Sophia Solomon, MScOT’18, never imagined working in Corrections, but with the high concentration of prisons in Kingston, it was a great opportunity for her student placements.
Now, two years after Solomon got her foot in the door by working at the Millhaven and Bath Institutions, she is just over one year into her new role at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. Grand Valley is one of six federal institutions for women across Canada, and Solomon now has the unusual experience of providing occupational therapy, not only in Corrections, but also during a pandemic and while her clients are in medical isolation.
The prison setting is a much more secure and controlled environment, and occupational therapists must quickly learn to adapt. Consequently, mental and general health services and supports look very different in a prison. “It can be tough,” she says, “because it [occupational therapy in Corrections] is not a topic that is really explored in mainstream education. You kind of pick it up along the way.”
Solomon was drawn to occupational therapy because it is such a broad field, including physical health, mental health, and cognitive well-being. She describes it as client-centred and empowering, and focused on bringing a wider perspective to what it really means to be healthy. As Solomon says, “not just staying alive, but living.” She helps her clients facilitate that journey by showing them how to occupy their time with meaningful activities and projects. Access to those can be powerful for the client, particularly when recovering from a disability, as it enables them to gain personal control. “Occupational Therapy increases opportunities for meaningful engagement and activities for individuals living in the prison environment” she says.
As the only occupational therapist at Grand Valley, Solomon had her hands full when she was designated as the mental-health professional who would be working with the inmates in medical isolation. Each of the inmates was isolating for various lengths of time during April and May. “This was one of the toughest things I have experienced so far in my profession,” she says.
Some inmates have high mental-health needs, and are sometimes victims of historical trauma, therefore Solomon says that it is especially important for staff to be patient and calm. The nature of their support systems had changes due to the pandemic, so Solomon found herself filling in some of the support gaps for them.
Solomon had to get creative. She checked in regularly with each of them and assigned them small goals they could achieve every day. These included puzzles, a series of yoga exercises, or listening to music. Solomon knew she was making progress when, at unexpected times, the women would show their appreciation with an unanticipated thank-you or gesture of appreciation.
“We were all in it together,” she says. “This is a historic moment that we have experienced this year. The people that you experience it with you will not forget for a very long time.”
Seven months later, Solomon is still feeling the impact of the pandemic. She is catching up with cases and has been trying to address the number of clients on the waitlist. It’s been a positive experience in many respects, but also challenging. Solomon has ensured prioritizing self-care time outside of work in order to avoid compassion fatigue – a form of stress that can result from caring for individuals who are deeply in need and can happen to those in helping professions. At the same time, she believes occupational therapy in Corrections is getting more exposure and is a growing field. She has seen a shift at Grand Valley since she arrived. It required pitching ideas to management, having daily conversations with colleagues about clients, and building a relationship with the institution — a relationship that is now helping many women.
“It is a great opportunity to facilitate recovery for the prison population,” she says. “Recovery in prison still counts.”