September 24, 2020

By Heather Kennery

Metal, concrete and bars – these are what inmates face everyday at a federal prison. However within those walls something beautiful and surprising is happening.

Art.

In November you could view and purchase the art created by female inmates of the Grand Valley Institution (GVI) at the Berlin Tower ARTSPACE show in Kitchener City Hall. This month the art has been moved to three new locations. You can view and purchase the exhibits at the Queen Street Commons in Kitchener, Women’s International Gift and Gallery in Cambridge and the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo.

With 100 per cent of the proceeds being donated to women’s and children’s charities and organizations, the inmates are given a chance to contribute and reconnect with the community. Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) is a non-profit organization which provides multiple services in conflict resolution, group support for people impacted by sexual trauma, and support for women returning to the community from prison. CJI works with the Stride program, which focuses on helping women reintegrate into a community after finishing their sentence. This includes the prison art program organized by Stride, called Fresh Start Creations.

Stride was started in 1995 by a former inmate of the Kingston Prison for Women; it originally was a telephone support service for women sentenced in federal prison. Now they are helping women become members of the community, with many volunteers helping these women while incarcerated, and after their release by creating a circle of support.

Jessica Hutchison is the co-ordinator of Stride Nights, which has volunteers go to the prison to hold arts and craft sessions and physical activities. Hutchison works with the women at GVI firsthand. She said she knows that Stride changes the cycle of incarceration by connecting the women to the community.

She remembers one woman in particular who served a prison sentence. Once released she broke her parole and returned to GVI. After the second time she decided to try the Stride art night. She was then able to connect with the volunteers who gave her the circle of encouragement she needed to keep her out of prison and be welcomed back into the community.

“Kitchener has one of six federal prisons in Canada, and we have the unique position to help these women integrate back into society. It also saves taxpayers money to help women stay out of prison,” Hutchison said.

On average the cost of incarcerating a female prisoner per year is $200,000. Currently at GVI there are approximately 190 women incarcerated. That totals $38 million per year. This is another reason why Stride needs to continue its work in the community.

Elsa Mann, a local artist, volunteers her services as an art consultant to the Fresh Start Creations program. Mann owns the Night and Day art studio with her husband in Mount Forest. The studio sells handmade pottery done by Mann and other artists.

Mann got involved with Stride in April and continues to volunteer on Tuesdays for over an hour to help the women use creativity as an outlet, and allow them to contribute to society by selling their artwork for charity.

“Most of the women don’t see their artwork as beautiful. Once I show them the finished package you can see their attitudes changing,” she said.

She continues her work with Stride because she said she knows the difference it can make.

“There are so many misconceptions about these women, but they are no different than you and me, our mothers, sisters and our aunts.”