A rare opportunity to see the inside of a local prison was extended last Thursday, when the Fraser Valley Institution (FVI) for Women in Abbotsford opened for a media tour.
Assistant warden Chris Szafron said the tour was conducted so that the public, through the eyes of the media, can get a better look at a system that is sometimes misunderstood.
FVI is located on King Road on a large federal reserve that it shares with Matsqui and Pacific institutions. It is one of six women’s prisons in Canada and the only one in B.C.
The facility can house up to 120 women in its four units – minimum, medium and maximum security and mental health – with an emphasis on preparing them for their future.
“Our focus is on preparing women for reintegration into society because almost all offenders do, in fact, get released back into the community, so we do our best to prepare them for that challenge,” Szafron said.
FVI offers numerous educational and employment programs, and the tour included close-up looks at a couple of them, including a kennel program that is operated in partnership with the Langley Animal Protection Society (LAPS).
Dogs can be boarded at the site, where they are free to romp and play in fenced areas, while they are cared for by participating inmates.
The women in the program learn how to handle, train and groom dogs, and can obtain certificates in up to five different areas.
Instructor Alicia Santella of LAPS said the program provides women with many transferrable skills, such as compassion, discipline and working well with others.
“It’s a really great way for women to practise their worth ethics,” she said.
Inmate Ellen Dennett, who has been incarcerated for 6.5 years – the last five at FVI – after being convicted of second-degree murder, said the kennel program and others have made a huge difference in her life.
She has also participated in the culinary program and in self-improvement courses that have helped her deal better with her emotions and prepare her for a life outside of prison.
“In this environment, if you need help, you can get it here. If you don’t care about getting help, it won’t do anything for you,” said Dennett, who is due for day parole in June 2018.
She said every program she has taken at FVI has helped her “tremendously,” and she looks at prison as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth.
“You’re giving us a chance to get over our mistakes, to address them and to move on from them and to deal with them … At one point in my life, I was a pretty good person, and I want to get back to doing that stuff and healing and getting a change to be with my daughter,” Dennett said.
The tour also included a visit to the kitchen, where women in minimum and medium security can shop for the items they need to prepare their own meals each week. (Women in maximum security receive prepared meals.)
Other spots on the tour included the health services unit; the recreation building, which includes a gym and fitness area; the library and classrooms; the maximum-security unit; and the medium-security units, in which up to 12 women share living space split into two sections, with a common programming area for the two.
One of the living units is set up for the mother-child program, and includes a small playground.
A 20-bed minimum-security annex, which opened in June 2014, is located outside the FVI perimeter fence and across the road.
Other employment programs offered at FVI include horticulture, interior commercial painting, jewelry silversmithing, a nail course and core construction.
Szafron responded to concerns from some who might say that prison should be more about punishment than rehabilitation.
“We treat people the way that we think is going to lead them to the best chance of a successful life in the community, and that’s really our best way to reinforce public safety in Canada,” he said.