‘Showing up with each other’

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Donita Wiebe-Neufeld, Alberta Correspondent
<p>Gary Garrison reads from his book Human on the Inside: Unlocking the Truth about Canada&rsquo;s Prisons. On March 28, Mennonite Central Committee Alberta gave a copy of the book to each volunteer to thank them for their work in visiting prisoners this past year. (Photo by Donita Wiebe-Neufeld)</p>

Years ago, when Abe Janzen had just started his work as Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) director, he was taken to prison for a visit. There, he said, he “realized how biblical and terribly important and endlessly necessary” this ministry is. “It’s not about fixing things, but about showing up with each other.”

On March 28, 2015, at Edmonton First Mennonite Church, MCC Alberta said thank you to the volunteers who regularly enter Edmonton area institutions to spend time with inmates.

“The first day I was in minimum was when Restorative Justice [visitors] came in,” former prisoner Debbie Gagne told the gathering. “Your visits meant so much. I can’t tell you how much that meant. . . . It felt like being at home, being normal. I am so grateful for what your organization does.” She then sang “What a Difference You’ve Made in my Life” and “Amazing Grace.”

Author Gary Garrison read from his recent book, Human on the Inside: Unlocking the Truth About Canada’s Prisons. With more than a decade of experience visiting inmates and coordinating visitation volunteers, Garrison overflowed with stories of both trouble and transformation.

What changed Garrison the most was taking part in an “alternatives to violence” workshop with prisoners, playing the part of a violent man in a skit. “They were a lot like me, but it took this role play for me to realize I was a lot like them,” Garrison said.

Asked if he could change one thing about the prison system, Garrison laughed, then said, “Treat nonviolent offenders differently than those who are violent . . . give people with mental illnesses the treatment they need, instead of just locking them up.”

A couple weeks before, Garrison had the opportunity to read parts of his book to 90 students at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, half of whom are in training to become prison guards. Afterwards, he said, “Six came to me asking for information about how to get involved [with prison visitation].

Janet Anderson, the MCC staffer who has coordinated women’s visitation in Edmonton for seven years and the men’s visitation for four-and-a-half years, chaired the appreciation event. She will step back from her work with the men at the end of March, when Jim Shantz will take over the role.

MCC Alberta gave each of this year’s volunteers a copy of Garrison’s book at the appreciation evening.

About the video:  Gary Garrison and friend Suzanne Gross sing their composition “Human Too.” Of the song, Garrison, author of Human on the Inside: Unlocking the Truth about Canada’s Prisons, writes: ‘It’s the essence of the 12 prisoner interviews I did: Seventy thousand words of transcribed text and twenty hours of interviewing all condensed to 258 words, all performed in under four minutes. It’s about what happens when an ordinary person comes into prison and brings in the fresh air and sunlight, the freedom and empathy prisoners crave.’

Gary Garrison reads from his book Human on the Inside: Unlocking the Truth about Canada’s Prisons. On March 28, Mennonite Central Committee Alberta gave a copy of the book to each volunteer to thank them for their work in visiting prisoners this past year. (Photo by Donita Wiebe-Neufeld)

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