Finding a source of income is a critical need for women exiting prisons. For the past decade, literature has continually reinforced that involvement in quality and stable employment is a powerful protective factor. Reintegrating individuals have also identified employment as a central factor to their own reintegration success. However, in the current neo-liberal policy environment in Ontario, the scarcity of available resources and social services results in experiences of homelessness, stigmatization, and lack of income for this group of individuals. Achieving the means and skills required to secure employment after being imprisoned is very challenging due to the scarcity of resources and social services, compounded by pervasive social challenges such as systemic discrimination and social exclusion. Due to these challenges, reintegrating women may re-engage in illegal activities as mechanisms of survival. Political activist and author Angela Davis explains this phenomenon as: prisons have been used as “a way of disappearing people, in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent” (Davis, 2005). When the impacts of the Canadian justice system are weighed, an urgency for researching alternative pathways or initiatives is necessitated. Reintegrating individuals should have access to initiatives that combat underlying inequalities that are perpetuated by poverty, systemic discrimination, and social exclusion.
Building alternatives to imprisonment requires creating pathways that reduce the need for prisons and value our most vulnerable populations. A 2017 report entitled Gender Responsive Corrections for Women in Canada: The Road to Successful Reintegration Strategy called for developing initiatives, programs, and services that are evidence-based, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed to better support imprisoned women. This approach should also be applied to developing community-based programs that could change outcomes for those emerging from the prison system and reduce inequalities or barriers right now. Supports and new forms of opportunities after incarceration need to be provided for reintegrating women to help overcome barriers.
As a community-based researcher, my research aims to explore the barriers experienced by reintegrating women when seeking employment and provide evidence that Social Enterprise programs (SEPs) can empower vulnerable and marginalized populations such as women emerging from prison who need to take part in their communities and rebuild their social and financial lives. Specifically, I want to explore how SEPs can create leadership opportunities and offer evidence that community-based SEPs, particularly those led by the not-for-profit sector, can provide the capacity to confront structures of inequality and assist women in building financial security.
SEPs are gaining momentum and creating positive social outcomes through implementing governance structures that focalize equitable, collective, and sustainable practices. For example, KLINK, a social enterprise of St. Leonard’s Society of Toronto that roasts, sells, and distributes coffee, assists individuals exiting prisons with job opportunities and training. These positive social and economic opportunities need to be provided to create conditions for successful outcomes for reintegrating women, their families, and their communities.
I will answer my research questions through focus groups with an arts-based project designed to engage participants in envisioning exercises and through one-on-one interviews. I want to elicit responses to my research questions that detail how participants experience challenges to employment. I believe that by using methods that ask participants to share their experiences in their own words, I can create a safe atmosphere for reintegrating women to speak about their experiences overcoming adversity. Participants will be asked to speak about their experiences and contribute to building an employment initiative to serve others who share their same experiences. The outcomes from this research will provide an evidence-based roadmap of how SEPs can be a viable and successful initiative to support reintegrating individuals with employment. I believe bringing forward and foregrounding the lived experiences of reintegrating women will further strengthen their identities and agency within the frame of society and our communities.
Building community pathways such as successful, community-based SEPs requires Canadians to actively dismantle our material and ideological commitment to prisons and embrace a reality where an equitable and just future is possible for the reintegration of women in our community. A framework for successful, community-led SEPs will embody this socially-just economic future for all vulnerable people including previously imprisoned women, and build belonging, rather than disappearing people and social problems.
Ali Diebold is a community-based researcher, social worker, and project manager who is pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. A specialist in community-based restorative and transformative justice initiatives, community development, and reintegration, Ali has over 10 years of experience doing applied research and community development work with marginalized groups alongside actors ranging from grassroots NGOs to the Canadian federal government.
Ali’s research is funded through the Mitacs Accelerate and Ontario Graduate Scholarship programs. Her research is supervised by Dr. Bree Akesson who is an Associate Professor in Laurier’s Faculty of Social Work, the Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Global Adversity, and Wellbeing, and the Associate Director of the Centre for Research on Security Practices. Ali holds a Bachelor of Arts in Legal Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Social Work specializing in Community Planning, Policy, and Organizations from Wilfrid Laurier University.