Zoë Paliare knew Canadians knew very little about the lives of the formerly incarcerated in this country, so she did something about it.
Enter The Field, a podcast she created that aims to teach listeners about how these individuals in Canada and the U.S. reintegrate into society.
The restorative justice activist and former litigator grew up in a family of lawyers who were active in the public interest sector. From volunteering with marginalized youth in Toronto to mentoring young incarcerated men in her twenties, Paliare's calling has been to do better for disenfranchised communities.
The correctional and justice systems tend to treat people as less than human.Zoë Paliare
"What can I do to have an impact in this space that is going to make it feel worthwhile?" she wondered.
"I decided that one way that I as one person could try to address it was to create a platform where people who had been through that experience could share their stories, so that the rest of us could actually start to hear them and understand, see the humanity in people first and recognize that there's so much more to the human than we're thinking ... than the circumstances that they found themselves in."
Paliare added: "The correctional and justice systems tend to treat people as less than human."
People need to see others as humans and treat them how they would want to be treated, regardless of background and history, she said.
From incarceration to re-entry: A look into the lives of the formerly incarcerated
The stigma around the formerly incarcerated is quite common. This often leads to difficulties in re-entering the world after years away. Struggles to find housing and employment are two of the biggest challenges the formerly incarcerated face.
Joseph Lauren, Glenn Martin, and Louis Reed are three formerly incarcerated individuals who were on The Field. Each had their own history and struggles but managed to push through, rebuild their lives and find their places in social justice helping other formerly incarcerated people.
Joseph Lauren is first and only Canadian to be convicted and serve a federal sentence for insider trading. The former securities lawyer served a 39-month sentence in Canada. Since his re-entry, Lauren landed a job at Restorative Justice Housing Ontario where he helps formerly incarcerated people find housing. He also runs a consulting firm that offers compliance talks and training, as well as counsels first-time offenders.
But his employment did not come easy.
"I was released to a world with thousands of negative Google search results and a poorly written book filled with objectively false statements confronting me and hindering my efforts at reintegration," Lauren said. "It was so burdensome that I eventually changed my name to 'Joseph Lauren.' "
Lauren thinks the system should be better at setting up people about to leave a prison with what they'll need, like all necessary identification cards and a bank account with the money they earned working inside. This way, they'll be ready to "hit the ground running" on becoming reintegrated members of society.
Glenn Martin, served seven years in prison for armed robbery and is now a leader in criminal justice reform. Since his release, he created many national organizations in the nonprofit sector, specifically in restorative justice and currently runs a social justice consultancy firm.
I visited about 50 different employers in a 30-day period, and just kept getting turned down based solely on the criminal conviction.Martin
Martin earned his university degree while in prison, but found the transition to post-prison life challenging because of his history. He adds that so much is tied to employment opportunities: from healthcare, to self esteem, to reputation.
He says sentencing strips individuals of their humanity and liberty. In the future, he wants to see ceremonies held for the formerly incarcerated to be properly welcomed back into society.
Louis Reed, who was mentored by Martin, served 14 years in federal prison. He now serves on the executive team at REFORM Alliance — an organization committed to probation, parole, and sentencing reform in the United States that was co-founded by rappers Meek Mill and Jay-Z — and leads his own firm that helps support individuals in the re-entry process.
Reed said his transition in halfway homes was too restrictive as it placed limits on where he could work and how much he could earn, which made it impossible to meet his financial needs.
"The halfway house transition was frustrating. There was a limitation on where I could have [a job], Reed said, which further limited his employment options.
Reed believes mentorship should be part of the re-entry process and pre-entry: He would like to see the system help people create their plans at least 18 months before the end of their sentences.
Lauren adds that the stigma facing the formerly incarcerated further burdens the individuals and society as finding adequate places to live and work are pillars of the re-entry experience.
People leaving during the pandemic didn't have anywhere to go.
The impact of COVID-19 on re-entry
The isolation that people experienced during the pandemic greatly impacted their mental and physical health. The pandemic has given a glimpse into what incarcerated individuals experience to an extent when they are disconnected from society.
There were support programs that were cancelled, a lack of job opportunities and many people re-entering during the pandemic also had to face homelessness.
"People leaving during the pandemic didn't have anywhere to go," Paliare said. "We already know that shelters were at capacity and people were forced into parks and wherever they could find a place."
There's something about going through suffering together ...
For individuals re-entering, mentorship plays an important role like Martin was a mentor to Reed. Martin believes mentorship is the glue that holds the re-entry process together.
But there was a lack of access to such opportunities because of COVID-19, limiting the connections people can make and shrinking networks.
"You come home, you have all these same skills, lack of resources, lack of access, and suddenly, lack [of] relationships to lean on," Martin said.
Martin adds that there is a sense of connection when people suffer together that is deeper than any connection he has ever had in his life.
"There's something about going through suffering together, something about being in the valley together that you know you want to bring people with you as you head towards the mountaintop, if you will," he said.
People re-entering during the pandemic were very fearful along with the rest of the world, but with more challenging circumstances.
"It was going from one institution, and literally into another institution—an institution of fear, an institution of of despondency," Reed explained. "You have to consider when you are being transitioned from incarceration, there is a degree of anxiety that you have, but the people around you keep you stable."
The silver lining from the pandemic was that many individuals re-entering got jobs in the service industry because others did not want to be on the frontlines.
"I just find it ironic that we can in effect put a moratorium on how we vet people's criminal history when it's advantageous for society, and we needed frontline workers," Reed said.
"But in normal circumstances, a person wouldn't have even qualified for a job at McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's, because they had a criminal history. It's just fascinating to me."
More supports needed
Psychiatrists, medications or general mental wellness support are often hard to come by and available only to people who can afford it. Paliare said the pandemic has shown that social justice is a public health issue that needs to be a top priority.
"We just don't do enough to support people in mental health," Paliare said. "It's so challenging for people to get support and where they can generally when they're facing a mental health crisis."
Reed believes social justice is an element of public health. By ensuring formerly incarcerated individuals are not locked out of opportunities due to their criminal history, they can thrive and help their communities grow.
Fortunately for Paliare, her hopes for The Field podcast are coming true. She is the director of equity and associate performance at the law firm Cassels, who supported the podcast. Businesses have reached out to say how the discussions have opened their eyes, which is the impact she hoped it would make.
"They are [businesses] starting to connect with organizations that work with people who are re-entering... to see if they can set up programs that would hire and train people who are returning to the community."