This post by Elizabeth Clarke of the YWCA reflects on her experience with the women at the Grand Valley Institution, and discusses the barriers to social inclusion that these women face prior to and during incarceration. Despite those barriers, these women make an inspirational effort to try to build and connect with others in community, with the help of organizations like Community Justice Initiatives. Thank you for sharing this story, Elizabeth!
“A charming and witty young woman was the evening’s MC. Another woman sang some songs and played guitar, and her voice was astonishingly beautiful. An older woman drummed and performed a piece she’d written, which was sad and funny and powerful all at once. Other women worked the sound system and acted as gracious hosts, serving tea and cake, and cleaning up afterwards. My role there was to say a few words about the YWCA and to receive a donation, and that’s something I’ve done countless times before. But this evening was different, because it took place inside the medium and maximum security wings of Grand Valley Institution, Ontario’s federal prison for women.
There’s a remarkable program at the prison that’s operated by Community Justice Initiatives, called Stride. One evening each week, Stride volunteers attend the prison and build supportive relationships with the women who live there, while they make crafts, play sports, and share with each other. One of the crafts that the women and the Stride volunteers make is greeting cards. They sell the handmade cards in the community, and donate the proceeds to a local charity, chosen by the women. The YWCA’s shelter for homeless women and families was very privileged to be their choice this year.
When I was invited to attend the cheque presentation ceremony, I was told that there were a few things I had to do first. I had to submit a new criminal record cheque and attend a two hour orientation. Then I had to arrive at the prison at least half an hour early to give the staff there time to scan me for drugs and weapons. It wasn’t the simplest event I’ve attended, and the cheque wasn’t the largest I’ve ever accepted, but it was absolutely one of the most inspiring evenings of my life.
Incarcerated women don’t belong in community, or at least that’s what they’re told. They’re certainly told that when they’re sentenced to prison, and many have heard that message all their lives. Incarcerated women are much more likely than the general population is to have experienced poverty, racism and other forms of discrimination, physical and sexual violence, and mental illness and addiction. People who are poor, who are marginalized, who are abused and neglected often come to feel that society has turned its back on them, and so they turn their backs on society.
But the human urge to belong – to be a contributing part of a community – is very strong. Giving to others in our community, whether through volunteering or donating, is one way that we show that we want to belong and one way that we demonstrate that we deserve to belong. When the women living at Grand Valley Institution created their beautiful cards and chose homeless women and children to be the recipients of their charitable gift, when they gave me the gifts of their musical performances and their hospitality, they were proving to me – and they should prove to us all – that they do belong.”