Harry Nigh, the chaplain at the Keele Community Correctional Centre, has worked with parolees there since 1998. He planned to retire last March but the position remained vacant. He says he now feels compelled to continue to work, even though he’s not being paid. - COLIN MCCONNELL / TORONTO STAR
By: Ed Tubb Special to the Star, Published on Fri Jan 23 2015
With his hearty laugh, Harry Nigh knows how to cut the tension in a room. And, considering the difficult conversations he has every day, that’s a useful skill.
Nigh is the chaplain at the Keele Community Correctional Centre — a large federally run halfway house in Toronto’s west end. The Mennonite minister has worked with parolees there since 1998. In total, he has helped federal offenders adjust to life after prison for more than 40 years.
But, he has not been paid since last March.
That’s because the federal government cut the majority of funding for community chaplains in 2012, resulting in the loss of dozens of part-time positions. The loss of community chaplains — those who work with offenders on parole — was followed by the privatization of chaplain positions in federal institutions. Now, former chaplains are speaking out about the important work people like Nigh do and how many are choosing to continue to play a role — even without compensation.
“Chaplaincy is about relationships. These relationships that are developed over years can’t be broken,” said Yasin Dwyer, who will be speaking about the correctional service cuts this Sunday at Toronto’s Eglinton St. George’s United Church near Yonge and Eglinton.
For a time, Dwyer was the only full-time Muslim chaplain working in Canadian prisons. He resigned last year to protest the cutbacks.
There are approximately 7,800 federal offenders living in Canadian communities who are on parole or a similar form of federal supervision. Community chaplains offer them religious guidance when asked, but the job is often more practical than it sounds. Nigh helps offenders find jobs, connects them with supportive volunteers and talks them through their frustration and anger.
This work makes offenders safer, says former chaplain Kate Johnson. She resigned after five years as the chaplain of Kingston’s Pittsburgh Institution in 2013. She is now the interfaith chaplain at Queen’s University.
“My entire motivation for being in this work — from start to finish — is about community safety,” she says. “If we’re nice, they’re less likely to re-offend.” In an email, spokeswoman Sharon Peiris said Correctional Service Canada “recognizes the important contributions of Canada’s faith communities in preventing crime and ensuring the safe reintegration of offenders into the community.
“Chaplaincy services in Canadian correctional institutions have historically been delivered in numerous ways. Chaplains have, throughout the years and at various times, been engaged as volunteers, employees (i.e., public servants), contractors, or employees of their respective faith communities under contract.” In Nigh’s case, he planned to retire last March hoping that Corrections would hire a new chaplain. But the position remained vacant after he announced he’d be leaving.
He says he now feels compelled to continue to work, even though he’s not being paid.
“You’re dealing with people with mental health issues, without social skills without work history,” he says. “Who do they turn to when things go bad again?” Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, says he’s received complaints from faith community organizations that CSC has suggested to them if they wish to do previously paid work they should do so on a volunteer basis. CSC says it has not asked formerly contracted chaplains to continue work for free. The department says “volunteerism from within Canada’s faith communities has always been an important part of the response to meeting the religious and spiritual needs of offenders.”
Nevertheless, Sapers calls these complaints “disturbing.” There is a long history of volunteerism in corrections, he says, but “relying on the kindness of the faith community to do the job of CSC is not appropriate.”
For Johnson, Nigh’s situation underlines the government’s lack of respect for the work of chaplains. “We’re highly qualified to do this work,” she says. Johnson has degrees in social work and criminology as well as a master’s degree in restorative justice. “We’re not just do-gooders,” she says.
Nigh, meanwhile, has worked with federal offenders since 1973. He is widely respected by experts, colleagues and CSC staff alike as the co-creator of a successful program to rehabilitate child sex offenders. Recently, he spoke at an international conference in Spain about the program.
This, Johnson says, is ironic. Nigh is “invited all over the world to share his expertise, but the Canadian government isn’t willing to pay him,” she says.
Related Article - Prison Forum