One of my last pre COVID celebrations was a Christmas party in the park with a group of women experiencing homelessness. By the end of the day I was sitting on a bench with Lee. I had known Lee for years. She was constantly in and out of prison and we were catching up, it had been a while.

There is an ancient Greek emotion called acedia.  It’s that feeling of listlessness, indifference, fear and uncertainty. This was Lee. She had always been feisty and funny. But on this day she was deflated and empty. Years of imprisonment, and a string of male relatives with criminal records, had left her without hope and stained by association. In her words, “whether I’ve done something or not, everyone always thinks I’m guilty.” Why couldn’t Lee break this cycle? There were certainly times when she had done the wrong thing by the law, but there were also other times when she felt that she had been judged unfairly – “why can’t I start again?”

That’s a good question. Why can’t women exiting prison be allowed to start again? Why do we, as a community, continue to judge, forever? Perhaps we need to dig a little deeper and explore the underlying trauma that a woman has experienced and give women like Lee a second chance.

Eighty seven per cent of women who are in prison have suffered some form of abuse. It is an important factor that we cannot ignore in a woman’s transition back into society. How can any of us be expected to restore our lives when each time there is a glimmer of hope it is snuffed out? By the end of the Christmas party Lee was in tears. She was out of options. Another night on the street was out of the question so she had decided to reconnect with her former community. When we said goodbye, Lee said that she probably wouldn’t be back next year. Instead, I would need to make the journey out to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre to see her (and not to forget my reindeer ears). Whether Lee had committed a crime or not, she was convinced that this was the destiny that society had assigned to her.

It was not long after this that I joined the Board of Prison Network. Lee’s story is common. It should not be. It was time to be a part of the solution and advocate for social change to enable successful re-integration to be a proven component of a woman’s post release journey.

At Prison Network we walk with women from the moment they are placed on remand until they released, and beyond. We provide connection, options and respect. We do not judge. That is not our role. Instead, Prison Network lays the stepping stones to restoration so that, on release, a woman has a choice. With the aid of our amazing supporters, this is done through material aid, affordable housing options and referrals to agencies and faith-based communities. It’s about long term change.

And sometimes all it takes to turn a woman’s life around is a simple word of encouragement and support. As women, it is in our DNA to celebrate our female friends, to lift, support and to shower them in sunshine. For me, it is time to spread the sunshine around. No woman’s destiny is pre-assigned.

Incarceration should not be forever.

by Carolyn Clark (Prison Network Board Director)