Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Convicts deserve second chance

MCC's Open Circle has helped hundreds of offenders integrate back into the community

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It's been a while since Mennonite Central Committee was publicly pilloried for taking a chance on convicted bank robber Tim Collins.

Collins -- formerly known as Klaus Burlakow -- was manager of Sam's Place, a separately incorporated café and bookstore which raises funds for MCC. Or he was, until he and the board of Sam's Place went their separate ways, shortly before he was rearrested for violating his parole.

By offering Collins a second chance, some people seemed to suggest that MCC was naïve at best, or a foolhardy and misguided at worst. It was neither. The agency, which is best known for helping needy people in the developing world, was simply taking seriously Christ's command to visit those in prison.

Through Open Circle, its prison visitation arm, MCC reaches out to those who have often been written off by society, extending a hand of friendship and hope for a better and law-abiding life.

Does it sometimes blow up in their faces? Absolutely -- as it did with Collins. But more often the opposite is true; over the years the agency has successfully and quietly helped hundreds of offenders across Canada integrate back into the community, without fanfare or media attention.

One example I became aware of recently occurred when an ex-offender contacted a friend of mine, trying to find the MCC volunteers who visited him in prison 20 years ago. Those visits, he said, had helped him get on track, and he wanted to say thanks.

"I want to find that couple," he told my friend. "They helped me get my life together. I want to thank them and tell them I'm OK."

Stories like that are not uncommon, even if they aren't well known. But when something goes wrong, it seems like everyone hears about it.

The fact is that any agency that seeks to help needy people will experience problems. This is especially true in the developing world, where things often don't turn out as planned -- food is stolen, aid meant to be given away ends up being sold in markets, donated money disappears, projects fail.

These problems don't occur because these agencies are poorly run -- far from it. Rather, it's due to the very nature of the work they do, and the places they do it in. Whenever there is war, conflict or natural disasters, it's hard to ensure that a shipment of aid will go precisely according to plan.

There is a way for agencies to guarantee that donated food and funds will end up exactly where it should go. All they have to do is send it to places where there are functioning governments, good roads, and no war or civil unrest. However, as the head of one agency likes to say, "Canada doesn't need our aid."

Likewise, groups who want to help people in Canada could increase the chances of success by pouring their energies and resources into only those who have university degrees, come from good families, don't wrestle with addictions, haven't been abused and don't have criminal records. Again, those aren't the ones who need their help.

Over 20 years ago, I was a volunteer visitor at Stony Mountain prison. I was teamed up with Rocky, who was in jail for robbery. Rocky, like many inmates in Canada, was imprisoned far from home; in his case, his family was all back in Ontario. I was the only person from the outside who came to visit.

During our visits, we talked about sports, the news, the weather -- the things that normally come up in any conversation. Then the time would be up, and he'd return to his cell behind the clanging doors.

My visits, and our friendship, ended when Rocky was granted a transfer to a prison closer to home. I haven't seen him, or heard from him, since. But every now and then I wonder how he's doing. I hope he's doing OK, living a good, lawful and productive life.

And if he isn't -- if he's back in jail -- well, like Tim Collins, I hope he gets another chance.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2009 A9

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