For a former prisoner, completing parole without re-offending is a challenge. MCC Québec’s new representative Daniel Genest knows a bit about it, as he worked in a federal penitentiary as a chaplain.
During their incarceration, he explains, inmates have an idealized idea of life after prison. The truth is that for the sake of public safety the system must impose very strict parole conditions, even more than in prison, and so that parolees soon discover that their expectations of freedom were too high. They often deal with a very firm schedule as well as the obligation to refrain from any alcohol and drugs. Parolees must also report to their parole officer regularly. A serious breach could even lead, in a scratch of pen by their parole officer if he deems it necessary, to their return to prison. Parole is a gradual process of reintegration into society that starts right when a person is incarcerated. Reintegration rests on a delicate balance between the punitive and rehabilitative aspects of incarceration. Both aspects serve the higher purpose of public safety. Of course, Genest points out, the level of freedom enjoyed by prisoners varies according to the type of establishment, its level of security and even its own prison culture.
The chaplain is a central character in the secluded and dull life of an inmate. As a counsellor who provides spiritual guidance, he represents a rare bit of genuine goodness and grace in an otherwise very oppressive environment. Since chaplaincy is a ministry derived from churches, it is only natural that Mennonites also serve among prisoners. One of the most distinctive contributions of Mennonites with chaplaincy was the use of the concept of restorative justice as theorized by Mennonite professor Howard Zehr. Restorative justice is a process aimed at restoring the community hurt by the crime and its consequences. It involves face-to-face dialogue between an offender and those who have been offended against. In Québec, The Mennonite church has had an involvement in prison ministry since the 1960’s. Mennonite pastor Tilman Martin, working in Montréal, visited inmates and parolees with people of his congregation. In 1974 he was hired as a full-time chaplain with Correctional Service Canada (CSC). Although the concepts of restorative justice were not yet articulated, Tilman’s ministry in those early years was very similar to the special approach used in English Canada, called restorative justice, that was later introduced in Québec by David Shantz. A Mennonite minister from Ontario who came to Québec in 1975, Shantz began working as a chaplain in Québec prisons in 1988. Recalling how resistant to this new concept Québec institutions were initially – a foreign idea even to chaplains – Shantz was able to convince inmates in federal institutions to take part in conflict resolution sessions. Then, with the help of his spouse Susannah as well as of the first MCC Québec representative Debbie Martin Koop, David Shantz presented a project of mediation between offenders and victims (not necessarily those they offended against) and soon, in the summer of 1992, the first mediation meetings were held. Now, activities of restorative justice with inmates or parolees are made under the direction of the Centre de services de justice réparatrice (CSJR), a non-profit organization supported by MCC.
Quilting is relaxing and gratifying for former prisoners, and helps them reintegrate into society
The idea of healing relationships through restorative justice starts in prison but also follows the parolees after they reintegrate into the community. In addition to his current work with MCC, Genest also started volunteering with parolees by participating in quilting sessions with them. Quilting is relaxing and gratifying for former prisoners, and helps them reintegrate into society. Besides, parolees are learning to value their work, which has a humanitarian impact. These quilts are a MCC specialty made of recycled pieces of fabric. Some of them can be sent around the world to people living in refugee camps and other impoverished places, others are donated to local Montréal organizations who help street people and newcomers. Quilting sessions are held in a community context, in a centre approved by CSC, with the help of volunteers and these circles in turn act as support groups, another crucial element in the success of rehabilitation and an undeniable factor of reconciliation with their communities. Several have experienced this with their families through such activities based on the principles of restorative justice.
For its part, MCC Québec is always in search of volunteers who wish to work with those around us who perhaps suffer the most because they inflicted pain. Even so, Christ followers must also show care and compassion for these people. Jesus said: “I was in prison and you visited me […] Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25, 35-40). He demonstrated his compassion in the most beautiful way on the cross, saving one of his last words of grace to the penitent criminal on his side, assuring him of his place in eternity with the Lord.