For three decades, John Glena’s goal as a police officer was to send crooks to prison.
These days, Glena is spending a decent amount of time himself in jail. He isn’t a guard, warrant or inmate. Instead, Glena, now retired, is the chair of Matsqui Institution’s Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), an unpaid position through which the once-hardened cop dedicates himself to finding new ways to help the King Road facility’s 416 inmates turn their lives around.
“I used to be under the pretext of, ‘You put them in there. They’re punished. Now lock the door and throw away the key,’ ” Glena said recently.
The way he thinks about incarceration has changed radically since then. He now strongly believes that making prison more tolerable, and providing inmates with a voice and an outlet for their energy, is good for both inmates and society at large.
“Should we just lock [an offender] up and let him fester and make him angry… or should we look at ways of treating him to make him change his ways?” he asked.“I say to people: I understand your frustration, but you also have to be compassionate.”
And he said the people running Canada’s federal prisons – three of which are located in Abbotsford – have recognized that.
“That’s why we don’t have riots like we used to years ago.”
Glena’s CAC recently participated in a pilot program that saw offenders talking and creating art and poetry about their family pets. Glena, along with interventions assistant warden Peter Lang, hope that will lead to the introduction of a therapy dog program. Prisons elsewhere have previously participated in programs that see inmates care for, or train, animals to later be housed elsewhere. Here in the Fraser Valley, the FVRD and Ford Mountain Correctional Centre, a medium-security provincial prison outside of Chilliwack, are looking into having the inmates provide foster care for some dogs.
Fraser Valley Institution, a federal prison for women, in Abbotsford currently offers such a program in partnership with the Langley Animal Protection Society.
“The dogs are incredible,” Glena said with enthusiasm. “A dog doesn’t judge you. A dog will just lick your face. It helps them relax, be calm, be more attentive.”
Citizen advisory committees like the one chaired by Glena were created decades ago in response to unrest in several federal penitentiaries. Each facility now has one, with members acting as a neutral voice that can hear prisoners’ concerns and help communicate them to an institution’s administration. Committee members have around-the-clock access to every part of the prison and are given cart blanche to speak to prisoners in private. They are also invited in as observers when a lockdown is put in place.
In addition to Glena, the committee has four other retirees – a gold miner, an insurance broker, a teacher and a principal – along with a still-working university professor.
Federal institutions deal with prisoners sentenced to more than two years in jail. The programs they offer are often considered more comprehensive than their provincial counterparts, which house prisoners handed less-serious sentences for shorter stints.
Glena strongly believes that those programs are important both for the individual inmates and society at large.
“I’ve decided that my position in life as a volunteer is to make sure these guys who have been incarcerated are brought back and provided with the education and training to be productive members of society,” he said. “Should we just lock [an inmate] up and let him fester and make him angry… or should we look at ways of treating him to make him change his ways?”
Glena says there’s clear value in having a neutral pair of eyes keeping watch. Several years ago, his committee heard from staff at halfway houses about the difficulties posed by residents who lacked proper identification. That message was passed on to local corrections staff, who now work to ensure offenders have ID when they are released from behind bars. The initiative has now spread across the country.
Glena has sat on the board that oversees all of Pacific Region’s 18 CACs for several years, and recently became the chair. His enthusiasm for his unpaid work shows through when he speaks about reading the minutes of the meetings of other CACs.
“I like to see, oh, what are they doing over there? What are their success stories?”
Mission Institution, just across the Fraser River, gets a glowing review.
“Man, Mission have some incredible things that they do there,” he said, citing the involvement of inmates in building two-sided “buddy benches” for area schools – a project that was assisted by that prison’s CAC.
Glena said Matsqui’s CAC is always seeking volunteers, both to sit on the board and to support inmates. In particular, the prison needs people who have the ability to work with inmates on projects involving art, woodworking and writing.
Giving inmates a positive purpose, and the skills to realize their goals, is a worthy objective, Glena said.
“Yeah, they did something wrong. We have to do something to help them see the error of their ways and change them so they can come out into society and be productive members,” he says.
If you would like to volunteer in the prison, or on its citizens advisory committee, email firstname.lastname@example.org.