I had been waiting for that call because I was being released, after 15 months — perhaps better to say 447 days — of imprisonment.
My parole hearing and the approval of day parole had come more than three weeks earlier. The delay in my release was because there were no places in any of the halfway houses in the city to which I was returning. Waiting three weeks wasn’t bad; other prisoners I knew had waited two months or more for a space in their community.
Once your parole was approved, every additional day spent in prison was even more frustrating than usual. Everyone was anxious to get out, even knowing that being on parole had plenty of challenges. At least you would be back in the community, could see loved ones, move around, not be ordered around all day long, not feel like a prisoner 24 hours a day.
The worst thing about those days of waiting was that they were entirely unnecessary. They happened because the parole board would only grant day parole, which meant that you had to reside for months in a halfway house, even if you had a perfectly acceptable home and family waiting for you. The other option, full parole, which meant you could live in your own dwelling place, was almost never granted. Yet the parole board’s own data shows that almost everyone who started on day parole was granted full parole a few months later.
This excessive caution was due to changes made by the Harper government when it required parole decisions to be primarily about perceived public safety instead of balancing that with rehabilitation. Parole became harder to get and starting on full parole never happened. As a result, many people spent a lot more time in prison.
Can’t get it right
Even though my minimum-security prison was releasing someone almost every day I had already seen plenty of cases where the process didn’t work properly — which rather sums up the prison, where almost nothing worked properly but nobody much cared to fix any of it. So when my call to come to A and E was about two hours later than I expected, I was annoyed but not surprised.
Getting released is a process with many steps — and as usual, nobody tells you what they all are. You typically know your release day about a week ahead. Most prisoners give away quite a few possessions in their last few days. When you leave you have to carry everything you want with you, and if you are there for years you can accumulate a fair amount of stuff. Plus, who wants to take home things that will only remind you of time in prison?
On the last day you have to return all the things the prison issued to you — clothing, mattress and bedding, dishes. You have to retrieve possessions that you were not allowed to have, such as your ID. You have to receive any money left in your prison accounts. I also requested and received a CD with copies of all the files I had on the prison computer system, which included the nearly 200 letters I had written (which inform these columns).
When I got to A and E I was told that there was — surprise — a problem. The staff person who normally writes the cheques for released prisoners to return the money in their accounts was absent. They would have to give me my money in cash. And that would delay my release for a few hours.
A delayed release can be challenging. On the day of release, you must report to your parole officer in your community by the end of the workday, and you are required to check in and stay in your halfway house that night. Failure to do so is a crime and will result in being arrested and sent back to prison. If you have a long distance to travel, the timing can be tricky. The prison provides you with a bus or train ticket to your destination unless someone has come to pick you up, but it is up to you to report on time and a significant delay can make it all difficult.
In my case it wasn’t a problem because I had a relatively short bus ride with frequent buses. I was being met at the other end so would be driven to the parole appointment and then to the halfway house. But it was annoying nonetheless. By 9 a.m. I had done everything I needed to and said goodbye to everyone I wanted to — and now I had two more hours to wait.
Eventually the time came. I went back to A and E with my two big boxes of stuff — clothes, a few books, a big bag of letters I had received and kept, and other possessions such as my (small) TV and clock radio — and now my wallet and ID which I was not allowed to have in prison, only my prison identity card. I was given a big wad of cash for the money I had on account, and a bus ticket. A guard then drove me to the local bus stations, dropped me and my stuff and drove away.
It was a strange moment. After all that time being locked up, I was “free.” Notionally I could do anything and go anywhere, though in reality I could not. Those who spent years or even decades inside often have great difficulty adjusting to being out, especially at the beginning.
The day was warm. It felt good to sit there in the sun. I wondered if other people guessed that I was a released prisoner — a feeling that would come over me for years and that is common to former prisoners. You always think that other people know who you are.
One of my first acts was to walk over to the Tim Hortons just nearby and buy an iced cappuccino — one of the many small treats that I had missed so much while locked up. It was the first time I had used money since my sentencing. Then I sat in the sun and waited for my bus, and the start of the next phase — life on parole.
David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. Law360 Canada has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to Law360 Canada, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 647-776-6740.