Julie Collings is a retired priest who has served for many years as a volunteer in both the Remand Centre and the Women’s Correction Centre. She currently sits on the Manitoba Multifaith Council’s Justice and Corrections Committee as the representative for the diocese. I had the chance to ask her a few questions about her experiences in the correctional system. – Kyla Neufeld
What work do you do with the Manitoba Multifaith Council’s Justice and Corrections Committee?
I was appointed following the death of my first husband, Bishop Tom Collings, who worked diligently in this area and on this committee.
At present the committee’s main project is enabling congregations to include and support people as they try to reintegrate into society. Support and inclusion is so important so that a new and healthier circle of contacts is made. The committee has organized information and networking meetings, drawing together interested congregations with “helping” agencies.
The committee’s plan includes working with a provincial government corrections initiative: the Responsible Reintegration Program. I know that St. Matthew’s and St. Aidan’s parishes have so far sent people to the networking sessions. Others may be interested.
What work did you do as a volunteer at the Remand Centre and at theWomen’s Correction Centre?
As a volunteer at the Remand Centre, and later at the Women’s Correctional Centre at Headingley, I worked with other Anglican women to run what were loosely called “Bible studies” for women. We ran two circles, back-to-back, twice a month, in which a gospel passage was a way to share about lives and struggles. Occasionally, I have also been asked to see a person individually for spiritual care.
How do inmates interact/react to you as a spiritual care provider?
I have found many people I met “inside” to be amazingly honest and open. I have always come away moved by their courage.
How many inmates have past traumas or abuse? How do trauma and abuse affect women in prison?
It is my own observation (so not based on anything but my conversations!) that almost all people who are incarcerated have suffered trauma. And most women “inside” have suffered physical and sexual abuse. For many women, there seems to be a common pattern of reaction to these traumatic experiences by a cycle of addiction, prostitution, more abuse, and the loss of children into care. The tragedies are overwhelming.
How are mental health and Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) issues handled in prison? Are inmates getting the care they need?
The needs are so great. How could they be well met? Sometime accused people are put into the few spots in special courts: mental health courts and addictions courts. This is helpful because the whole process then is based on the person’s underlying problems. But the spaces for such referrals are very limited. There are also special units (at least in the women’s prison) for those who have diagnosable mental health problems. However, even for those diagnosed people, there is often a delay – for security reasons – in medications getting to them when they are first imprisoned.
The youth justice system has been good about trying to get adolescents diagnosed where there is a suspicion of FASD. There seems to be less awareness of it in the adult system. And yet, because of my own family experience, I have to say I think it common there too. Sometimes the structured life of being imprisoned is comfortable – in the sense that it is predictable – for people who live with FASD. But the stigma and general punitive atmosphere are destructive. Remember, these are already people who do not think well of themselves.
So overall, no, needs are not met, in spite of some good intentions.
How does race play into who gets sentenced and who does not?
The disproportionate number of Indigenous people who spend time in prison is both shocking and well known. Our whole culture, not just sentencing, is what I would hold responsible: racial profiling; unequal legal representation; poverty; unequal opportunity; broken promises; a whole terrible history of ours. I noticed recently that more new Canadians are beginning to show up in prison. Many of them have also known trauma and abuse before, as well as being targets now of racism as described above.
How do inmates interact with one another?
I noticed many of the women were supportive of one another. Women who came to circle often prayed for each other and sometimes for us and even for the guards. I believe it is a harder for the men – who have to be tougher in order to survive the experience – but I have also witnessed men reaching out to try to support one another.
You’ve done some work with Greg Dunwoody [one of the chaplains at Headingley Correctional Centre] facilitating Enneagram workshops. What kind of response have you had from inmates?
I have to say the response has been enthusiastic each time. The Enneagram seems a good instrument for learning and reflecting on who one is, including what one’s own typical response under stress is… and what alternatives might be possible. It is always good when another takes an interest in who we are as unique human beings, God’s own children, in fact. And these are men who have frequently not had this experience previously. The men work really hard in the week and there are always some for whom there seems to be some real insight gained. The week usually also stimulates people to see out more individual counselling from the chaplain.
Who else have you worked with at the Remand Centre and at the Women’s Correctional Centre?
Several strong and competent Anglican women have volunteered beside me at those institutions: Ann Harwood, Ellen Cook, and Mary Lysecki came to the Remand Centre. Ellen brought a cultural and language piece, which was itself healing, as well as her strong faith. Ellen, Kay Stewart, and Barbara Haddow were with me at the Women’s Prison. In fact, Barbara still volunteers there and at Stony Mountain. I can’t say enough good things about all these women and the respect they have for others.
But Anglicans are everywhere! There are Anglicans who are prisoners and who are their families (of which I have been one). There are Anglicans who are correctional staff, support program staff, and chaplains and volunteers. When we speak of prisoners or our Justice System, we are not speaking of those who are “other” than ourselves. We are concerned with brothers and sisters.
Is the Church doing enough to support inmates and ex-convicts?
Because the need is so important and so great, I want to say, no! However, the reality is that many of our parishes are small, aging groups. I myself am now elderly and can do less. So instead of saying that emphatic “no, we must do more,” I want to suggest that people who feel they could do something, or that their parish could provide some level of support, should get in touch with me via the diocese for information about the committee’s work (at least I can provide an idea of another contact), or contact Open Circle (which links individuals with prisoners for visits) or COSA (Circles of Support and Accountability who work with released offenders more at risk to re-offend). Look up Initiatives for Just Communities on the internet for information on those programs. There is also the John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry Society, who can use volunteers.
Any closing remarks?
While the Anglican Church In Rupert’s Land does not have resources to totally change society and solve all needs of those who have come into conflict with the law, we do still have the ability to make a difference in the lives of individuals and to use our democratic options to increase the emphasis on healing and reconciliation. And as we attempt this, we should remember that we will be the ones to grow and that we may even encounter the Divine, who said, “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Julie Collings is a retired priest who has served in the Dioceses of Keewatin, Qu’Appelle, and Rupert’s Land. In addition to the volunteer work she has done in corrections, Julie sits on the Advisory Group for Touchstone, an agency that works with young adults who live with FASD, and is an “Accompanier” for the L’Arche Community here in Winnipeg.