Connecting with convicts

Volunteer visitation service gives inmates support


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You wouldn't think anything or anyone good could come out of a life sentence in prison. But for one "lifer" with a friend and lifeline to the outside world, it's been a time to flourish, with something to live for if and when he gets out.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/07/2015 (2627 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You wouldn’t think anything or anyone good could come out of a life sentence in prison. But for one “lifer” with a friend and lifeline to the outside world, it’s been a time to flourish, with something to live for if and when he gets out.

Donald Richard, 38, had a Grade 10 education and little hope when he was put in prison. He’s since received his high school diploma, won a literacy award for tutoring, discovered he’s a gifted artist, met a woman who loves him unconditionally and a best friend who is going to be the best man at their prison wedding in September.

Richard is making good use of hard time, and he credits that to staying connected to people on the outside.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Phil Loewen holds a sketch by an inmate he visits in Stony through a program called Open Circle whereby volunteers befriend inmates and visit them regularly so they aren't forgotten.

Phil Loewen has been visiting him for more than seven years — from the time Richard was charged with murder in 2008 and held at the Winnipeg Remand Centre to his trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to life, to the penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask., where he was Richard’s only visitor one year, to Stony Mountain Institution, where Loewen sees him every two weeks.

They met through Open Circle — a faith-based program that for 44 years has been connecting volunteers with inmates who want a visitor. The first meeting can be a little awkward, Loewen said.

“It’s like a first date. ‘Are we going to see each other again?’ ” he laughed.

Richard said he was experiencing the criminal justice process for the first time, and Loewen was there to hear about it.

“I was able to share that experience with Phil,” Richard said.

Finding Open Circle volunteers isn’t easy, but those who join seldom quit, said prison visitation director Rev. Glenn Morison.

“It’s not an easy sell, but we have incredible retention,” said the former remand centre chaplain, adding no experience is required. “You’re not going in as a therapist or a teacher. You’re going in as a friend.”

Richard said he heard about Open Circle from Morison when he was in the remand centre and asked to have a regular visitor to keep him connected to the world outside.

“At that time, I was expecting little to no contact,” Richard said in an interview in the visiting room at the Stony Mountain federal prison, north of Winnipeg.

Its round tables and stools are bolted to the floor. Signs on the many vending machines warn inmates they can look but not touch.

When Loewen comes to visit, he gets Richard a bag of Hickory Stix chips and a Dr. Pepper from the machines.

Richard asks Loewen about what’s going on in his life. The successful business owner and grandfather said at first, he hesitated to talk about things such as winter vacations and time with his family — things Richard could only dream about. But the inmate wanted to know about it, he said.

“He never made me feel bad for enjoying my life,” Loewen, 62, said. They share a love for their kids, he said. “He has a daughter. I have children.” Richard loves motorcycles, and so does Loewen.

Loewen was on a motorcycle trip out west when he surprised Richard by visiting him in the Prince Albert pen.

Richard later surprised Loewen with a sketch he made of a classic Indian motorcycle.

‘You’re not going in as a therapist or a teacher. You’re going in as a friend’ – Rev. Glenn Morison

Richard said he started drawing in prison because he was unable to source greeting cards and decided to make his own.

Loewen spread the word about Richard’s talent, and now there’s a Facebook page displaying his graphite sketches.

Loewen jokingly refers to it as Richard’s “escape.” Richard’s art is that and more, said Morison.

“It’s therapy for him,” he said. “He carries a lot of shame and remorse.”

In 2011, Richard was given a life sentence for the first-degree murder of Ivan Radocaj, a former wrestler known as the Croatian Giant. He’s ineligible for parole for 25 years, unless the so-called faint-hope clause — which has since been repealed — is applied for and granted once he’s served 15 years.

Richard said Loewen’s visits help him stay connected to society, and if and when he is released, he’ll be able to cope.

Little things such as hearing about Loewen’s motorbike trips and getting a postcard from the road mean a lot, said Richard.

“It’s like he’s sharing part of his life. This is what I need — inspiration to connect to the outside.” He said Loewen is a friend he can open up to without having to watch his back — practically unheard of in prison.

“It reminds you you’re not doing your time alone. It’s someone to lean on, figuratively,” said Richard.

Loewen, who talks about time he spends with his children and grandchildren, is a role model, said Richard. Now his relationship with his daughter — who was seven when he was sent to prison — and her future are one of the forces driving Richard to improve himself, he said.

“I want to set an example for my daughter.” She does well in school, plays football and visits him every two weeks. He also receives visits from his fiancée, a woman he was introduced to through another inmate and is marrying in prison this fall.

“The day may come when I’ll have the opportunity to get out, and I want to be able to function in society,” said Richard.


Visting, encouraging, and supporting

Inmate Tamara Traverse says Dianne Copper (below) has been a 'consistent' presence in her life.

Next month, Tamara (Tammy) Traverse expects to be released from the Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley.

So she doesn’t end up back there, she’s had to make some major changes — changes she didn’t think she was capable of until she was convinced otherwise by two visitors.

“They were validating me in a way I never have had in my life,” said Traverse, who’s faced her demons in prison with the help of Open Circle volunteer Dianne Cooper and Morison.

“They’re consistently visiting, encouraging and supporting me,” said Traverse, who is 40 and only now getting the help she needs.

Traverse’s parents were residential school survivors and struggled with their own demons.

“My mom grew up in dysfunction. She didn’t have very good coping skills,” she said.

Traverse recalls being left at home alone as a little kid and not feeling safe.

“I remember parties in the house and being worried about being bothered sexually. I remember I was eight years old, hiding behind the community centre. I was cold, tired and hungry. It was dark out. I was scared. That was life,” she said.

Her emotional growth was stunted, and she used drugs as an adult to cope. She ended up in jail.

When she was let out, she couldn’t cope. Cooper had just starting visiting her before she was released.

“I picked her up from jail, otherwise the prison system would have driven her to the city and dropped her at a bus stop,” said Cooper.

Traverse planned to live with her daughter and baby grandson but wasn’t prepared for life on the outside.

“I took her to apply for welfare and they gave her $89, and it had to last for two weeks,” she said.

Traverse had to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week, was overwhelmed, under-equipped and unable to cope, said Cooper. “She was having a terrible time.”

Traverse tried robbing a gas bar, a 2013 Winnipeg Police Service news release said. She was sent back to Headingley.

If nothing changes for inmates while they’re inside, nothing changes for them when they get outside, said Traverse.

“It’s like a revolving door. Girls get out and don’t know what they’re going to do, and they go back to dysfunction and addiction,” Traverse said. “Some are doing drugs and selling their bodies for drugs.”

Some will end up murdered or missing, she said. “Some of these girls have never had support in their lives.”

But it’s never too late, she said.

With Cooper in her corner for nearly two years, Traverse is receiving counselling and belongs to a support group. She’s working on her GED (high school equivalency) so she can train to become a licensed esthetician — a goal that used to be just a wish.

“I basically have to start life over to become a member of society who’s contributing, not just taking,” said Traverse. “That’s all I knew. That’s all I did, but there’s so much more to life. That’s what I want for my children and my grandson.”

When she’s released in early August, she’s moving to a second-stage sober-living program. She’s taking care of herself after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. And Traverse has a friend she can call — Cooper.

They share a dark sense of humour. Traverse said Cooper mailed her a copy of the book Orange is the New Black, about life in a U.S. federal women’s prison.

“I thought it was pretty funny. Girls do use pads to Swiffer the floor and tampons to curl their hair,” said Traverse.

During their weekly visits, she and Cooper never run out of things to talk about. More importantly, Cooper is there when she says she’ll be there.

“She’s very consistent,” Traverse said. “I’ve never had that in my life.”

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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