The women have different stories, but all of them have spent time in federal prison. They live at The Salvation Army's Ellen Osler Home, a community-based residential facility—usually known as a halfway house—in Dundas, Ont. Halfway houses provide gradual, supervised reintegration into the community for those who have been released on parole.
“When you go to prison, the world doesn't stop turning. But you do,” says Chantel Malcolm, program manager. For many women, becoming accustomed to the structure and routine of life in prison can make it difficult to manage life on the outside. Not only that, they may also struggle with addiction and mental-health issues. Some have never held a legitimate job or had friends who weren't criminals. Others have been in unhealthy, abusive relationships all their lives. So when they are released, “it's almost like being a newborn for some people,” says Malcolm.
A halfway house gives them a place to start over—to receive counselling, attend treatment programs, go to school, work and learn new ways of relating to others by setting boundaries. “A halfway house is important for community safety,” says Malcolm. “Not only by monitoring the women and reporting back to parole officers and the government, but by helping them build those skills and form alternatives, so the chance of them going back to an old lifestyle or pattern of behaviour is less.
“Ultimately, it's up to them—they're the ones who have to do the work and make the choices, but people tend to be much more successful if they've stayed at a halfway house first.”
For Nancy, Dee and Aisha, Ellen Osler Home has been a stepping stone to a new life. Here are their stories:
Dee: “The Person I Was Meant to Be”
It's not easy for Dee to look back on her childhood. “It was like my whole childhood was a horror story,” she says. “Everything was dark and gloomy.” She remembers a lot of drinking and partying, and witnessing violent fights between her mother and stepfather. Sometimes her mother didn't come home until the early hours of the morning, and she had to get her younger siblings ready for school. A relative started to sexually abuse her when she was seven.
Dee started drinking when she was 11 and doing drugs at 14. She was raped at 18.
She had four kids and lost custody of them for a time as a result of her drinking.
“I drank every single day for as long as I could remember. My drinking was so bad that I went to the liquor store at five o'clock one morning, thinking it was five o'clock in the afternoon,” she says.
“I didn't know what time of day it was, what day it was or what month we were in. I woke up drunk and went to bed drunk.”
After her mother passed away, an old family friend helped arrange the funeral. When Dee's daughter came for the funeral, she pointed to him and said, “Keep him away from me.” Dee later learned he had sexually abused her as a child.
“I lost it,” she says. “I was abused and raped. I thought, Is she going to live her life that way? She's going to become a drug addict, she's going to be an alcoholic. She's not going to have a good life.”
Dee confronted the man. She doesn't remember where she got the gun or how it got loaded. When he laughed at her, “I started having these flashbacks,” she says. “I was laughed at my whole life. I was bullied in school. I was in a lot of abusive relationships. They told me I was no good, that I wouldn't amount to anything, that nobody would ever want me.”
The gun went off.
She later pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a 10-year sentence. In prison, Dee met Malcolm, who visits the institution every other week to help women plan their release. “Even though I still had many years to go, I said, 'Please still meet with me—I need that support, I need somebody,' ” Dee recalls. “The Salvation Army met with me the whole time I was there.”
A psychologist helped her work through the trauma she had experienced. As she opened up and began to forgive, she even started to remember good things from her childhood. Getting sober was another huge step. “I needed to be able to voice myself, and to be able to say no because I didn't know how to live. I only knew how to live through alcohol,” she says. Living without alcohol, “I found the person I was meant to be.”
After seven years in prison, Dee was released. She lived at Ellen Osler Home for the final three years of her sentence, and spent two years in a satellite apartment. At the beginning, she had a lot of anxiety, especially when she saw a police car or heard a siren. Simple things like opening a bank account were different than they used to be. She worried about finding a job.
“It's important to have the halfway house,” she says. “You need this kind of support, because when you're walking out those doors, it would be next to impossible on your own. Where would you go? Who's going to help you?”
With the support of the staff, Dee grew in confidence. She found a job as a cleaner and enjoys spending time with her six grandchildren. Leaving the satellite apartment was another big adjustment, but she knows she can call or visit the staff at Ellen Osler Home anytime. “They'll always be there—they've reassured me of that,” she says. “I see this place as hope.”
Aisha: Beauty in the Ashes
A free trip to Antigua turned out to be a costly mistake for Aisha, who got caught up in the drug trade as a mule. When she returned to Canada, she was arrested and charged at the airport, and released on bail. “I was scared, I was alone. I was out-of-my-mind angry,” she says. “So many different emotions run through you in that moment.”
A few months later, she pled guilty. “People hear 'prison' and they think your life's over. But that's when my life began,” she says. Prison gave Aisha the time to examine her life, to reflect on why she had dated the wrong person and followed him down the wrong path.
“The year I spent in prison was a gift and a curse,” she says. “A curse because I wasn't able to be with my family, but a gift because I learned who I am, my strengths and weaknesses, and what I want to do with my life.”
Aisha took two university courses while in prison and is now enrolled in a small business and entrepreneurship program at Mohawk College. She hopes to open a business one day. She also wants to help other people in similar situations. “When you go there and see these people and see that they're just heart-broken, they're just like everybody else. They just need love,” she says.
“Never close that door on somebody just because of their past. Everybody needs a second chance.”
Prison also strengthened her relationship with God as she learned to trust him in the midst of her circumstances. “It happened to Joseph, it happened to Job. If all of these stories in the Bible could happen, and such beauty could come out of those ashes, why not for me, too?” she says.
“Most people think of prison as a place where it's awful, but there's such beauty there because there are broken people mending. It's a bunch of broken women fixing their lives.”
Nancy: On the Right Path
When Nancy was released from a federal penitentiary halfway through a three-year sentence for drug trafficking, she spent as much time as possible sitting outside. She noticed how overgrown the yard around the halfway house had become. “It was pretty much mud,” she says. “I asked myself, what image do we want to present to our neighbours? I figured we needed to look friendlier and tidier. I thought that an attractive garden would change our image to the community and show that we're doing good things.”
She had done landscaping in the past, and the staff soon turned over the yard to her. Weeks of digging, cutting and planting transformed the garden. “It looked alive again,” she says. As she worked, neighbours who normally walked by stopped to talk. “They invited me to their homes to see their gardens and have tea,” she says. “We received lots of donations of flowers that I could split. It really turned into a community thing.”
Nancy's skills and strong work ethic came in handy around the house as well. “She came at the perfect time. She needed us, and we needed her,” says Malcolm. “We had always paid people for some jobs, like cutting the grass or shovelling snow, but when we realized just how many skills she had, we created a job for her.” Nancy painted most of the bedrooms and offices, and does small repairs. “We always have our 'Nancy list,' ” Malcolm says. This arrangement has led to the idea of a formal work program in the future.
For Nancy, staying connected to nature and her Aboriginal roots is an important part of her journey. She participates in ceremonies, makes art and clothing, and sings with a hand drum she received as a gift. The drum is symbolic, given by “somebody who sees you've done the work and you're on the right path,” she says. Nancy is looking forward to going home, spending time with family and friends, and starting a landscaping business.