Communitas: Reintegrating Anglophone Ex-Cons

A prisoner has just been released from jail, after a long stay. They have no family. Because of laws forbidding ex-cons from frequenting people with criminal records, all the fellow prisoners they befriended during their incarceration are now out of bounds for them to contact. Negotiating a halfway house; finding a job; wrestling with cell phones and bank accounts; it can all be overwhelming.

That’s where volunteer groups come into play.

By Colin McGregor

Montréal has several such groups willing to take an ex-prisoner’s hand. Most have roots in organized religion.

For Anglophones, that means that Communitas is there.

In 1999, federal penitentiary prison chaplain and Anglican Reverend Canon Peter Huish saw that Anglophone prisoners returning to the community had very few resources on which they could depend if they had no family ties. “At another level,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Sou’Wester newsletter, “what I learned was that those who still had connections tended to have them in the Southwest area of Montreal.”

He set about consulting church and community groups in the area, and set up Montreal Southwest Community Missions (MSCM).

Today, that organization is called Communitas, and they’re headquartered in a room (the “Undercroft”) underneath downtown’s Christ Church Cathedral at 635 St. Catherine Street West. Composed of chaplains, volunteers and ex-prisoners, they still have as their mission to lend a helping hand to those freed on parole or outright from prison. They argue that they contribute to public safety and the well-being of the whole community in that way.

Umbrella Group

Communitas is part of an umbrella group called Aumônerie Communautaire de Montréal (Montreal Community Chaplaincy), which brings together like-minded organizations in the Montréal area. A similar umbrella organization exists for the east of the province, Aumônerie Communautaire de Québec, headquartered in Québec City.

More and more, the Correctional Service of Canada is explicitly asking outside church and other volunteer organizations to help with the reintegration of offenders back into society. Faith-based groups and people of faith have always had a particular interest in leading ex-cons towards pro-social lifestyle options.

Covid has not stopped prisons from letting people out, and volunteers help them get re-established. “Covid has actually been very good for Relais Famille,” says Bill, a Communitas volunteer, referring to an organization that supports incarcerated people’s families. “Because of Zoom meetings, their numbers have swelled.”

One of the programs Communitas is involved with is CoSA (Circles of Support and Accompaniment, or Cercles de Soutien et Responsabilité on the French side). Part of a national program located at 15 sites across Canada, CoSA assists sex offenders at the end of their sentences. In it, volunteers accompany sex offenders on their daily journey of the re-integration process. While the volunteers do not accept their crime, they do not judge the individual. 

CoSA has been around for many years, and is now run as a research project administered by St. Mary’s University in Halifax. CoSA has proven its value over the 25-plus years it has been operating. “It’s been one of the most successful programs dealing with any released group of offenders,” said Ron Melchers, a University of Ottawa criminologist, in a 2014 interview with Postmedia News. “It’s been almost a lighthouse in terms of success.”

“What a beautiful testament to CoSA when a core members successfully reintegrates into the community,” writes Laura, a CoSA volunteer, in a 2019 issue of Communitas’ newsletter, The Sou’Wester.

Inreach Efforts

Communitas members used to go to prisons as part of inreach groups, but Covid-19 has put a stop to that. However, another Communitas tradition, “Open Door” meetings, still take place every Tuesday evening, even though the physical meeting room they used to occupy has been closed since March of 2020.

Brought together by the magic of Zoom, ex-prisoners, volunteers and chaplains exchange information and listen to a presentation on a topic of general interest. About 35 to 50 people Zoom-attend these meetings on average, which is about equivalent to the numbers these meetings drew live in a room at the Montréal Diocese of the Anglican Church before Covid-19.

The first Open Door took place on September 11th, 2001, says Jeri, who helps coordinate the meetings. “Everyone just sat there and was shell-shocked,” she says of that first evening the same day as the terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers. But numbers soon built.

As to the success of these meetings, Jeri credits the surprise factor: “We never advertise the topics in advance. All other groups advertise in advance, so if the subject is say, feminism, someone can go ‘Oh I don’t want to learn about that.’ At Open Door, they learn about the topics right then and there…”

Jeri adds: “People come for the surprise, and for the community. It’s not just a bunch of people getting together. We have a bigger motive. We want to make the world a better place. And the diversity. Where else can you get the semi-literate and PhD students, the homeless and people working for the United Nations, 20-year-olds and 85-year-olds? You never know who you’re going to meet!”

Meetings have presented speakers on topics as varied as divorce law, sheep farming, removing tattoos, and a presentation by one Communitas member who had climbed Mount Everest!

Seminars, Research

Communitas, through their newsletter and their participation in seminars and research projects, makes its opinions known on topics ranging from solitary confinement in jail (against) to restorative justice (for). Lawyers often write for the newsletter, breaking down recent events and changes in the law, particularly as they relate to incarceration and parole.

The aim of all their efforts is to “engage the wider community,” as a 2019 Sou’Wester article puts it, “in the reintegration process.”

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