November 22, 2010
There are better approaches to rehabilitating criminals than throwing them behind bars, says Bishop Gary Gordon a long time prison chaplain.

There are better approaches to rehabilitating criminals than throwing them behind bars, says Bishop Gary Gordon a long time prison chaplain.


As he sat in jail month after month trying to make sense of his life, Bruce Rowe one day knew he wasn't quite so interested in freedom.

"I realized when I was inside, all of that didn't matter if I didn't become a better person," said Rowe.

Prison isn't philosophy class. They're not asking what it means to be human. Nor is it a great place to form community, to discover your humanity by sharing your experience with others.

Once you're outside, most people want to categorize you by the charges you faced in court, said Rowe.

"I'm native. I didn't realize I was native until I was inside," he said.

Living in a halfway house, Rowe is still under the supervision of the prison system. But Rowe believes he's found the hints of a new direction in his life through the Friends of Dismas, an ecumenical restorative justice ministry that is nothing more than a community of ex-cons and volunteers who meet every couple of weeks to share a meal and consider the Gospel. In that context the Friends of Dismas will link former prisoners with volunteer opportunities.

Dismas was the good thief who hung beside Jesus on Calvary and asked to be remembered (Luke 23.39-43).


"(The Friends of Dismas) helped me realize that even me, being a criminal, there are people who will care for me as a person," said Rowe. "My past, my convictions, weren't as important as who I was as a person."

Volunteer ministries such as the Friends of Dismas might not sound tough on crime the way minimum sentences and billions for new prisons do, but if Canadians want to have a serious discussion about what prevents crime, makes communities safer and rehabilitates ex-offenders they need to look closely at how ex-offenders are reintegrated, Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon said in an interview.

"A lot of things are far less demeaning and far more helpful in terms of the restoration process (than incarceration)," said Gordon, who has spent more than 20 years ministering in jails in British Columbia and the North. "The controlling factor of course in the public media mind is fear."

Christians are supposed to base their lives on Scripture, not fear, Gordon said.

"The vision of justice we find in Scripture is profound," he wrote in an Oct. 1 letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper decrying the government's single-minded focus on more jail time.

"We are called to be a people in relationship with each other through our conflicts and sins, with the ingenious creativity of God's Spirit to find our way back into covenant community. How can that be if we automatically exclude and cut ourselves off from all those we label criminal?"

"Our government believes in putting public safety and the rights of victims and law-abiding Canadians first," a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews wrote in an email to The Catholic Register.


"Jamming up our jails and our prisons has not proven to reduce crime rates," said Liberal Justice critic Marlene Jennings. "It actually can make communities less safe."

The Liberals only voted for the government's package of tough-on-crime legislation to avoid an election over the summer, said Jennings. A Liberal government would have another look at the place of jail time in how we deal with crime and initiate a review of the entire criminal code - which hasn't been reviewed in more than a quarter century.

Talking to churches about what they've learned in prison chaplaincy would be part of a Liberal second look at prison and crime, said Jennings. "They have the expertise. The chaplains, the priests are in the prisons every day."


Bruce Rowe plays the part of the prodigal son as volunteers with Friends of Dismas re-enact the parable. Rowe credits a more spiritual mindset for giving him new direction after his stint in prison

But trying to repair the damage done by crime isn't just the job of politicians, the prison system or professional chaplains, said Deacon Mike Walsh of the Friends of Dismas. Walsh thinks that if you're Christian you have to take prisoners seriously. He can't read Matthew 25 any other way.


"We have Catholic parishes in the suburbs working with men who in some cases have very seriously offended," said Walsh. "To let them know that there might be people who would actually come and share a meal with them, it's not a big thing, but it makes a difference."

Traditional prison ministry, particularly in the provincial jails, has become more difficult over the years. Prisoners are in the system for a short time, they are frequently transferred and prisons are often locked down. Getting more than a couple of meetings with a prisoner has become difficult and building trust is a remote possibility.

But outside the prisons, groups like the Friends of Dismas offer a chance for a constructive relationship with an ex-offender.

"I understand the political side of this. I understand the need for safety in communities," said Walsh. "But understand this: Once you return people from these institutions the work of reintegration still needs to get done."


New sentencing and parole rules will increase prison populations 30 per cent, said Howard Sapers, federal ombudsman for prisons. Community chaplaincy is going to be a booming business.

"The needs of those who are coming out of prison and are trying to get back into the community are there," said Richard Haughian, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops' delegate to the Church Council on Justice and Corrections.

"It's not just visiting someone in prison. It's looking at the community itself and its responsibility."