LETHBRIDGE – It’s a grey November morning with a sharp, icy wind blowing across southern Alberta. As I drive east down the Old Coaldale Road – better known as Jail Road – towering, leafless trees stand like sentinels just inside the entrance to the Lethbridge Correctional Centre.
This is where I’m spending my morning.
Once inside the centre’s waiting room, I’m greeted by a smiling staff member who instructs me to put all my valuables inside a locker, before I’m led through a metal-detector and into the administration section of the facility, where I meet LCC’s director, Robert May.
May has been working at the centre for 30-years, having started as a correctional officer and moving up the ranks. You could say the work is in his blood, as his father started there in 1960. In fact, May was even born while the family was living on the grounds in the officer’s housing.
We start the discussion by going over the centre’s history. The Lethbridge Provincial Gaol opened in 1911, becoming the first provincial jail built in Alberta, and the first west of Manitoba.
“It was basically modelled after Alcatraz [prison], those types of jails,” explained May. “It was all cages… bars and cages.” He added that the cells were located on the inside of the facility, facing the walls.
The original facility was nothing if not efficient, featuring its own cattle and farming operation. Inmates not only produced food for themselves and other jails, but sold the excess on the open market. In 1962 they recorded a profit of $72,000, which went towards operating costs.
The darker side of the facility’s past included 18 executions, occurring between 1912 and 1956. Four of those were German prisoners of war who were put to death, after they hanged one of their fellow POWs for what they perceived as crimes against Nazism.
The new Lethbridge Correctional Centre opened its doors on the same location in 1983 – six years before the historic structure was demolished in 1989. Gone were the days of spartan living conditions, which May says was important for the mental health of offenders.
“When [offenders] do come into the facility, you know, it's hard enough as it is to be taken away from your loved ones and having your freedom taken away,” he stated. “We do try to make it as comfortable as possible, not only for the offenders, but the officers who have to work in those areas.
“The units are basically modelled more as: this is your home,” May continued, noting that they can house about 330 men and women at a time. “You come into here, you have your eating facilities, you get served your meals in there, you have the laundry room where you can do your laundry, you have TV areas, you have game areas.
“They're not locked up all day, they're out basically all day long, from 7 in the morning to 10:30 at night. So, they can participate in programs, they can participate in treatment.”
Those programs are a key part of the system that’s now in place at LCC. Along with the addictions and anger management programs that help inmates address some of the root causes of their incarceration, there’s also a long list of educational programs available through Lakeshore Campus – operated by Lethbridge College.
Academic upgrading is available for Math, English, Science and Social Studies, while courses in basic keyboarding are also offered. Employment Skills Training then provides inmates with the specific skills needed for work in areas like carpentry, oil and gas safety and small engine repair.
They also have extensive Aboriginal programming, along with religious and cultural options. As part of the opportunities provided through the Chaplaincy, offenders can record themselves reading a book, which is then provided to their children.
A look at the Correctional Service Canada website provides some context for the need for such programs. In a forum on corrections research, Dennis J. Stevens with the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts, notes that nearly 64-per cent of offenders in Canada have not completed their high school diploma, and 30-per cent have not finished grade eight.
Working in a jail
As we move to the topic of spending every work day inside a facility with offenders, the question comes up: how do you interact and build relationships with people you know have committed various crimes?
“You don't really build a personal relationship, but there are offenders that come in and they are nice people – most of them are, to tell you the truth – they just have these demons to move beyond. I guess a lot of time… they need to grow up. They need to move beyond their behaviourisms and educate themselves,” says May.
“I've tried to not judge the offenders by what they're in here for, you know, you judge them as people. You try to look beyond what they're in for right now, provide them with the best possible assistance to move forward.”
May makes a point of conducting weekly rounds with both staff and inmates, to ensure he stays connected with everyone under his watch. He also responds to letters from inmates, as they ask for guidance or assistance on a daily basis.
As for the constant danger and violence that we often see portrayed inside prisons and jails on TV, May says it’s generally not an issue at LCC, as it’s reserved for individuals who receive sentences that are no more than two-years in length. Most, he says, are only in for one to six months at a time.
“There's usually little altercations here and there,” May explains. “When you're getting upwards of 60 offenders in each unit, they're living very closely, some annoy others. So, there's usually small altercations, small fights that we do respond to and we have to break it up. But, you don't see any real major fights on a regular basis.”
May admits that a rise in gang activity across Alberta has caused some issues for them, as they are forced to keep gang members apart to avoid potential conflicts.
When asked if he’s ever feared for his safety during his 30-years at the centre, May offers a small shrug with his answer.
“Not really. The centre here, we do have a lot of staff on, we do have a very good system of communication with our radios and everything here. There's always backup, there's always someone watching you, whether it's your partner in the staff station or whether it's someone on camera. So, to tell you the truth, I haven't had any real situations where you felt that you're fearful.”
Giving back to the community
If you’ve been in Lethbridge for very long, it’s likely that you have seen the work crews dressed in orange overalls, cleaning up along the highway or in parks and shoveling snow. It turns out that’s only a small part of what they do.
“We do a lot of community service work,” states May. “A lot of it's for non-profit organizations. We do a lot of work for the city, whether it's park cleanup, providing mulch and different types of services for City of Lethbridge parks. We work along South Parkside Drive there, we clean up all those bushes regularly.”
LCC crews are often used to clean up deadfall on public lands as well, which May says has resulted in another spin-off benefit.
“We bring all that wood back here, we split that wood up, cut it up, and then we provide it to local sporting groups – whether it's junior hockey or baseball – so that those organizations can go out now and sell this firewood for fundraising.”
May quickly adds that the offenders who join the community work crews are those who have been deemed low-risk, and generally those who don’t have much time left on their sentence.
One of the employment skills programs offered to inmates has also allowed them to help the community. As part of the carpentry classes that are offered, some offenders make toys for less fortunate children in the area.
“We usually provide them to the Boys and Girls Club, or we have them raffled off,” says May. “A lot of times, they make these projects over the course of the year and then provide them to the Angel Tree program, or like I said, the Boys and Girls Club at Christmas time.”
“I believe, a lot of times, that when [offenders] do come to the correctional centre, it’s best for them… they can at least start addressing some concerns, or be taken away from their negative environment.”
May explains that he has seen examples of people who appear to be making progress, only to regress after falling into old habits, whether those be addiction issues or hanging out with the wrong crowd.
He acknowledged that age does seem to play a part, and that the younger, less mature offenders often aren’t as receptive to treatment programs. Over time though, he says they have observed more offenders acknowledging their issues and reaching out for help.
“There's a lot of offenders that are very talented that come in here, and we see that all the time, whether it's with writing or writing poetry, there's a lot of great artists in here. There's some really talented individuals… who have just fallen in some bad circumstances.”
On the occasions where he sees former inmates out on the street, May always stops to talk and see how they’re doing. He says it’s a good opportunity for him to offer encouragement.
“The best is just hoping that they don't come back again.”
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