The morning after Chris Trotchie was released from four months in North Fraser Pretrial Centre for an assault charge, he described even personal interactions as “sensory overload”.
“I’m not used to this many people around,” he said in a telephone interview. “I get out and there is constant movement. There’s noise; there’s people trying to talk to you. I don’t understand.”
Trotchie explained that he was held in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement. He walked out of Surrey Pretrial (where he was transferred three days before his release) shortly after 6:30 p.m. on November 20. He had $30 in his pocket, a garbage bag half full of clothes, and a bus ticket that got him to a friend’s place in Surrey.
What he didn’t have was a confirmed place to stay that night, any idea how to get a job, or a supply of several psychiatric medications he was taking while in prison.
About three weeks later, during an interview at the Guildford Town Centre food court in Surrey, Trotchie reported that he still wasn’t back on his meds. He said he was sleeping on couches and conceded that he had barely even thought about getting a job.
“Every day has been a struggle,” Trotchie recounted. “Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?”
The 27-year-old guessed he’d been through this almost 100 times during the past 14 years that he’s cycled in and out of B.C. Corrections and, before that, juvenile-detention facilities.
“I’m just going blindly,” he said. “At North Fraser, we didn’t make no plan. I was in the hole and that was it.”
Trotchie revealed a modest goal: to stay out until after the holidays. In subsequent interviews, he shared the challenges that has entailed.
Once an inmate has returned to the streets, it’s often too late to begin getting one’s life back on track, Trotchie argued. Most waking moments are consumed by immediate needs: food, shelter, and, in the case of many repeat offenders, feeding drug addictions. Navigating government bureaucracies and completing lengthy forms for things like income assistance and supportive housing become daunting tasks.
(For more on Trotchie's life and the circumstances of his criminal history, read "B.C. prisons lock mentally-ill offenders in isolation".)
MLAs say recidivism is a problem that can be fixed
Two December 18 government reports emphasize the same challenges.
“The ‘first day’ out of correctional centre is the hardest,” reads a study of B.C. Corrections facilities authored by Liberal MLA Laurie Throness (Chilliwack-Hope), the province’s parliamentary secretary for corrections. “Where does a newly-released offender go on that first day away from the institution? Does he or she have any social supports, proper medications, money, personal identification, a place to live or any job prospects? The answer to all these questions is too often ‘no,’ and thus offenders revert to what they know: the criminal lifestyle, followed by a quick return to a correctional centre.”
For an analysis of recidivism, B.C. Corrections provided Throness with statistics for each of the 18,926 offenders sentenced to its custody since 2012. “In a ten year period, almost two-thirds of those who enter our correctional system will return at least once,” it states. “A quarter will return at least five times.”
The second December 18 report, which focuses on public safety, notes that most chronic offenders are committing nonviolent crimes. But the costs of their “revolving door” interactions with the justice system are significant. “Averting a 14-year-old high risk offender from a lifetime of offending would save somewhere between three and five million dollars,” it states.
For offenders already in the system, the report continues, there is little done to break repeat offenders free of that cycle.
“At present, in this province, release planning and programs to facilitate the successful social reintegration of offenders are apparently minimal,” it reads. “The current approach to reducing recidivism among these offenders is too often limited to a patchwork of disjointed punctual interventions in their life, without a significant impact in terms of their desistance from crime. This must change.”
That document was produced by a panel chaired by Darryl Plecas, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and attorney general for crime reduction. In a telephone interview, the Liberal MLA for Abbotsford South maintained that recidivism isn’t a problem without answers.
“There is a great consensus about what the issues are and what we need to do to fix it,” Plecas told the Georgia Straight. “We just need to start putting things in place to make that happen.”
In response to Throness’s report on the provincial prison system, the government announced it will facilitate collaboration between B.C. Corrections and postsecondary institutions to expand job training for offenders. Plecas said the deployment of “assertive community treatment” teams—a relatively new model of care for the severely addicted and/or mentally ill—is also reducing clients’ interactions with police.
Plecas, addressing a lack of prerelease planning, said B.C. Corrections could look to its U.K. or federal counterparts, where, he said, recidivism rates are substantially lower.
“The fundamental difference is related to having supervision at the end of one’s sentence,” he said. “We do not have that luxury in the provincial system, because people do their 57 days, on average, and then you say: ‘Thanks, have a good day.’ You really need to have more than that.”
Asked why such reforms have not yet been initiated, Plecas spoke frankly about the government’s failings on recidivism.
“Many of the people who are the most problematic—who are the biggest drain on services—are people who truly need 24/7 attention on many different fronts,” he said. “And society just does not have deep enough pockets to address that to the extent that we ought to. I wish I had an answer to that.”
In a separate interview, Throness suggested that interventions should begin at the start of an inmate’s sentence.
“Sometimes people get out of prison and all that they have for ID is a letter from B.C. Corrections saying that they’ve been released,” he said. “We need to help these people, while they are in the system still, to fill out the forms for social assistance, to apply for social insurance, and all the rest, all the things that you need in a normal life.”
Throness also emphasized that in researching his report on B.C. prisons, a recurring theme he encountered was a need to address repeat offenders’ struggles with addiction. He suggested “recovery-based treatment” could, in many cases, serve as a more effective option than traditional incarceration.
“I think there needs to be a bit of a broadening of culture within B.C. Corrections,” he said. “Their role is not just enforcement. Their role within the institution is to help these people get ready for life on the outside.”
Housing can break a cycle
Julian Somers is an associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences. He’s authored a number of studies on recidivism that have found support services such as housing and treatment for addiction lower the odds that a released inmate will reoffend.
In a telephone interview, Somers repeatedly emphasized the role that addiction plays in high recidivism rates. He praised Throness’s report for calling attention to this issue, but criticized it for failing to include concrete recommendations for how addiction support services for inmates could be improved.
“For people who are suitably motivated, drug treatment courts can be a really timely intervention,” Somers said. “Overall, it leads to reductions in recidivism compared to the traditional court process.”
He described a release without such support systems as, “a recipe for disaster.”
At the same time, he noted these recommendations are all about approaching the problem from behind. Somers suggested deploying greater resources for drug treatment and education before a crime is committed. “We have enough information now to know that we can actually go upstream and, probably with a lower dollar investment, make a big difference in an individual’s life course,” he said.
With societal addiction issues unlikely to be addressed in the near future, groups that provide rehabilitation assistance to criminals unanimously stress the importance that housing can play in lowering rates of recidivism.
Tim Veresh, executive director of the John Howard Society, said B.C. Corrections was once more involved in housing. But he recalled that began to change around 2000, when many support services previously offered were stripped from that body. Some were transferred to other agencies, such as B.C. Housing and the Ministry of Social Development, Veresh noted. But he argued that gaps have subsequently developed, the consequences of which are obvious.
“If you lose hope when you’re released because you don’t have a place to stay or it's cold on the street and you’re struggling, where do you go?” Veresh asked. “You go back to what you know. If all your friends are involved in crime, you still go to them for support and shelter, and next thing you know, you’re going to be back in crime because that’s the lifestyle that they lead.”
The Lookout Emergency Aid Society has a small but growing program that aims to break the revolving door cycle for inmates released from Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge.
According to Lookout's executive director, Shayne Williams, a pilot project called Homeless Intervention has provided housing for 62 former inmates released between May 2011 and December 2013.
“We’re meeting incarcerated men three months before statutory release,” he said. “We’ve got a Lookout employee that’s cleared to go into the jail and meets with them and talks about that cycle of becoming homeless and getting re-incarcerated.”
Williams described it as "a very good example of what can be done"; however, he noted it’s far from the norm.
“Your standard is, folks come up for stat release, they’re given a bus ticket, and good luck," Williams lamented. "And quite often, they’ll come straight into our system again.”
Home for the holidays?
In a telephone interview, Trotchie’s father, James, described the strain that recidivism places on a family.
“When Christopher gets out of jail, I can’t watch the news,” he began. “I don’t want to hear that my son got killed or something. I’m so scared of it.”
Trotchie’s mother was murdered when he was just 11. James counted 13 foster homes that the boy went through before he was returned to the custody of his family. When Trotchie was old enough to enter juvenile detention facilities, that’s where he ended up.
“As soon as he gets out, he’s back to it," James said in another interview. "And the reason for that is, he gets released with no plan, no medication—nothing. It’s like they’re setting him up.”
James noted Trotchie has seldom spent long in prison. Despite his lengthy record, he has remained within the provincial correctional system, which deals with less severe crimes. But he added that it has been 15 years since his son was free for the holidays. “Since he turned 12, he’s never been with me on the street for Christmas,” James said. He added he was hoping 2014 is the year that will happen.
Unaware of his father’s wish, Trotchie said the same thing at the Guildford Centre food court.
“This was all a lack of a plan,” he said. “So my plan now is just to stay out through Christmas. I think I can stay out that long.”
That was December 10. Neither Trotchie nor the Straight knew it at the time, but one day earlier, Surrey RCMP had issued a warrant for his arrest citing a probation violation. He’ll return to prison as soon as he’s caught.