Ed Belec knows the prison system well.
The 60-year-old has spent a combined total of 43 years behind bars. To him, jail was a revolving door.
“Every time I got out, I had no place to go, so I resorted to a life of crime again,” said Belec, who got his first taste of drugs and alcohol at the age of 13. It was his way of coping with a dysfunctional family. After that, it didn't take long to end up in jail.
“I'm a survivor, but I've lost lots of close friends in jail. I've been abused myself. It's inhumane.”
Belec was one of more than 20 people who gathered at Sudbury Jail on Aug. 9 to mark Prisoners' Justice Day. He shed tears as speakers addressed the importance of establishing support systems for people who leave jail.
“Being let out with no money, nowhere to go, no support — it means we usually have to resort back to stealing in order to get by,” he said. “There has to be something done with the system, and there needs to be help for people like me who find themselves at a loss when they get out of jail.”
Belec has been clean and sober for five years, thanks to the support he is now receiving.
“I have resentment, but I'm working on it every day,” he said. “I talk to the big guy (God) every day, and then I go out and try to support other people who are going through the same thing. I've changed my life. It feels wonderful to be free. I've had no probation for six years.
Belec said he suffers from PTSD and other mental health issues, but he is getting help through the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Kathryn Schwedhelm is the operations manager at Northwood Recovery. She met Belec about five years ago when he was living at a halfway house. He ended up in one of her programs.
What makes Belec's story unique is he has changed, she said, even if it took 43 years of incarceration.
“Ed is a pure example of what having the proper support can do for people coming out of jail,” Schwedhelm said.
It happens all too often that people are released from jail, without the medicine they were receiving while incarcerated, without money, without clothes or other belongings, and they are walking the streets in their jailhouse jogging suit and shoes, she said.
“That's not OK,” she said. “Let's say they get out in the dead of winter, when it's -30 C, and everything is closed, what can they do? They will go back to petty crime, so they can have a place to sleep for the night, possibly break into cars, or worse, rob someone, and they're going to lose hope, and likely end up using again after staying clean. It's a vicious cycle, because there's no one waiting for them on the outside. It's an extreme error in our justice system.”
Society can't just think of these people as criminals, Schwedhelm said.
“They're humans. Most haven't been given the tools in life that many of us have been given, not everyone is as privileged as we are, and if you are not taught the basic life skills, then you're already at a loss in life. Many of them are victims of circumstances.”
Not enough is being done to address the situation, she said.
“Enough is enough. Let's stop talking about it, and start doing something about it. We are in an opioid crisis, we have people dying in our jails, people dying behind our beer stores, and we need to make the changes now.”
Schwedhelm said she hears of the inhumane living conditions daily from her clients, and about the struggles with no proper reintegration into the community.
“These people need the support when they get out so that they don't stray, so that they can work on living a better life. The public needs to know what's happening, because things will not change until the community says we want it to change.”
Prisoners’ Justice Day is held to remember the men and women who have died unnatural and violent deaths while incarcerated in prisons and penitentiaries. This annual day of remembrance began in Canada and is now commemorated around the world.
Aug. 10 has been commemorated since 1975 to remember Eddie Nalon, a prisoner at Millhaven Penitentiary, who bled to death in a solitary confinement cell, despite attempts to summon guards for assistance in August, 1974.
In 1976, Bobby Launders died in the same solitary confinement unit at Millhaven as the call buttons had still not been reactivated. Prisoners at Millhaven then requested that other prisoners join them in commemorating prisoners’ deaths.
Very few people are behind bars for life, and when released, they usually end up back in their community, said John Rimore, executive director, John Howard Society of Sudbury. If they come from violence, they come back with violence.
“As a community, we need to work with governments that provide custody facilities, to work with the men and women in custody, to reduce that violence, or eliminate it, if possible,” Rimore said. “We need to offer programs and rehabilitation so they will not re-offend, and that's what today is really all about.”
The event was also to provide an opportunity to pray for the people in jail, “because there is violence and despair within the walls of incarceration.”
Rimore said the first and most important step to take right now is to establish citizen committees made up of organizations and people within the community that meets with the management of these institutions to inspect them, and to ask what's happening and what needs to be done.
Similar committees that were formed in other communities have proven to change the facility for the better
The public isn't turning a blind eye to the situation, Rimore said. How could they, when they haven't seen what's happening.
Sudbury Jail is a facility thousands of people drive by every day, but they don't know what's happening, because they aren't allowed in. Nor would they go in, because the vast majority of people are law-abiding citizens.
“That's why it's important to have ceremonies like this, and to set up a scenario where the public is allowed inside the jail,” Rimore said “I think people would be very surprised to see how people are living, two to a cell the size of your local bathroom. They would be shocked, and then they would understand why we have these events.”