This post is about 800 words and can be read in 3-4 minutes.
Although most people think that the court sentence is the hardest part of being convicted of a crime, for many of the millions of Canadians who have experienced a conviction, what happens after the sentence is a lot harder. Repairing the damage with family and friends, trying to rebuild your life, and trying to earn a living are all a lot harder with a criminal record. Even things most people take for granted, like getting a passport, or having any kind of public presence can be affected by a record. And these consequences can last for years or even decades after the official sentence is over. There is not a lot of support for people trying to cope with these challenges, yet large numbers of people manage to do so anyway.
John Howard Calgary has put up on their website a series of stories of people who are working to overcome a criminal record. The series, called, I Am More, is at iammorethanmycriminalrecord.wordpress.com/. There are more than 25 short accounts on the site, told in the words of the people involved. They show that people convicted of crimes are people just like everyone else, with strengths and goals and dreams as well as challenges.
A couple of examples, chosen at random, will give a flavour of these stories.
I am an uncle
“There is a stigma that people with criminal records are violent or thieves. I am neither. I like doing things for other people – enjoy being thoughtful and brightening someone’s day. Family is a big part of my life. I talk to them, spend a lot of time at home, have dinner with them. I have a best uncle reputation to uphold and like to bake cookies for my nieces. When I go visit them I always have Kinder Surprises. They always ask me ‘do you have an eggy?’ I say, ‘yes, I have an eggy – you have to eat your supper first.’ My mom used to make these toffee cornflake cookies once a year at Christmas and everyone loved them. She would make a huge batch and they would all be gone within a week. I have an entrepreneurial mindset and would like to start my own business making her recipe. The consumable industry is one of the greatest in the planet.”
I am caring
“Last time I was in jail I was completely broken… There were always drugs around my house and different people coming in and out. I always knew what was going on, but I tried to keep my little sister sheltered from it. She is 2 years younger than me and had a stress related ulcer by the time she was 10. One day my mom took my sister’s backpack and left. I grew up thinking that she left because I got sick and somehow it was all my fault. I did my best to take care of my sister, kept us fed and did everything I could to protect her.
We were put into foster care a month or two after my mom left. My mom did her best to get custody of us after she got settled and my sister and I eventually moved in with her. I was so confused, had a lot of resentment issues and was angry at the world… I began experimenting with drugs and eventually became an addict. I was in and out of prison for a long time. I thought that I was going to end up dead or in jail my whole life, but one day I got a Facebook message from my mom that said, ‘Hi my earth angel. I hope you find happiness in this world. I love you.’ I began a relationship with her again and with my little sister. That year I said, I am going to stop. I am done. When I left jail the last time, I went straight into treatment…
Now I live with my sister and I am really close with my mom. I have realized that mom did what she had to do when I was growing up and it wasn’t my fault. My hopes are to find work part-time and go to college. I would like to take addiction and community counselling. Before I was clean, I could be in a fully crowded room and I would feel alone. I would like to show people that they are not alone and that no matter how horrible it feels, it can change...”
Some people want to separate the world into good and bad people, those who are ordinary and those who commit crimes. The Calgary JHS vignettes help dispel this myth and reinforce a common humanity, in which our first instinct with others in trouble should be to help, not to vilify.