Prison does nothing for jailed, victims

  • November 12, 2010
Don Trembley Don Trembley started committing armed robbery when he was 12. He grew up to be an honest-to-God Montreal bank robber. The last time he was incarcerated he split seven years between Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont., and Warkworth Institution near Campbellford, Ont., for armed robbery, weapons dangerous and assault causing bodily harm.

He’s a big guy in a leather vest with a long grey ponytail and a silver cross hanging by a silver chain around his neck. In a Toronto halfway house now, he will remain under the supervision of the prison system for years to come.

He admits it’s a struggle for him not to think and act like a criminal. Having survived abuse as a child, he sometimes wonders why he’s not still in jail. A prison psychologist once asked him why he wasn’t serving life, given his childhood.

“It took a long time, 10 years, to go from the raging, intolerant person I was then to where I am now,” he said.

For years, rage was Trembley’s drug of choice.

Since 2004 Trembley has been hanging around with Mennonite pastor Harry Nigh and St. Patrick’s parish Deacon Mike Walsh, volunteering with Circles of Support and Accountability for released sex offenders and taking part in the Dismas Fellowship, a group that brings former prisoners, chaplains and volunteers together at Toronto’s Walmer Road Baptist Church to share a meal, share their stories and consider the Gospel.

Trembley has no illusions about the politics of crime. He knows there are politicians and voters who would rather he were back in jail. But he has a word of caution for the throw-away-the-key crowd.

“Everybody gets out,” he said. “When they do get out, they’re even more angry.”

There’s not much about life inside a prison that makes people better able to handle life outside, he said. Longer prison terms just feed the fire.

In April, Parliament passed the Truth in Sentencing Act, part of a package of criminal justice system reforms that will impose minimum sentences for a range of crimes and limit the credit judges may award to prisoners for time already served in jail while awaiting trial.

The government claims the 13 new federal and provincial jails required to accommodate more prisoners serving longer sentences will cost $2 billion over five years.

The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that by 2015-16 the cost of running Canada’s prisons will rise to $9.5 billion a year, from the present level of $4.4 billion.

More than a waste of money, filling up the jails is wrong headed, said Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon.

“Increasing levels of incarceration of marginalized people is counter productive and undermines human dignity in our society,” Gordon wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper Oct. 1. “By contrast, well supervised probation on release, bail options, reporting centres, practical assistance, supportive housing, programs that promote accountability, respect and reparation — these measures have all been well-established, but they are underfunded.”

Gordon, who is Bishop Ponens of Prison Ministry for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, has yet to receive an answer from Harper.

“Our legislative agenda seeks to ensure public safety is the primary consideration of the corrections and conditional release system,” wrote a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “We also believe strongly in rehabilitation. Rehabilitation must ensure criminals are not released into our community before they are ready.”

If Canada had a justice system based on the best research it would rely far more on restorative justice than prisons, said Richard Haughian, the CCCB’s delegate to the ecumenical Church Council on Justice and Corrections.

“Experts in the field pretty well, I would say, universally condemn this action (the Truth in Sentencing Act),” said Haughian. “It’s a waste of money. It’s not going to bring results.”

The worst of it is that the prison system does nothing for victims. Restorative justice has a wider focus that includes victims, said Haughian.

“It (restorative justice) talks about the perpetrators, those who get convicted, but it also talks about the victims. More and more emphasis is on the needs of the victims,” he said. “Plus there’s the needs of the community.”

Churches can play an important role in helping ex-convicts find their way back into the community rather than back into the life that landed them in jail, said Walsh.

Walsh has focused his ministry on former prisoners through The Friends of Dismas and Circles of Support and Accountability. And he’s had the support of his suburban parish. Groups within the parish pray for prisoners, prepare food for the Friends of Dismas dinners every two weeks, some even take part in a ministry of friendship meeting regularly with ex-prisoners to listen and encourage them.

Walsh has been meeting and talking with Trembley for six years, seeing him progress from a man angry with God and the whole human race to a man who sees himself as part of a community.

“I always thought God hated me. Why not? Everyone else did,” said Trembley. “Some days now, I manage to pull it together.”

The former bank robber is taking courses at George Brown College, thinking about studying social work.


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