April 23,1998

A thirst to learn brings convicts and students together

Building bridges to the world inside

by Linda Menard

Student volunteers in a program called Building Bridges discover a world of frustration and hope behind the gates of a federal prison.

Building Bridges is an encounter group at the Federal Training Centre in Laval that has students visiting prison inmates so that a link to the outside world may be established. The common bond is the vision of education leading to a better future.

John has served more than a decade of his sentence, 18 years to life for second degree murder. "I finished my high school two years ago," he said. "Now I'm taking computer programming, college level. I don't know if I'm going to make it, but I think so. I've joined a lot of groups, working on my self-esteem, learning how to communicate, learning about relationships."

What made John drop out of school? "My father had a drinking problem. My parents were getting divorced. I've got five brothers and five sisters, that's 11 kids in all, growing up in Pointe St. Charles." He didn't know how to communicate his worries to the right people. "I kept a lot of things bottled up."

What has changed for John? "One of the things that turned me around is that my dad just passed away recently. He showed me how much he cared. And the other thing is the length of my sentence. Those two things really shook me up. I want to better myself, because I really want to get out."

After prison, the world outside can be a frightening place. "I'm pretty paranoid," John said. "I only know this world. Even when I was out there, I was on drugs for many, many years, so I still didn't know how the world was functioning." What else is scary? "Starting from zero, and being labelled [a murderer], keeping clean from the drugs, and worrying if I'll have proper support when I get out."

Being known as a murderer, a rapist or a thief challenges the convicts to overcome the labels placed on them. They are also husbands, parents, individuals with different histories, interests and aspirations who want to be judged by more than the one evil deed they committed. So the students do not ask about their crime, although some inmates do volunteer the information once trust has been established.

Concordia Chaplain Peter Côté and Reverend Matti Terho have been supervising the encounter program since 1986. Right now, their prison contact is chaplain David Schantz. The program has travelled from Bordeaux Jail to Archambault Penitentiary and now to the Federal Training Centre.

Students who volunteer to participate in Building Bridges undergo a screening process. Either Côté or Terho interview them individually at the beginning of the term. Prison officials also review applicants for criminal records.

Some simple rules apply. Students must not bring anything not cleared by prison authorities, nor spend more time with one inmate than another to avoid inappropriate involvement.

The program has ended for this academic year, and is in question for next fall, because Terho is retiring and Schantz is being transferred to Archambault. The participants hope it will continue. The student visit program may be the only contact some inmates have with the outside world. For many of those inside the penitentiary, these encounters give them the only opportunity to express themselves freely.

For the students, the meetings provide first-hand information about the penal system. Côté said, "Some people are changed by the experience."

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