The decision to eliminate part-time Prison chaplains distresses inmates.

CNS PHOTO

The decision to eliminate part-time Prison chaplains distresses inmates.

November 19, 2012
MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Finding a home, a job, a purpose and peace for men who've spent most of their lives inside prison, addicted, raging and lost is never going to be easy. But Curtis Wiebe, who has spent 23 of his 45 years inside, has a suggestion for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews: Don't cut programs that work.

When Correctional Services Canada decided in October not to renew the contracts of 49 part-time chaplains working in Canada's federal prisons, it also meant cutting the programs they run – including the one that has helped Wiebe turn his life around.

As Wiebe neared release, he moved from the maximum security Stoney Mountain institution near Winnipeg to the nearby minimum security Rockwood prison. In Rockwood he began meeting with a group led by part-time chaplain Sister Carol Peloquin. The group called Next Step helped prisoners deal with the prospect of life on the outside in practical ways – driving them to appointments, finding a doctor, reconnecting with family when possible. It also selected a few men who both needed and wanted a supportive environment to live at Quixote House.

That's where Wiebe is now, living with two Jesuit priests and four other parolees in an environment free of drugs and other negative influences, working on finishing high school, making plans for life beyond prison.

"I just couldn't take it anymore. If I had to come back (to prison) then my life's over, kind of thing," said Wiebe. "And I like life, so I decided to stay out."

But without Next Step and the part-time chaplain who runs it, staying out will be infinitely harder. Without Next Step there's no path into Quixote House. Without Quixote House all Wiebe could afford on his disability pension would be a rooming house in Winnipeg's rough north end where drugs and alcohol are a constant presence.

There have been 67 men through Next Step over the last five years and only three have gone back to jail for parole violations. All three were addicts and two were mental health patients. It's a pretty good track record, said Next Step originator Peloquin.

Bishop Gary Gordon

Bishop Gary Gordon

"Quite a number of them are law-abiding citizens who would have jobs and are paying taxes, who wouldn't be scaring the public," she said.

MASSEY APARTMENTS

The Jesuits and the Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus, Peloquin's community, are in the process of adding a third step to the supportive process of reintegration they've built on the Next Step program.

Next door to Quixote House, they are renovating an old crack house to create individual apartments to be known as the Massey Apartments – named after Jesuit Father Brian Massey who was a prison chaplain in Jamaica and Canada.

Once complete, graduates from Quixote House will have a chance to try out independent living in their own apartment, but still with the support of Next Step. Remove Next Step and the whole structure comes crashing down.

Correctional Services Canada gassed the $1.3 million-a-year part-time chaplain program without first working out what happens to the associated programs.

"A decision has yet to be made about all services that are connected with part-time chaplains," reads an email to The Catholic Register from the CSC media relations staff. "CSC is consulting with its various partners between now and the end of March 2013 to solicit their feedback and discuss the implementation of the full-time model of chaplaincy services."

The Canadian bishops have kept their heads down while they quietly engage the federal prison service on a plan B.

"It would be sort of imprudent for us to comment," said Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon, who acts as the liaison of prison ministry for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. "I know the commissioner and I know the chaplain management are working very hard to come up with viable options and alternatives and modalities of doing ministry."

Central to the negotiations on how to do prison ministry without 49 part- time contract holders will be maintaining a memorandum of understanding between faith groups and CSC which stipulates the equivalent of one full-time professional chaplain for every 150 to 200 inmates. So far Correctional Services has been talking up the 2,500 volunteers who contribute to chaplaincy.

Kathleen Mico, who earlier this year took over Next Step from Peloquin, is concerned that the dozens of volunteers she works with won't have a program to volunteer for. It's Mico, as the professional trained by Peloquin, who co-ordinates the volunteers for Next Step. If CSC takes away Mico, what will the volunteers do?

COST EFFECTIVE

Given that just one prisoner in Stoney Mountain costs taxpayers about $100,000 per year, a program that keeps men out of prison on a quarter-time salary and two dozen volunteers is a pretty good deal, said Mico.

Not all groups affected by the decision to axe the chaplains are taking the behind-the-scenes approach of the Canadian bishops. Full-time federal prison chaplains are calling the decision a breach of non-Christian prisoner rights. Only one of the 80 full-time chaplains working in the federal prisons is not Christian.

While Toews claims a professional chaplain should be capable of serving the entire population regardless of religious affiliation - just as military chaplains do in the armed forces – the Rev. Lloyd Bruce, full-time chaplain at the medium security Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia, isn't buying it.

"Taking away professional chaplains of other world faith traditions is taking away hope from others who are struggling to turn their lives around," Bruce wrote in a letter to Toews.

"Your decision not to renew part-time contracts with faith communities for provision of chaplaincy services with Correctional Service Canada will essentially eliminate chaplaincy services for non-Christians," wrote the moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Rev. Gary Paterson.

CATHOLICS HIT HARDER

While the decision affects Buddhists, Jews, Jains and others who won't have access to their own clergy unless those clergy volunteer, the 40 per cent of federal prisoners who are Catholic will be hit harder, said Gordon.

Lay and Protestant chaplains may be good counsellors and advocates for prisoners, but they can't hear Confessions, celebrate Mass and anoint the sick. Catholic canon law defines a chaplain as a priest.

Since 1975, Canada has endorsed the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which guarantees prisoners the right to access their own clergy. But that minimum standard is no help when it comes to maintaining the part-time chaplains.

"We're quite aware that the government is under no obligation to pay for it. They are under an obligation to open the doors, access," said Gordon.

MONEY NEEDED

Mico is one of just two part-time prison chaplains whose contract extends beyond next spring. But when her contract runs out in 2014 she'll have to find another job.

As the Catholic bishops look for solutions, their primary interest is in maintaining service to prisoners, said Gordon.

"I can quite honestly and definitively say that as a Catholic Church we serve people. If we can get the remuneration to put those things in place, then we can serve them better," he said.