Top News

WENDY ELLIOTT: Conviction — a look inside women’s prisons

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network
WOLFVILLE, N.S. —

“It’s not that we wanna be here... where else do we have to go?" — Bianca Mercer

Folks I know have been writing to Mark Furey, provincial justice minister, to protest the fact that a collaborative documentary made in a Nova Scotia women’s prison can’t be shown in that prison. Begs the question: why not?

‘Conviction’ introduces us to four female prisoners, including Bianca, and looks at how life could be different — both behind bars and once the four are released. It was written and directed by Nance Ackerman, Ariella Pahlke and Teresa MacInnes.

Ackerman, who has Valley roots, spoke in Wolfville about the aim of the film a couple of years ago. Recently, she and others were back to screen it.

We know that women in prison have often been impacted by childhood trauma, poverty, addiction and mental health concerns. But without serious amounts of counselling, society expects them, once released, to cope. Then we’re judgmental when they can’t. Duh?

We see these women using art, photography, music and poetry on the inside. They learn self-expression and strive to imagine a healthier existence outside bars, but without supports it becomes a pipe dream. Poverty alone traps them in past behaviours.

I was touched by one poignant scene that shows a woman trapped in the exercise yard, longing to see some green growing beyond the high walls. She finds a gap in a gate and peers through it. Words are not needed.

Following a young woman’s pregnancy is crushing given the reality of prison. The majority of these female prisoners are mothers.

All four of the women profiled have individual stories to share and they got to collaborate in the filmmaking, which makes it feel wrong not to allow a screening inside the institution.

Senator Kim Pate appears in Conviction, to ask what alternatives could replace prisons. She knows the score being a lawyer and former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

The entrenched system that operates the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility and the Nova Institution for Women doesn’t appear to be working — despite some stellar staff. Pate asks how we can create communities that heal and support our most vulnerable, rather than punish them further.

She and an architect, Anne Sinclair, meet with the women to envision a community-style living facility that would be both rehabilitative and cost effective.

That may be a pipe dream, but the female inmates are buoyed by the process of planning a better future.

Like the makers of ‘Conviction,’ Jan and David Buley, who used to teach at Acadia University, are spending time in the Clarenville Correctional Centre, a women's jail in eastern Newfoundland. They are there with the Lullaby Project and fostering songwriting in prison.

The women inmates the Buleys work with wrote lullabies and performed them. The International Lullaby Project operates worldwide to bring hope in places like refugee camps, neonatal units, drop-in centres and prisons. The Clarenville jail was the first Canadian prison to host the program. More good work through the arts.

In Britain, Mim Skinner spent two years teaching inmates art. Now she’s written a book, ‘Jailbirds,’ to try and change attitudes about women in jail — and how to support them on the outside

"The prisoners I’ve worked with are the most flexible, the most adaptable, the most inventive and the most entrepreneurial individuals it’s possible to imagine,” she said in an article in The Guardian.

Now Skinner is working in a café and pay-what-you-can supermarket with food donated that would have been composted. The project provides jobs for ex-prisoners who need help on the outside.

Conviction will be airing on the CBC’s Documentary Channel Dec. 1. Meanwhile, Ackerman has another new film out called ‘Behind the Bhangra Boys.’ It takes a close look at five Sikh Bhangra dancers, who are very positive new Canadians.

No wonder Ackerman is busy travelling to film festivals across the country right now. She has very worthwhile projects to share.

Recent Stories