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Inmates raising cash for North End youth groups

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Manitoba inmates are looking to turn their poetry and art into cash to buy sports equipment for a pair of North End youth agencies.

Inmates involved in the John Howard Society of Manitoba’s literacy program are selling off copies of the summer edition of Inside Scoop, a newsletter they write, edit, design and publish quarterly. They plan to buy everything from basketballs, footballs, hockey sticks and nets needed at both Ndinawe and the Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre.

"There have been times in the North End when kids haven’t always felt safe to play outside," said inmate Dustin Young.

"These centres are like safe zones where kids can play sports, do activities, do all the things kids should be able to do."

The slim, 16-page issue features a range of poetry, drawings, and editorials reflecting on the prison experience, relationships, politics and social causes. Scattered throughout are puzzles, recipes and even fitness tips.

It’s not the first time inmates are using their work to raise money for the community. Last summer, they raised close to $1,800 for the Norquay Community Centre in Point Douglas by selling copies of the newsletter for $1.

Inmates say small community centres in the inner city offer kids an alternative to the streets by giving them a place to get involved in sports, arts and culture. But because the centres run on shoestring budgets, they’re always at risk of shutting down.

"The youth are our future. Stopping their problems before they start is a way to keep them from ending up here," said Young.

"I’ve seen it more than once, the street life chewing kids up and spitting them out. It’s our responsibility to provide them with some direction and resources."

There are about 25 to 30 students in John Howard’s literacy program, including inmates in the Winnipeg Remand Centre, as well as those on bail and ex-inmates living in the community, said Jacquie Nicholson, one of two co-ordinators for the program.

The program’s goal is to develop literacy skills necessary for meaningful community participation by connecting men with life outside the prison walls, she said.

"Why just write an essay in a notebook when you could write a speech to read at a community event or a poem to be presented at an open mic night?" said Nicholson.

While the province tracks adult literacy for the general population, stats on inmate literacy are hard to come by, Nicholson said.

Nationally, two in three offenders have not completed their high school diploma, and 86% tested below Grade 10 levels, according to a 1995 report to the Correctional Service of Canada.

"Once you’re in the criminal justice system, it’s hard to get out, especially if you have a literacy barrier," Nicholson said.

"Not being able to get a good job, even just in terms of being able to navigate the criminal justice system. It’s not very user friendly. I’ve had guys fail to make court appearances because they literally couldn’t understand the letter (they received)."

Another study of federal inmates taking part in education classes found a 7% decrease in re-admissions from those obtaining a Grade 8 equivalency, and a 21% reduction from those completing Grade 10.

Many inmates join the program to prepare for their GED while others join simply for the love of learning.

"The more I learn, the more I can pass on to others, like my kids, a friend, or someone else here in the Remand Centre," Stefan McKenzie said.

"I’m surrounding myself with other people who are doing something with their lives instead of just sitting here and wasting their time."

Inmates came up with the fundraising idea two years ago, shortly after Nicholson instituted an inmate-led editorial board to run the newsletter. Last year, inmates and their families raised $800. This year, they’ve so far raised $100, and Assiniboine Credit Union will once again match the first $500, Nicholson said.

Inmates say they want to challenge public opinion that they are a burden on taxpayers.

"Usually the media only shows the negative things in the news," said Darren Brown. "They rarely show communities addressing their own problems in positive ways. So yeah, people are going to be surprised to see us doing this — they’re used to seeing only the worst in people, especially people in jail."

Copies of Inside Scoop are available at four locations in Winnipeg through the end of September, including the John Howard offices at 583 Ellice Ave., Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse at 91 Albert St., Organic Planet at 877 Westminster Ave., and T-Mac Auto Services at 337 Ferry Rd.

For more information, visit www.johnhoward.mb.ca or call Nicholson at 204-775-1514 ext. 303.

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