‘It’s set up so you trip and fall’: What formerly incarcerated people have to say about coming out of prison into our community, and why it matters

Barbed wire at the top of the walls at Kingston Penitentiary. Photo by Sophie Lachappelle.

Editorial note: the following is a submitted op-ed article. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.

In Kingston, prisons are a familiar part of the local landscape. But even if you drive past a prison every day, you might never learn about the experiences of people coming out of prison. What is it like to re-enter the community in the “prison capital of Canada”?

As a part of my graduate research in 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with 23 community members who have been incarcerated in one of our local prisons and released back into the Kingston community. These conversations with formerly incarcerated people taught me about some of the disturbing realities of what it’s like to “reintegrate” into Kingston after prison, offering important – and often ignored – perspectives about the city that we call home.

For example, Cam told me that Kingston, “is like a dumping ground, basically.” When I asked him what he meant, he told me about how he was released from prison:

“They threw me in a cab and drove me down Princess Street to the parole office… And from the PO’s office, they [Cam’s parole officer] says, ‘Well, there’s a shelter in town. Do you know where it is?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, it’s four o’clock and I quit at four o’clock.’ So, I get booted out of there with a t-shirt in a blizzard and I had to find the shelter all on my own. I had no idea. I had never been to Kingston before in my life! I couldn’t even take a cab to it ’cause I didn’t have enough money, so I walked.”

Cam’s description of Kingston as “a dumping ground” made me wonder what others thought about Kingston. When I asked Rooster if he liked living in Kingston, he told me:

“No, I don’t like it here. Not at all… Compared to anywhere else… I’d almost say jail, too. There’s more respect.”

Even Jamie, after telling me she had grown up in Kingston, described her hometown as “a sad, dark little hole.” She continued:

“I mean, nothing good comes from this place, I don’t think. That’s my feeling. I mean, it can be beautiful. You go down to the waterfront and everything, it’s such a beautiful place, but it’s a very, like to me, it’s very, what’s the word… Like dismal? Hopeless? The drug subcultures and everything, they’re not getting better, they’re getting worse. And I see people that I’ve known my whole life and think, ‘thank god I went away for those five years,’ because, like, people that looked like you or me, they’ve got no teeth, their skin is grey, like they look at you and they don’t really, they’re not registering… And maybe I’m just harsh here ’cause I haven’t gone anywhere else, but I talk to people from other places that come here and they’re like, ‘This is a sad, sad place. This city is a sad place.’”

These conversations with formerly incarcerated people led me to write a policy report targeting local decision makers from the City of Kingston, to KFL&A Public Health, to non-profit reintegration service providers. But whether you’re a policymaker or not, the experiences of formerly incarcerated people, like Cam, Rooster, and Jamie, matter for us as a community. If we truly want to build a liveable, just, and equitable city for everyone, we need to understand the impact of prisons in Kingston – the good, the bad, and the (really) ugly.

What is prison-to-community reintegration?

“Reintegration” is the name for the process of leaving prison and re-entering the community. In reality, this process isn’t as easy as the definition here makes it sound.

Unfortunately, for most incarcerated people, reintegration is more complicated than simply leaving prison and re-entering the community. Instead, it is a difficult process that involves an overwhelming list of tasks to complete and agencies to visit.

For instance, Frank described reintegration as“to be too much sometimes, especially at first when you have so many appointments.”Successful reintegration often requires a formerly incarcerated person to achieve the following:

  • Find permanent, safe, and affordable housing;
  • Get a job;
  • Look for a doctor;
  • Find treatment for mental health issues;
  • Attend mandated parole programming;
  • Visit the police station;
  • Get connected with Ontario Works, the Ontario Disability Support Program, or Old Age Security;
  • Open a bank account;
  • Apply for a driver’s licence, passport, SIN number, birth certificate, health card, and other forms of identification
  • Search out safe and timely transportation;
  • Re-learn (or learn for the first time) the community where they’re released; and
  • Reunite with loved ones

Each of these tasks must be completed in addition to other basic survival needs, such as finding food, water, bathroom and shower facilities, and temporary shelter. Accomplishing even one of these tasks in Kingston – especially finding safe and affordable housing – is challenging enough. Trying to achieve all of them at once, with minimal support, as Vicki told me, sets people up to fail:

“Reintegration into the community… The program is set up so you fail. The program that’s supposed to help the offender not offend isn’t [working], it’s set up so you trip and fall.”

What are the main barriers that trip people up?

Kingston is a unique place to reintegrate after prison. Because of the concentration of local prisons, we also have a strong network of non-profit organizations and social service agencies across the city. Unfortunately, even with the clustering of prisons, agencies, and non-profit service providers in Kingston, many of the people I spoke to faced a number of barriers during their reintegration. Of those barriers, three stood out as particularly challenging:

  • A lack of safe and affordable housing. Upon being released from prison, more than 80 per cent of the people I spoke to were either homeless – sleeping rough or staying in a shelter – or at risk of homelessness – living in transitional housing or a local motel. At the time of their interviews, one person was still living in a shelter, two were living in motels, and 11 were living in transitional housing. Nine people had found permanent housing, mostly in the form of month-to-month rentals, although five of these people expressed safety concerns, poor living conditions, and bylaw violations in their homes.
  • Navigating a complicated and overwhelming system of agencies and supports. Some people, like Cam, have to go through reintegration without support from family or friends. Cam had spent almost a decade in prison and had never been to Kingston before he was released. He told me that it was hard to figure out where he could go for help:

“As far as the prison system after you’re done, there’s nothing. There’s nothing. I thought at least there’d be some help through the system, but there isn’t. You have to find it on your own. And when you’ve never been somewhere before and you don’t know a single soul, it’s not as easy as it sounds… I would go from one place, like the shelter, they told me about another place, and that place told me about another place. It’s just, you have to go through all that, and it takes forever. It’s not like a week… It’s just a big heap on you. It’s like, ‘what do I do now?’ And there’s a lot of ‘what do I do now?’ You know? A lot of people say, ‘Well, you’re free.’ Well, no, you’re not. I guess you’re not behind walls, but there’s a big difference.”

I talked to Cam almost two years after he had been released into Kingston. He told me that he was afraid he would never truly be able to “reintegrate” without finding the help that he needed.  

  • Culture shock. Many incarcerated people experience intense culture shock when they leave prison. I’ll let Pedro explain:

“[It’s] like sensory deprivation. That’s the best way I can think to describe it… It’s a really hard thing to put your finger on, even when you’ve lived through it. And if you’re an introvert, like I felt stunned. I felt shocked. It was like being in shock. ’Cause I went from four months of solitary confinement and then four months of being three people in a cell, and then I was downtown, with no family support, no community support. I just got dumped after 11 years in prison. I just got dumped on Bath Road and I hitchhiked into Kingston.”

For some people, like Pedro, reintegration is impossible without proper mental and emotional supports. We aren’t just asking people with prison experiences to get a job, find a doctor, or secure housing upon release, but to thrive in a world outside of prison that is no longer familiar to them with no preparation or support.

What can we do to help?

  • Contact your City Councillor. As community members, we must draw attention to the urgent need for local institutions, service providers, and decision-makers to take up their responsibility to care for and consider formerly incarcerated people as valued and active members of the community. Although federal and provincial governments certainly have a role to play, as a city, we cannot ignore our social responsibilities in the care for the formerly incarcerated people living in our community.
  • Continue to educate yourself about prisons and reintegration. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, here are just a few of the organizations I recommend checking out:
  • Ask questions. On Tuesday, May 11, 2021 from 12:00-1:00 p.m., I will be hosting a virtual panel discussion with some of my friends, colleagues, and people with prison experiences. Together, we’ll be talking about some of the problems facing people with prison experiences, discussing the findings of my policy report, and brainstorming some solutions to some of the reintegration barriers mentioned here. All are welcome to join us.

To register for the panel discussion (through Zoom Webinar), you can use this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMsdeygpjkoE9wOe7iOT5iFWOe7ZysE759Q 

Alternatively, community members can also watch the panel discussion from Facebook Livestream.

Ultimately, I believe that talking about prison-to-community reintegration gives us the opportunity to figure out the kind of community we want to be and to re-evaluate the collective assumptions we have about formerly incarcerated people. Jaime phrases it best:

“Numbers in textbooks don’t define who we are, right? So, just because statistically someone with a background like myself is more likely to do this doesn’t mean that I’m gonna do it. So, don’t treat me like that number on the paper. Look at me, and see what I’m doing and let’s go from there…”

My hope for this op-ed, the panel discussion, and beyond, is that, as a community, we can begin to meet formerly incarcerated people where they’re at when they are released from prison – to provide them with care, support, and resources – and “go from there”.

Sophie Lachapelle is a Kingston resident, prisoners’ rights advocate, and research assistant at the University of Ottawa

(Note: all of people mentioned in this op-ed are identified using pseudonyms to protect their identities).

One thought on “‘It’s set up so you trip and fall’: What formerly incarcerated people have to say about coming out of prison into our community, and why it matters

  • Professional staff and volunteers in this community have devoted themselves to the work of rehabilitation, involving inmates, former inmates, and their families, for as long as Correctional Services have been an integral part of Kingston’s social fabric. People released from incarceration in Kingston aren’t being turned loose with “no preparation or support” as the writer suggests. I wish that Ms. Lachapelle had provided evidence of conversations with the Executive Director of The John Howard Society of Kingston & District and the Manager of Employment Services at ReStart, to at least report on the services both organizations offer to people released from incarceration. Those services are listed on the John Howard Kingston website https://johnhoward.on.ca/kingston as follows:

    Employment: Helping you prepare for, find and keep employment.
    Residential Services: Creating a supporting living environment.
    Institutional Services: Providing support and assistance to incarcerated individuals.
    Community Services: Responding to the post-release needs of ex-prisoners as they re-enter the

    They’re extensive services of support and assistance for released former inmates, and they deserve a thorough description and evaluation as part of the discussion which this important topic requires. I hope that the May 11th panel discussion offers its audience a far more substantial understanding of the issues, and the available assistance for peoples’ successful return to life outside prison walls.

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