Main findings

You'd have to have known something better to realize how bad [prison] is. But there's a lot of people in here who don't know anything better. So there's something very seriously wrong with how this whole thing works. (Nicole*)

To return from prison into the community required a woman to heal and to negotiate many barriers, barriers that are reinforced by the stigma of incarceration.

The women described the desire to share the journey with others in the community. They described a desire to have a meaningful life as a contributing citizen through work and volunteering. They described a need for the support of those who can facilitate their access to the social determinants of health, including housing, employment opportunities, social supports, and general health and well-being through leisure.

Given dominant forces in the community and without strong support, in many instances women will return to a world where the conditions which lead them to offend will persist and further challenge their hopes for reintegration.

  • For many of the women we met, life before prison followed a path marked by a lack of self-esteem, with few supports and resources, and experiences of oppression and marginalization. Poverty, racism, trauma, and abuse created marginalization and dislocation of the individual from society. These conditions also brought about a dislocation from self, which for some was further perpetuated by drug and alcohol use, and other forms of addiction and self-harm.
  • In prison, opportunities were present for a very different human expression from the world outside. Formal and informal relations and programs in the prison occurred within the highly regulated and restrictive context where rhythms and norms of daily life were different from those found in outside communities.
  • The women were deeply concerned with and affected by familial relationships and relationships within the community-at-large. As well, relations within the prison, with other women serving time, with prison staff and with volunteers who came into the prison to offer support in one form or another, all influenced their sense of well-being. Uncertainty and frequent changes that occur within the ranks of staff acted to undermine relationships.
  • While incarcerated, a lack of connection with members of the broader community outside of the prison created a wide chasm that the women had to bridge upon their release.
  • Transitional housing, including in some instances halfway houses where women must locate while on parole and under correctional supervision, presented significant barriers to reintegration.
  • An important aspect of gaining access to the determinants of health and to re-entering the community is the ability to navigate “system’s” rules, and economic and structural barriers. Many women spoke of the difficulty of navigating economic and social systems, particularly in the absence of social support and acceptance by the community.
  • Against the backdrop of stigma, feelings of shame and isolation, the roles associated with motherhood, employment, and volunteering provided women with the hope of having identities beyond that of the prisoner. The women hoped to find a way of contributing or giving back to the communities in which they lived.
  • For some, prison began to feel like the only safe place in the world. The prospect of community re-entry without strong social support was overwhelming. The need for openness and some sort of circle of support was routinely expressed by women who felt it to be essential for successful community re-entry.

[community] could be a trigger for me and I don’t want to take up the drink anymore. I have three years of sobriety and I want to keep up with that … when I do go to [community] I will have to see what my gut tells me, what I am feeling, if I am feeling safe there. So I know what I want to do and what I have to do in order to get by and live a decent life … I have to be able to feel comfortable where ever it is that I am going to live. (Gabrielle*

*To protect the women’s anonymity, only pseudonyms are used in our reports.

To request a copy of the full report on this study

Please contact:

Heather Mair
Associate Professor, Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON  N2L 3G1

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