Healing Lodges – just a better place to be

Tori Stafford was last seen alive on April 8, 2009, shortly after leaving school, heading home, captured on a video camera going down Fyfe avenue in small town Woodstock Ontario. She was being led by the hand by a woman, feeling be-friended,  no doubt filled with an eight year old’s optimism.

Almost three months later, on July 21, 2009 her body was found in nearby Mount Forest, naked from the waist down, her Hannah Montana t-shirt and a pair of earrings she had borrowed from her mother her last vestiges of her short time on earth. She had suffered broken ribs, a lacerated liver and had died as a result of repeated blows to the head with a claw hammer.

A slow torturous death. Unimaginable to most, perpetrated by two individuals, 28 year old Michael Rafferty and 18 year old Terry-Lynne McClintic. In a trial Rafferty was convicted of sexual assault, kidnapping and first degree murder.

Originally charged with being an accessory to the murder, McClintic eventually pled guilty to a higher charge of first degree murder.

It was a case that in the view of the general public demanded retribution, they needed to pay for their crimes. We have become inured to a lot of public deaths, not this one, it was one of those that went to a level that causes a visceral reaction, you taste the bile in your throat.

She was sent to the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, a normal conclusion in our Canadian judicial world to a heinous crime. Justice, or some form of justice meted out.

But then she entered our correctional system. And that is where the story re-ignited.

There is a couple of truisms that usually play out by those prisoners doing “Fed time”. First and foremost they quickly develop the need to survive; they need to find the easiest route through the system, the best jobs, the placement of video cameras, where you sit at dinner, who you befriend, who you don’t. A child killer has a path fraught with even greater peril, their heads becomes a swivel, their own deaths anticipated.  If you are capable, you learn the game and then you learn how to play the game.

A second truism is that those that are incarcerated find religion on a regular basis. It would be fair to say that not many murderers or child killers are religious when they enter the institution. But imprisonment, like imminent death, seems to assist in finding that religious part of your soul and lo and behold a child of God is often re-awakened.

Federal institutions are not fun places and one suspects that McClintic somehow learned of a better place to be during her first years in prison. Somehow she became aware of “healing lodges” which had been created primarily for indigenous women prisoners.  Apartment style living, a kitchen, visitors, no guards, versus 8 x 10 cell living, constantly staring at your requisite Orange is the new Black poster. Who could deny the appeal?

One can imagine the semblance of the conversation, where she was told that you had to be Indigenous to get in (which isn’t true), so she asked how do they test for that? They don’t, she was told. You can just say you are.

It is only a short step to then apply, declaring oneself indigenous and probably throwing in for a little positive aggrandizement, that she was very spiritual in nature.

It took eight years, but at last she got her wish, making it to the Okimaw Healing Lodge.  She had just begun enjoying the comforts of something like a home when all hell broke loose; her case came back into the public eye, and finally the Liberals broke down and made sure she got sent back, the public backlash too much for the sensitive Liberals. Sensitive to public outcry, not the plight of the victims family.

One should not resent Ms McClintic, she was just working the system and it almost worked. It may be that her fellow women prisoners are having a good laugh about the whole thing, McClintic now a heroine for gaming “the man”.

But one must hold the “system” accountable. How the decision was made reeks of a bureaucrat not doing a proper job, but should we not be questioning the very existence of the healing lodges themselves.

According to Correctional Services Canada, a healing lodge is a place where “we use aboriginal values, traditions and beliefs to design services and programs for offenders. The approach is “holistic and spiritual”. A religious treatment of the whole being.

Non-indigenous can also live at a healing lodge however they must follow “aboriginal programming and spirituality”. You must be the same religion, in line with indigenous spirituality. One would think that a person fitting this category would be a rare phenomena.

Spirituality is “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul”. But by no means is indigenous spirituality monolithic, there is no religious uniformity across the country, in fact of the 1.7 million indigenous, two out of three identify as being Christian. So it is sometimes difficult to understand what is being sought or would be practised.

Healing Lodges are funded either by Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and staffed by CSC, or funded by CSC and managed by “community partner organizations”.

There are a total of 9 lodges in Canada, 4 run by CSC and 5 by “community partners.”

How they came about is an example of the Ottawa world and the rarefied air they breathe. A constant whirling mix of academia, politicians intent on re-election, and business leaders trying to get in on the gravy; all feeding off each other, absorbing the latest en vogue thoughts and processes, all circling and feeding. A bureaucracy, acting autonomously, guided by the political flavour of the day, then developed and constructed without scrutiny. Nobody allowed to question or look within, and the process itself hidden behind multiple meetings in multiple layers, conducted in their own governmental language.

This force moves and adapts very slowly, moving in concentric circles, through steering committees, Senate and Parliamentary committees, inquiries, task forces, and fact-finding missions. They are unaware and uncaring of the public looking in, common sense often in short supply. To question is to be tossed out of the circle cut off from the government teat. Costs are not often part of the equation. It is from this process that came the belief that a healing lodge made perfect sense.

In 1990 there were calls and plans being made for five new regional correctional facilities.

A task force, as is often the case, was lurking in the background. The Task Force for Federally Sentenced Women, who in their report “Creating Choices” recommended that one of these facilities be specifically designed and run for indigenous women.

The Native Women’s Association, a Federally funded advocacy group, one of the groups in this Ottawa circle of life, proposed the concept of a healing lodge.

There was also a group at the time of  “former Federal aboriginal offenders who were advising the CSC”.  This would normally make one scratch their collective heads, however it is true. They of course agreed wholeheartedly and supported the Native Womens’ Association in the need for and development of a healing lodge.

So what is the logic behind this clearly subjective policy proposal. According  to the CSC there were two main reasons:

“Mainstream programs don’t work for Aboriginal offenders.”  This seems to have been presented as a statement of fact, but it is difficult finding any verifiable research this pronouncement is based upon.

Secondly, they stated that there is a dramatic “over-representation” of Indigenous people in Federal facilities. (Apparently persons convicted of crimes were now “representatives” and not convicts) They were not wrong.

In 2017 Indigenous individuals made up only 5% of the Canadian population; yet 25% of the males and 36% of the females behind bars were Indigenous. This number is expected to continue to grow, mainly due to the ever expanding birth rates and the continuing problems experienced by the Indigenous.

If one accepts the concept of needing a special place, a place where they would be treated differently from all other inmates, then the obvious next question is do they work?

A review of the digital brochures for each of these facilities talks about a holistic and spiritual approach, training and maintenance skills promoted as in other facilities, but all given the opportunity to “heal”, “grow spiritually”and re-connect with Aboriginal culture”.

Again, little to no evidence of its effectiveness, but they continually issue the statement that  “culturally-appropriate environments can contribute to the healing process of offenders”. That participants develop a “stronger familiarity with Indigenous history and traditional languages”. Not exactly an insurmountable goal, and it would be unfair to expect any kind of reduction of criminal activity, as this is after the fact after all. Heinous crimes have already been committed.

By offering beyond the usual training and teaching found in any correctional facility, does the offering of “weekly sweat lodges”, “pipe ceremonies”, “smudging”,”medicine wheel teaching”, “carving”, “beading” and “sun and rain dances” lead to a lesser recidivism rate among indigenous? Is it any better training than what is offered already to the rest of the prison population. Or is it serving as just an easier place to do your time.

In a 2013 government backgrounder, the government said that the recidivism rate was 6%, when the national average was 11%.

However, in an earlier government analysis in 2002, it measured the recidivism rate as being 19%, compared to 13% for indigenous released from minimum security facilities. A dismal failure.

In 2016 the National Post reported that 18 inmates had escaped from healing lodges over the previous five years. Not unexpectedly, as there are only security guards watching video monitors, instructed only to call the police if someone walks away.

There is even a lack of acceptance by the Indigenous Reserves where the healing lodges have been proposed. In 2012, a Review by the government found that there was a problem with community acceptance as not every aboriginal community wanted or was willing to have the lodges in their communities.

So where does leave us. Everyone knows that the ‘real’ problems for the indigenous: substance abuse, inter-generational abuse, residential schools, low levels of education, low employment and income, sub-standard housing, sub-standard health, isolation, violence, greater inclination to gang violence, and mental health issues are the reasons the Indigenous and their youth incarcerations rates are at stratospheric levels.

In March 2018 the government released a report entitled ‘Updated Costs of Incarceration’. A male offender in a minimum security institution costs $47,370 per person or $130 per day. A female offender in a minimum security institution costs $83, 861 or $230 per day. An inmate at a healing lodge is the most expensive, costing $122,796 or $336.00 per day.

The Salvation Army gives out a bowl of soup and a prayer on the skids of Vancouver each and every day, before providing food and lodging, combining their spiritual beliefs of salvation with a social cause. But they are dealing and providing at the source. There is a measurable impact.

The Federal government has released records indicating that since 2011 over 20 child killers have been sent to healing lodges. The Liberal defence in the McClintic case is that the Conservatives did it too.

These lodges are better for the inmates, providing a nicer place to be, but as a tool in the Corrections toolbox, they have been a costly and failed experiment.

Is it not time to close down this experiment?  Besides, we don’t want McClintic to have a nicer place to stay.

It isn’t fair to Tori.

Photo Courtesy of Carlos Ebert via Flickr Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Healing Lodges – just a better place to be

  1. I am a retired CSC Officer. Everything you wrote is accurate and articulate. I always smirked at the ‘disproportional’ stats… isn’t justice supposed to be blind? Rape, murder or both has no ethical value. If more Indians are committing, charged and convicted then it would only serve to surmise that the Indians are committing most of the crimes – or – simply get caught! And yes, religion and all those special ‘programs’ are nothing more then sugar coating their deviant criminal persona. After 25 years, I never, ever witnessed a criminal who became a law-abidding citizen after prison. But then again I never believed that was our duty, my service was to protect society, keep these inmates behind bars (not escape) and ensure they served their ‘punishment.’ Jail is not to be a reward. I supported the victims.

    Like

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