTION BAGS

One year the inmates made 300 bags for the CWL convention so the delegates had something in which to carry their papers, said Solomon.

Several other social programs are relevant to the interests and needs of women offenders. These include gardening, landscaping, recreation, arts and crafts, book clubs and volunteer programs.

Through her many years of volunteering there, Solomon is now the godmother of a girl whose mother is a life prisoner.

The CWL has also established a mentorship program at the prison.

Kathy Martel, a CWL member from St. Charles Parish, has been mentoring inmates since the late 1990s. She said the environment is safe, and she has never felt in danger during her visits.

Currently 32 women, many of them CWL members and Catholic nuns, are mentoring inmates. With about 60 prisoners on the waiting list, there is always a need for more volunteer mentors.

"You're matched up with an inmate, and then you're just meant to be a friend, someone from the outside to come and visit. You're just there as an interested person, someone for them to talk to," said Martel.

Positive results have come from mentoring. Especially for the lifers, the bond tends to be strong between the mentor and mentee. Some mentors choose to stay in contact with the women upon their release. One mentor learned that the woman she was mentoring is now living in Toronto and has turned her life around for the better.

FAR FROM HOME

"Because it is a federal institution, they get women from all over the Prairie provinces. Sometimes you'll get ones from Manitoba, and they're not going to see anybody. The likelihood of their family coming out to visit them is not great," said Martel.

While many people cannot empathize with the inmates, she finds that once these women are locked up, they are off drugs and alcohol and become "perfectly normal people."

"When you hear some of their stories, you wonder how they've been able to cope at all. Some of them are just horrific stories," said Martel.

CWL volunteers are invited to graduations, Restorative Justice Days, Literacy Week festivities, and Christmas celebrations.