Listen in as our host Kyle Rudge explores what MCC’s support of local restorative justice work looks like. Tune in to hear stories of offender transformation from Hank Dixon and Jennifer Brisson of Initiatives for Just Communities.
Threads, formerly known as Word and Deed, was established in April 2007. It is a 15-minute radio program by KR Words featuring the work of MCC in Manitoba and around the world. Threads broadcasts on CFAM AM 950, CHSM AM 1250 and CHRB AM 1220 at 8:45 am on the first Sunday of the month.
Kyle Rudge (00:02):
It begins with a single thread woven through other thread, and then another and another until we have a single piece of fabric. That fabric is stretched, cut and stitched together with another just like it. This process is repeated over and over and over until we have a beautiful tapestry that all began with a single thread. Welcome to an MCC Threads, where we look closely at how our stories in Manitoba weave together with the stories of MCC and its partners around the world.
Darryl Loewen (00:51):
There's a connection to the biblical imperative to visit the prisoner.
Kyle Rudge (00:57):
When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was in prison, you visited me. In the parable, there's no caveat, there's no asterisks beside any of the words with a detailed footnote giving the exceptions to the rule.
Darryl Loewen (01:14):
Hi, I'm Darryl Loewen. I'm the Executive Director for MCC Manitoba.
Kyle Rudge (01:18):
When we speak of MCC, there are a handful of things that come to mind for most people. Peace, food security, meat canning, quilts and maybe even thrift shops. Here in Manitoba, there's another branch that encounters the last line of the parable I shared, "when I was in prison, you visited me," and it's called the Initiatives for Just Communities.
Darryl Loewen (01:39):
IJC, Initiatives for Just Communities, came from MCC Manitoba's Restorative Justice programs. In similar fashion to other organizations that were born in MCC Manitoba and graduated into independence, IJC's journey as programs of MCC Manitoba into an independent or a standalone nonprofit agency, is kind of the same.
Kyle Rudge (02:09):
IJC is now an independent organization, but it is strongly supported by MCC today. It is several programs running simultaneously, each encountering a unique group of individuals who have had conflict with the laws of society. We'll highlight primarily two today, Open Circle and Circles of Support and Accountability, or CoSA as they'll refer to it as, but two others get mentioned a few times as well, so I'll figure it's worth giving some context. There is El’dad, which provides residential support, vocational training, and assistance for those with intellectual disabilities and that has led to conflict with the law. And then there's Touchstone. It is a mentoring program for those who were born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Hank Dixon (02:51):
My name is Hank Dixon. I'm the Executive Director of Initiatives for Just Communities.
Darryl Loewen (02:56):
Hank is a curious story in the journey of restorative justice. He's a former inmate. He's also a former prison chaplain. He's also taking on the instruction in a Christian university college in Manitoba about chaplaincy. And he's been an Open Circle Program Director, and now he's Executive Director in IJC. If justice can be truly restorative, he's an illustration of it.
Hank Dixon (03:26):
So I'm an ex-con. I spent my years in prison, so ended up becoming a Christian in prison and that moved me eventually into pastoral ministry and then I ended up going back inside as a prison chaplain for 15 years. When that work came to an end, so to speak, I felt it was time to move on. I supervised chaplains and then a position opened up at Open Circle to work with guys in the street, and also do some visitation in the prison. So, I ended up doing that for a number of years, and then the pandemic hit and all kinds of things happened, and I ended up in this position as the ED of the organization. So I have a, I have a very special place in my heart for people who are marginalized. I've seen a lot of very, very ugly stuff in prison even, and especially with individuals who are intellectually disabled. Yeah, I've seen stuff I really don't want to repeat on radio.
Kyle Rudge (04:24):
I asked Hank how he defines restorative justice given his unique perspective on the work of IJC and his history.
Hank Dixon (04:31):
I think for us, it really is embodied in vision statement we have, which says everyone belongs and flourishes in community. No one walks alone. I think what we experience a lot in our work is that people are often, you know, forced to the margins, to the sides of community. And part of restoring that community is bringing those people back into the mainstream, helping them come back into the society as a whole. So really in terms of restorative - I mean, that looks differently in different perspectives for individuals with intellectual disabilities. There's really a desire in our part to see people move and graduate to the point where they can live on their own in the community and do well in the community. With guys who are sex offenders through CoSA, it's a matter of helping them manage in the community and try and live their lives in the community with the constraints that they have and the requirements. And same with guys who are inside and getting out. I mean when guys come back into the community, it, it can be very difficult. And part of what we try to do is make that transition a little bit easier by providing some, some help and assistance to them and somebody to company.
Kyle Rudge (05:46):
Life after being in prison is not always easy. Finding community can be very difficult. Hank's story is no different.
Hank Dixon (05:54):
You know, it depends on people. I mean over the years I've found individuals who are very caring and very concerning, and they were really, really crucial in helping me to grow and to adjust back into the world. But there are other people who really couldn't care less whether I was, you know, they really wouldn’t wanna have anything to do with me. So, I mean, one of the first experiences I had was going out in - even radio. I got cornered on a radio interview. You know, I was asked to do a radio interview about my experiences. And this guy had a real, well, he was definitely pro death penalty. And when he got me into the studio, look out Charlie Brown, I had, I didn't know what was coming at me, and he just threw all kinds of curve balls at me. So, I mean, those are the kinds of experiences I've had over the years that I've yeah, I know what it's like when people think you're, yeah, a little bit lower than the next human being.
Kyle Rudge (06:50):
It's one thing to talk about the programs, but it's entirely another to hear the stories of individuals and how the programs themselves have affected them directly.
Hank Dixon (06:59):
And I'm gonna be generic here because I really don't wanna put too many identifiers in there for guys. But I worked with one particular guy for a number of years at Stony. He ended up transferring to the medium. And this is an individual who was in for a very violent crime. Was really, really worried about how he's gonna transition back into society. And I went to his parole board hearing with him as a chaplain and spoke on his behalf. He ended up getting parole, which was a big surprise to him. He didn't think he was gonna get it, but the parole board - he was clearly ready. And as he moved back onto the street we stayed in contact quite a bit over the number of months as he transitioned. There was lots of conversations, lots of coffee and as he began to rebuild his life with his wife and his children, you know things began to really turn around for him.
Kyle Rudge (07:59):
The work that Hank does is not done alone. For the interview, Hank was accompanied by Jennifer.
Jennifer Brisson (08:06):
My name is Jennifer Brisson and I am the associate director of Open Circle and Circles of Support and Accountability at IJC. We are in Mitchell today, but I usually work out of Winnipeg and spend a lot of my time at Stony Mountain Institution. So Open Circle, it's a program that's been around since the 70s. It started as an initiative of Mennonite Central Committee. So it really began as the same sort of thing it is today, but on a smaller scale, which is providing visits, community, and a connection to the outside world for people who are doing time. So our biggest program is at Stony Mountain. Before the pandemic, we had, at any given time between 80 and 100 participants, I would say maybe less sometimes across all three institutions, so the medium, minimum and max. I mean the goal of the program is really to keep people connected and there is actually research behind the idea of visiting somebody a couple times a month and how that can contribute to lowering recidivism rates.
Kyle Rudge (09:15):
Quick note, a recidivism rate. That's essentially the rate at which someone is likely to re-offend and break the law again. A lowered recidivism rate is a very good thing. Just two visits a month to someone in prison can change someone's life. But what about CoSA, Circles of Support and Accountability?
Jennifer Brisson (09:34):
The basis of the program is really all in the name. So we work exclusively with folks who have committed sexual crimes. There's a couple reasons for that. Number one is that there is a real need in society for that particular type of offense to be addressed following incarceration and for support to follow because so many people who engage in this type of crime do lose everyone and maybe understandably. But we really believe that people flourish in community and that isolation is not the answer, right? So the support and accountability looks like really meeting someone where they're at. The program is totally voluntary so we get participants who want to be involved. Again, mostly volunteer driven with a couple of staff. So the circle part of this comes in, that's what we call our meetings each week, our circle meetings. So there's a couple of trained volunteers, a staff, and then a CoSA participant. And we get together to problem solve around life issues and rejoice in celebration when things are going well, and celebrate birthdays and milestones and safe living in the community. And the flip side of that is the harder piece, which is accountability and really calling out dangerous and unhealthy thinking and behavior patterns and trying to instill some new coping mechanisms for people who've hurt people in the past.
Kyle Rudge (11:07):
Jennifer had lots of stories to share, and one stuck out that I found quite remarkable.
Jennifer Brisson (11:11):
There was someone when Hank and I were doing the visits at Stony for years, there was an inmate who hadn't - he came down to the visiting area and he sat down and I was asking questions about how long he'd been inside, all sorts of, you know, basic kind of information. He hadn't had a visit in the 35 years that he'd been incarcerated and sat down to talk with us and got excited about those visits and had a reason to go and look at the visiting sheet at Stony, had a purpose again right? And I don't think that they're without purpose when they are in Stony, but I certainly think that there is this disposable sort of attitude that we have towards people who are incarcerated. Yeah, it's, honestly, it can be as little as communicating with somebody from the outside world. I talk a lot about like, the developments at Polo Park in Winnipeg, <laugh> with some of the people just because they don't have that experience anymore. And it goes much deeper too. We do try to walk with people as they're being released and keep that support going. So hopefully that community looks like, like a lot of support, a lot of compassion, and sometimes a little bit of tough love.
Kyle Rudge (12:23):
When I visited an area in Winnipeg in a year or so, I'm always shocked by the change. I cannot imagine what our province would look like to someone who has been incarcerated for 35 years. Updates as simple as Polo Park renovations may seem trivial to us, but it can be a lifeline for someone else.
Hank Dixon (12:45):
I, I think, I think MCC has been very, very supportive of, of Open Circle and CoSA, and we really, really, really hope that continues because I can tell you one of the hardest things to do in this business is raise money for criminals and sex offenders. So MCC support has been huge for us in terms of the programming. So we do hope it continues.
Kyle Rudge (13:06):
Your support of MCC supports organizations like Initiatives for Just Communities. If your heart was stirred to help directly with IJC, Darryl Loewen asked for a moment to pitch a few openings.
Darryl Loewen (13:17):
The board of directors at IJC is diverse in cultural and ethnic origins and denominational origins, and very open to, and in fact in need of, some new board members. So if there are volunteers in the the Threads listening community who [music] would love to contribute to restorative justice in a planning and an advisory kind of way, you don't need justice experience to be a director on the IJC board. You need a compassion for those on the margins. You need a compassion for, or a propensity to collaboration. The enjoyment of strategic planning. So the IJC board is looking for board members and contacting Hank Dixon at IJC would be a good step toward that.
Kyle Rudge (14:07):
And you can do so by visiting their website initiativesjc.org. This Thanksgiving season, show your gratitude and help MCC bring hope to families facing conflict or disaster with essential hygiene supplies. Join us in Winnipeg or Plum Coulee for a Buckets of Thanks Kit packing event on an October date and time that works for you. Visit mccmb.ca/buckets for more information and to sign up. I'm Kyle Rudge and this is MCC Threads.
Transcribed by https://www.temi.com