Volunteers are integral to the work we do at CSC. Whether they are running book clubs for inmates, driving inmates on release to and from appointments, or acting as advocates for inmates and their concerns, volunteers spend countless hours in our federal facilities and parole offices across the country contributing to public safety.
Two of those volunteers are Sharon Mitchell and Mark Jowett. As the outgoing and incoming Chairs of Ontario’s regional Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), their volunteer hours add up to over two decades of service to CSC. We recently sat down with them to talk about their time with us, to wish Sharon well as she heads into retirement, and to welcome Mark as her replacement.
How and why did you become a volunteer with CSC?
Sharon: My husband came home one day and said he saw a sign at the John Howard Society about needing volunteers to meet with offenders. He signed up for lifers and I signed up to do a one on one with an offender who had gone twenty years without a visitor. To be honest, we were curious and wanted to know what corrections was all about. When I first went inside, I was shocked because it’s such a mystery to most people but I always believed in second chances so I was willing to give it a good try. One day I was in the visiting area at Kingston Penitentiary (KP) and saw drugs being passed. I went straight to Regional Headquarters and asked how I could get more involved in helping CSC as a volunteer. They suggested the CAC, and I’ve been here ever since. That was 21 years ago.
Mark: A parole office was opening up on a street where my son was going to school. The school planned an information session for local community members to come and ask the area director and parole officers questions about the office and what it would mean for the neighbourhood. They did the best they could to answer questions and address the concerns voiced that night, and at the end of the session the director mentioned the CAC and invited anyone interested to join it. I figured, well, I’m always asking my students to get involved in the community, so I better take my own advice!
What were those first days of volunteering like for you?
Sharon: I walked into KP and the warden encouraged me to get involved as a volunteer. So I did! I’m a registered nurse by trade but boy, this was something else. It was the most educational, frustrating, and mind blowing experience of my life. It was all so much for a new member like me, and it was sometimes hard to get my head around. That said, even though KP was notorious, I never once felt unsafe. There are a lot of myths and perceptions in the community about the fellows, but I wasn’t there to judge them – the courts do that.
Mark: The parole officers were welcoming, but I quickly learned that corrections is a unique field with a very steep learning curve! I was made to feel very comfortable and was warmly embraced by the corrections staff I was working with. I was constantly asking questions so that I could better understand the work, and they were more than willing to answer them. Prior to joining the CAC I really didn’t know much about parole or how it happened in the community. This was my chance to learn and immerse myself in the topic, which I did.
What were some of the things that jumped out at you as you spent more time with the CAC?
Sharon: One day I met a fellow standing outside the doors at KP. He was an inmate on his way out and all he had were the clothes on his back and a paper bag with his belongings. He didn’t even have identification. I thought to myself, this isn’t right. So we brought it to one of our conferences and that discussion triggered a change in the way inmates are released. We made it so that we, as CAC members, can work with CSC employees to help inmates get the identification they need to live and work in the community.
Mark: I realized pretty quickly that there are a lot of misconceptions about our justice system and that it’s very difficult to understand why some things might come to be. We all analyze this issue through our own lens that has been shaped by where we came from and how we were brought up, but sometimes we need to look at things differently and see an issue from another perspective. I often found myself having to see corrections from the point of view of someone who wasn’t raised in a pro-social household, for example. When it comes to working with my fellow community members, we may not always see eye to eye, but with very small steps at a time, we can learn something from one another and that is always a success to me.
Why do you do this work?
Sharon: I’m often asked that. People will say, “Why are you working with those guys?” And to that I say, they could be my neighbours tomorrow. Or yours. They could even be your loved ones one day.
We need to have compassion for inmates because even though they have done wrong, I have seen firsthand that in many cases, there was a lot that led them to be where they are in their lives. I’ve come home many times in tears over what I saw or heard from an inmate. One day when I met with a fellow, he showed me the iron burns all over his body from when he was punished as a little child. I was shocked. A lot of these people come from horrifically abusive backgrounds.
I want to make a difference in their lives. A lot of people say to just lock them up and forget about them, but that’s not the right approach to take. You have to remember that they are coming back to our communities. Do you want to make communities safe? Do you want to make a difference in how they come out? I sure do.
Mark: I like a challenge and I get bored fast with easy answers. In corrections, there are no easy answers! And like I said earlier, working with our community to educate them about community corrections and what it actually looks like can be very rewarding. When you see that someone who at one time was so adamantly against community corrections slowly start to turn a corner and see the potential benefits to the community and to public safety as a whole, that is a good moment. That’s why I do this work.
Sharon, do you have anything you’d like to say to Mark as he takes over as Chair of the CAC?
I do! Mark, stand your ground. Don’t let anything get in the way of your beliefs. I wish you the best of luck in this role and can’t wait to see what you accomplish in the months and years to come.
Mark, do you have anything you’d like to say to Sharon as she moves on into retirement?
Sharon, you’ve been great. We love you for who you are and we will miss you dearly. Thank you for your leadership all these years and we wish you relaxation and enjoyment as you move into full retirement.
Do you want to volunteer with your local CAC? If so, we want to hear from you! Get in touch.