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Photo by Catherine Bussiere

Out of the box

A New Brunswick congregation proves that a little creative thinking can lead to new energy and hope

By Sara Jewell

The man with the face of the devil tattooed on the back of his skull sits in a comfortable chair in the church’s main parlour and laughs. A big man with a beard laughs with him. A woman wearing a hot pink suit places a hand on his shoulder. The tattooed man, named Derrick, does not himself have the face of the devil himself. He is smiling, his posture completely relaxed. You wouldn’t guess that at the medium-security prison in Springhill, N.S., the 46-year-old is known as a “lifer” — but one with a growing hope of parole.

Enter Carol Smith. She is the facilitator of St. Luke’s Renewal Centre, a restorative justice organization that operates from a separate building on the grounds of the Springhill Institution. Last year, Smith took a close look at Escorted Temporary Absences — accompanied day trips that are sometimes required by inmates up for parole — and realized many of them don’t have friends or family nearby to help facilitate these outings. She created a pilot project called Community Accompaniment for the Reintegration Process (CARP). “[Inmates] need meaningful contact to help them see what the outside world is like because life inside the institution is very different,” Smith says. “This program gives them a place to go and meet people who will help them interact with others in a healthy, positive way.”

Derrick and Sackville United in nearby New Brunswick soon became the first participants in this new program.

Rev. Jane Doull recalls receiving Smith’s request last spring. “Derrick is coming up for parole, and he needed to have some Escorted Temporary Absences, but he doesn’t have family around to spend time with,” Doull explains. “Carol asked if we’d be open to forming a group that would do that, to be like a family or support system.”

Doull then approached Sackville United’s Council, wondering if anyone would be interested in participating in a series of meetings with a longtime inmate of the nearby prison. The response from four people was immediate and enthusiastic. “Everybody needs somebody to support them, and I knew this was a safe way to do it because it was Jane, the minister, who asked,” says Beth Briscoe, one of the four members of Derrick’s church-based support group.

The first time Briscoe met Derrick, she hugged him. “I wanted him to know that there are people who are there for him, because for him to be where he is, there are a lot of people who haven’t been there for him.”

Derrick admits he was nervous the first time he met the group because of what he feared. “Rejection,” he says. “That they wouldn’t take to me. That they would be afraid of me.”

No particular expertise is required of Derrick’s CARP team; the program simply requires them to accompany him once a month on various outings around town. They go to the coffee shop, to the art gallery, out for lunch or shopping. “We’re not here to be experts, to tell him what to do,” Doull explains. “This is very much letting him take the initiative and letting him have experiences.”

According to Doull, the group is valuable because it offers a kind of normality. “Because we’re not in the correctional system, we can relate to him in a different way.”

For group member Bob Gray, the fact that Derrick is “trusted enough to come here unescorted is very profound for me. The price has been paid to society, and this man earns every chance he gets. So if we have helped give him that chance, then we will have accomplished everything we were expected to.”

For Derrick, the experience of meeting people outside of prison — without a guard at his side — is life-changing. “The administration is more at ease with me now knowing that I’ve been successful; they had their reservations about how I was going to respond. In the past, their response was ‘Church? You’ve got to be kidding me’ because they’re used to seeing only one side of me.”

He even talks to his buddies back in the unit about his experience. “I tell those guys, these people just want to help you. They don’t want to judge you, they don’t sit you on a chair and prod you and induce answers. They assure you there’s more to life than sitting in a prison cell thinking about your next crime.”

Read more stories about out-of-the-box churches in the print edition of The Observer.

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