When Bowden’s oldest building needed a new coat of paint recently, the search for a willing group of workers went no further than the local federal prison.
Inmates in Bowden Institution’s Community Service Work Release Program were only too happy to grab some brushes and paint cans to spruce up the 116-year-old St. Matthews Anglican Church. The effort, which drew grateful praise from the Bowden Pioneer Museum, is one of dozens of projects done each year by inmates in the prison’s minimum security annex.
“We’re probably around the 15,000 hours of community outreach since our program began, without incident,” said assistant warden Rita Wehrle on Tuesday.
Since the program began in 1994, inmates have volunteered their labour for a long list of non-profit groups. Prison-supervised work parties have fixed up campsites, helped out at the Danish Canadian Museum in Dickson, undertaken projects for Central Alberta agriculture societies and offered their services at the RCMP dog training facility in Innisfail.
When the Innisfail ski hill needed some work, inmates did more than volunteer their time. They raised $1,000 by recycling pop cans to buy the materials to build a new shed.
Wehrle said the program has been a big hit among community organizations.
“We get nothing but letters of thanks,” she said. “We’re quite proud of (the inmates), obviously, because clearly the work that we do is allowing organizations to improve, or maybe in some cases get through a difficult year, because we have provided labour free of charge.”
For the inmates, the program offers an opportunity to spend time outside the prison fence, to meet new people and begin preparations for a life outside the prison routine.
“They get to interact with people who receive them really well. A lot of times when inmates go into the community and are looking for work and stuff, they feel like they have this label on their forehead.
“They’re not always received that well in the community when they’re looking for jobs because they have a record.”
But they are received much differently by groups who have specifically asked for their help.
“They feel valued. They feel like they’re making a contribution.”
Wehrle said public safety remains the prison’s first concern and only inmates who have shown their willingness to follow prison rules and undertake any necessary programs are cleared to join those in the minimum security annex, a collection of dormitory-like buildings typically housing about 70 inmates who are considered very low risk.
Once in the annex, inmates who continue to show good behaviour can apply to join a work release group, which is usually comprised of eight to 10 inmates.
“It is truly the last kind of thing you get to do before you would be released back into the community.”
Besides being considered a low escape risk, inmates must also be considered to be a low public safety risk even in the unlikely event one did try to sneak away from a work party.