By Sharday Mosurinjohn
During her undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice and Public Policy at the University of Guelph, Stacey Alarie developed a passion for research. It was the community feel and supportive atmosphere of Guelph that made the experience of writing an undergraduate honours thesis such a rewarding effort, and solidified her plans to continue on to graduate work. A coursework MA in Sociology at the University of Toronto gave Alarie “the flexibility and research knowledge” needed to design the project she would eventually undertake in her PhD. Having been a summer student at the Ministry of Revenue for many years, Alarie resumed this administrative work full time for a year between completing her Master’s degree and beginning her doctoral program at Queen’s. “I moved up at the Ministry quickly and wanted to test out the full-time employment track. I wanted to learn more about my options.” However, the recent graduate also (both second year deviance courses). multiple years now. I did in the 2011 Winter semester, 2012 Winter semester and have just wanted more intellectual freedom. “I had so many questions, and I realized that it’s one thing to read ideas and events and another to actively pursue them in conversation with other scholars. I just love school. It’s so exciting to me.”
Alarie wound up studying at Queen’s through a logic that parallels what she is investigating in her current research project. The 4th year Sociology PhD candidate was born in Kingston and has lots of family support here. Smiling, Alarie recalls her move back to Kingston: “When I came back in 2008, my grandparents even made me dinner every Sunday.” Faculty from Guelph and U of T also highly recommended Queen’s for Alarie’s research interests. Her work is about the relationships and resources – or social capital – possessed by women serving time in Ontario jails. By inquiring into women’s experiences in building relationships, acquiring social resources, and negotiating their identities within the wider community, Alarie hopes to shed light on how ex-offenders re-enter society and what factors facilitate a successful transition.
Women incarcerated in federal institutions have received a significant amount of research attention, but there is minimal research on the provincial population, which, says Alarie, “is a substantial and marginalized group.” Whereas federal prison sentences last two years or more, provincial jail sentences are two years less a day or shorter. According to data collected in 2008/2009, the average sentence served by women in Ontario jails is 40.6 days. Moreover, these women are likely to be involved in the correctional system more than once and “even a brief stay in jail,” confirms Alarie, “can have a lasting and negative impact on the women who serve time and the people in their lives.” Although longer sentence lengths for women in federal prisons typically allow more time for researchers and incarcerated women to form connections and complete interviews, Alarie emphasizes that “accessing a population of people being released from an institution is difficult at any level.”
The differential in sentence length also means that women in prison tend to have greater access to programming that addresses drug and alcohol dependency as well as greater access to other forms of counseling. “Substance dependence and a history of abuse are factors present for a great number of women who receive sentences.” Moreover, with little time to adjust to a radically new environment, women in jails typically have less time to become settled enough to get their affairs in order in preparation for their release. Alarie offers a number of examples: “There are so many complex elements that are crucial to getting back on your feet and they tend to all intersect with one another. If your Ontario Disability Support gets taken away, then what do you do? If you have no income, how do you qualify for an apartment? What happens while you are on a wait list for an apartment? Where do your children go if you have no housing? If your license is revoked, how do you drive to that job interview? All of these issues are linked together and housing, especially, is a huge issue for recently released women.”
Alarie’s study is a mixed methods one that collects women’s stories and honours their voices while also compiling quantitative research in the form of event history analysis. “As a part of every question I ask, I note information about dates. For example: ‘When did you begin your jail sentence? When did, or when will, you complete your sentence? On what date did you start your current employment? When did you complete your highest degree of education? If your children are not under your supervision, do you hope to live with them soon?’” Accuracy is challenging, she admits, because it can be difficult to remember details like dates during such tumultuous times. “Nonetheless, knowing the timing of events and what factors influence them can help us understand how we can assist women in reintegrating into the community. This knowledge can also aid in discharge planning so we know what turning points to focus on and provide assistance with when women are released from jail.” Alarie believes it is equally vital to learn what’s important in the women’s lives, and how they define success for themselves. “I ask what success means to them and when they have achieved these personal goals in their lives.”
Having traveled all over Ontario, Alarie has just now finished the fieldwork stage of her thesis. Getting access to do these in depth semi-structured interviews about the relationships in provincial women’s lives has been smoother than she could have hoped for. “I’ve been so fortunate with making wonderful and helpful contacts at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. When I was starting out, I thought ‘I want to do this, but canI do this?’ I made some phone calls, and it seems I contacted the right people at the right time. At all of the institutional levels I’ve needed to go through, people have been so supportive,” Alarie recalls. And, she adds happily, “there are many who are really looking forward to reading this thesis when it’s done.”
Alarie’s supervisor, Dr. Fiona Kay, and the rest of her department have also been “amazing.” “I am so lucky to be here. I love Queen’s. I am part of a community here, surrounded by lifelong mentors. I am also grateful for many opportunities.” These opportunities have included serving on a number of committees and receiving several teaching fellowships that have given Alarie valuable experience teaching undergraduate courses. Clearly, as she works to change the divisive message of us vs. them and to emphasize that healthy communities are made of people who can feel like they belong, the hard-working Alarie’s appreciation for the value of a good support system only continues to grow deeper.