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Pain, poverty and pleasure: Shifting the perspective behind bars

Viewing the world through the lens of a 19-year-old woman in prison isn’t easy, unless you’ve been there. Even when you have, it’s not always the same storyline.


Ms. J has served two years of her four-year sentence for manslaughter and several accounts of assault. Her story was made public in the South Surrey Delta Leader earlier this year as she and a peer, who was also there that night, came up for parole.

Since completing a Passion Project with a group of young women in the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre last December, I have been meeting with Ms. J almost every week for coaching.

As part of my commitment to the young women who take part in the Passion Projects, I don’t walk away from the projects without offering additional coaching to them if they want it.

Ms. J requested it.

For the last year five months, we have been working on areas of her live that she has felt the most amount of motivation to change: the way she sees the world, her body image, her education and her ideas around community and trust.

She has brought her wants to the table and each week we sit and share stories. As the coach, I ask her questions, and when she replies with “I don’t know.” I ask her to dig a little deeper. She does.

Ms. J will be graduating high school in custody next month. She is working on her physical goals, she is attending counseling, drug and alcohol support sessions, and has an amazing team of people who are supporting her.

In the short period of time that I’ve known her, Ms. J has proven to be extremely articulate, creative, playful and a go getter. She has asked if she can create a “cool” writing journal for the Passion foundation to raise money for other Passion Projects.  She would really like me to start a project in Haida Gwaii, where she is originally from. She thinks the girls there really need it.

She journals regularly. Two weeks ago, she announced to me that she is going to write a book about her life and asked me to coach her along to make happen.

She is eager to make changes, but at times struggles with the idea of being accepted when she will be released. She wants to fit in and get a job and help others, based on her experiences. She wants to share a message to other youth.

Several weeks back, I asked Ms. J for three words that describe her world. She replied, after a moment of thought, "pain, poverty and pleasure.” And she proceeded to tell me that everyone has pain in their lives, there are so many poor people who don’t have homes and that is because people are greedy and in pain -- “and pleasure, well, there is new technology every six months, people always want new. We place more value on technology than we do with people.” I was awed by her in-depth and profound answer.

Then I asked her how she thinks I see the world. She states very concretely, “Opportunity. Learning Experiences. Choices.”  I was touched by her insight. She was right.

I asked “ How do you think I got to this place of seeing the world this way?”

“You went through stuff and worked through it, like I’m working on mine. I think I’m starting to see the world the little differently now.”

Whether Ms J gets parole in August or not, I told her I’m not going anywhere. We will do what we can to help her work on her book, the journal she wants to create for other girls, and to continue to climb the hills so she can achieve her goals.

Thank you to the donations and support we received to make this happen.

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