Prison program breaks racial barriers

Guthrie House at Nanaimo Regional Correctional Centre reconnects inmates with their culture

Performances by the Cowichan Spirit Dancers were part of National Aboriginal Day celebrations hosted at Nanaimo Correctional Centre Thursday.

Performances by the Cowichan Spirit Dancers were part of National Aboriginal Day celebrations hosted at Nanaimo Correctional Centre Thursday.

Nanaimo Correctional Centre celebrated National Aboriginal Day with First Nations dancers and singers, talks from First Nations elders and a lunch of elk meat and barbecued salmon Thursday.

The celebrations honoured First Nations residents and gave the B.C. Corrections Branch the opportunity to showcase Guthrie House Therapeutic Community.

Guthrie House is a four-month, four-phase program based on developing relationships, building self-esteem and fostering spiritual and emotional healing to help participants break old behaviour patterns, habits and beliefs to battle substance abuse.

Participants become part of a community of residents and staff accountable to each other and who each play the social roles of peer, mentor, friend and tutor.

Relationships developed create and sustain healthy social networks needed to support recovery after participants leave the program and prison.

Inmates across B.C. trying to turn their lives around ask to be transferred to  the Guthrie House program.

Spencer, 39, one of three residents who agreed to be interviewed, said he came to a point where he was willing to do whatever it took to turn his life around.

“Those belief systems that I had, those stereotypes, my whole identity, the criminal thinking, my substance abuse issues, my family of origin,” Spencer said. “I really had no support out there for pro-social or proactive behaviour and I really needed a whole new set of tools because the ones I was using out there weren’t working. I kept having a revolving door of coming in and out of corrections.”

Peter, 36, transferred to Nanaimo from the Lower Mainland.

“I finally got here and, oh, I was surprised,” Peter said. “There’s just so much they have to offer. It’s a trusting element in a corrections setting. That doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come very often, so I recognized it was a place where I could open up and trust people and be trusted myself.”

Guthrie House reconnects First Nations men with the culture stripped from their families through the years of the residential schools programs. Sweat lodges, smudge ceremonies and lessons in First Nations beliefs, morality and spirituality are part of the program.

“It’s bringing my culture into a whole new light,” said Ryan, 27.

Spencer, currently the program’s cultural coordinator, said for the first time in his life he is grateful to be a human being, proud of his culture and heritage and of being Canadian.

Guthrie House is Aboriginal-oriented, but everyone is welcome.

Spencer explains the meanings behind the colour and arrangement of sobriety beads each of the men wear around their necks – the rows of white, red, black and yellow beads represent the four races of human beings on Earth.

The beads are strung to a metal circle.

“The circle represents the whole awareness that we’re all connected,” Spencer said. “These four beads represent that we’re not exclusive at Guthrie, but that we’re all inclusive, that every nation is on here.”

From a B.C. Corrections standpoint, Guthrie House promises to help break the revolving door cycle of repeated returns to prison for crimes committed because of substance abuse.

Daniel Elliott, Native liaison worker through Tillicum Lelum Friendship Centre, has worked with Guthrie House since 2007 and has focussed on building relationships between everyone involved in the program – staff and residents.

“Work that we’ve found really effective in here is we help people engage and achieve the desire to find their own spiritual journey,” Elliott said.

The ceremonies’ accountability to one another and sharing experiences help break down their emotional barriers. Opening the doors to everyone breaks down racial barriers.

“We had Sikhs come through last year and partake in everything. We have guys honouring their European heritage and there’s no shame around that,” Elliott said. “It’s about we’re all part of one human race, so when that happens in here then we break down those racial barriers.”

Elliott, who sees about 58 clients regularly, said he gets e-mails and phone calls from men who went through Guthrie House years earlier to tell him about how they are back with their families, still clean and other successes in their lives.

“I just really feel honoured that I was part of that process,” Elliott said.


(B.C. Corrections prohibits the use of inmates’ last names, photographs of their faces or other identifying features, such as tattoos, and questions about their prior histories with the justice system.)