KITCHENER — After five years behind bars, Melissa Alexander felt pretty strange sitting on a Grand River Transit bus, headed to work.
That first bus ride alone brought a flood of emotions. "I guess I felt a little bit of everything. Nervous. Excited. You just can't wait (to start) but at the same time it's a bit overwhelming because you don't know what to expect."
Alexander is one of several women from Grand Valley Institution, the federal women's prison in south Kitchener, who every year leave the prison during the day to work at sites in Waterloo Region.
The experience is at once exhilarating, enriching, but can be bewildering, especially for those who've been behind bars for a while. One woman who worked as a cashier had been in prison when the country decided to abandon the penny. She was baffled in her first days on the job whenever she tried to make a change, because there never seemed to be any pennies in the till, until someone explained that she simply needed to round the total up or down.
"Everything changes so rapidly," said Cheryl Flamenco Steiner, an assistant warden at Grand Valley. "We've had women go out in the community, and they're alarmed by the changes in technology, for bus fares and banking, and how integral the internet is for functioning in society."
Most of the women aren't from Waterloo Region, so venturing into the community can be daunting, especially if they get on the wrong bus because prisoners don't have access to simple aids like mobile phones to tap into Google Maps.
Alexander had a couple of challenges when she got on the wrong bus while returning from her work releases. She had to be back at the prison by 6 p.m. "There was a couple of times I was coming back at five (minutes) to 6. That was a huge stress because I don't want to ruin an opportunity for other women to do their work release because of my screw-up."
The prison has been carrying out work releases for at least 15 years because they can be a huge factor in successful reintegration into society, says Michelle Jager, the employment coordinator at the prison.
"Society is best protected when offenders are able to re-establish themselves in the community," Jager said. "Employment is a huge factor, and work release is a stepping-stone to being able to find paid work."
Women who take part must be classified as minimum security, be eligible for unescorted absences from prison, and be approved for the post by either the warden or the regional deputy commissioner of Correctional Services Canada.
They do jobs from clerical to catering, landscaping and animal care with a handful of local employers, including Community Justice Initiatives, Habitat for Humanity, the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society, the Morning Glory Café and catering, and Rockway gardens.
"Our work release program is a mutually beneficial relationship," Jager says. "Employers wouldn't participate in this program if it wasn't."
Alexander did two work releases, one working 12-hour days with a private landscaping company from early spring until late fall, and a second full-time one with Habitat for Humanity doing general construction for 3½ months.
Alexander left Grand Valley in September. She now lives at a halfway house in another city and works full-time at an auto parts firm. Her experience at Habitat prompted her to sign up for a three-year architectural technician program at college, which she starts in January.
Having the chance to work, after years of the tightly controlled routines and environment of prison, made a huge difference to her success when she left Grand Valley, she says.
She was able to earn some money — paid positions earn minimum wage, while work at nonprofits is unpaid. More importantly, she gained confidence.
"It really built my confidence, knowing I had the ability to work, the ability to make connections with other people there," she says. "It makes you feel like you're normal. You're in an environment that's open, with an opportunity of learning."
Though she had completed a number of training programs in construction and horticulture, the stigma of prison and the years out of the workforce had eroded her confidence. "I never thought I'd actually work again, to be honest."
Bosses said co-workers who accepted her for who she was and were willing to look beyond her past made all the difference. "People treat you as a normal human being. I was so happy. I was still in prison, but I was going to work."
Because the work release is an opportunity for prisoners to get out into the community and acquire needed work experience and references, it's very rare to have problems such as escape attempts or participants failing to put in a good effort, Jager said. In the past dozen years, she could think of only two instances when placements ended early.
Alexander was one of three women from the prison who worked at Habitat for Humanity, doing everything from framing to flooring to painting and landscaping. Janine Armstrong, who manages volunteers at the charity, said the women come with certified training in things like working at heights, a costly program that Habitat can't provide for many volunteers.
Armstrong admits she had preconceptions. She worried about whether Habitat would be responsible if any woman failed to return to the prison at day's end. She thought they'd be tough characters, hardened criminals like the two-dimensional characters portrayed in movies and television. In fact, she found the women warm, open and, most of all, eager to work and to learn.
Her team leaders were receptive, remarking that helping the women get work experience fit perfectly with Habitat's philosophy of giving a hand up rather than a handout. "One of them said, 'We're not just building homes, we're building lives.'"
The only drawback Armstrong sees is that the long approval times can mean months go by between women coming to Habitat. "They're some of the hardest-working volunteers we get. When they're here they're a real positive addition to our team, in attitude and work ethic and the work that we get out of them."
The placement was hugely positive for Alexander, too. "Just being on-site, and learning every chance I could get, it was a blessing."
Alexander says she's deeply grateful for the reception she received everywhere in Kitchener. "Kitchener was really great to me. Every single person I met in Kitchener has impacted me so much. They're great people. That community, I can honestly say, was really amazing."
That experience, and the ease with which co-workers accepted her, "kind of changed the way I see society, to be honest," she said. "There's a lot of people who are willing to take you in when you're willing to learn and willing to do the job right."
While Habitat definitely benefits from the work placements, Armstrong feels strongly that society also benefits from a program that gives prisoners the skills and the opportunity to forge new lives when they leave prison. "As a citizen, I want women to not go back to prison. If I can help so that those women when they're out they're successful, that's good on our community."
Grand Valley and the women who participate would both like to see more employers sign-on. "We'd be thrilled to talk to any employer that is interested in hearing a little bit more," said Flamenco Steiner.
"I know that employers or companies are like, 'Why do we need to take someone from jail?'" Alexander said. "But there are lots of women that are willing to work. They're willing to learn, and to gain skills to improve themselves when they get out."