by Lauren Golosky
Familiar with the inside of the classroom, Ruth Robillard never imagined herself on the inside of a prison.
But that’s exactly where the former teacher, who has retired three times since beginning her career in 1960, found herself.
Robillard is also the executive director of Friends on the Outside (FOTO), a faith-based organization that supports inmates, past and present.
When she began her role with FOTO seven years ago, the organization was allowed within the walls of the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre. FOTO ran a journaling program, guitar classes, and screened films followed by discussion.
“We bought them beautiful journals, with real masculine type covers,” Robillard explained. “They thought these books were too good for them. They started writing and it was just amazing of how they then shared their stories.”
Robillard never taught in prison, but she advised inmates who were interested in pursuing education upon release. She also participated in the various programs. While FOTO’s programming was popular with the incarcerated, eventually the prison blocked outside organizations from operating inside.
“Our programs in there were very successfully,” Robillard said. “The inmates literally would line up waiting to get into the program.”
While the correctional system was new territory to Robillard, she applied what she knew from her many years teaching in the Regina Public School Board and at Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT).
"I find the same thing as I did with students,” she said. “I find the same things with former inmates. They just need someone there that finally shows that they are valued and who can make them believe in themselves.”
Robillard believes a solid education begins with reading. If reading is not fostered at a young age, a person could fall behind. That’s why Robillard advocates for the right to education for prisoners.
“Education for every child, that’s not enough,” Robillard explained. “It’s education for every person. Not everyone has the opportunities a child and the child has no control of that. If there’s poverty, if there’s abuse, addictions, a child can’t fight that.”
Nick Jones, an associate professor of justice studies at the University of Regina, says education is just one factor in helping former inmates stay away from crime after being released.
“What stake do you have in society, or at the end of the day, what do you have to lose?” he said. “When you look at people who have nothing to lose, they are much more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.”
Robillard believes education can help enhance an offender’s self-esteem and self-worth. But if education is not available, the effects can be detrimental to their rehabilitation.
“When your right to education is cut off, that is very inhumane,” she said. “And what do we expect when they come out of prison, there is nothing for them to pursue after?”
Since being shut out of prison, FOTO is just that – friends from the outside. But the organization still advocates for offenders still in the system. And it isn’t just the inmates that learn from Robillard; they teach her, as well.
“What I’ve really learnt since I’ve worked with the prisoners is that each one has a passion,” she said. “They have had passions, but never had the opportunity.”