Beyond bars

Former convicts write about their experience

Kelly Rose Pflug-Back was released from the Vanier Centre for Women in February and is one of the women behind the new publication Voices Unchained.
Kelly Rose Pflug-Back was released from the Vanier Centre for Women in February and is one of the women behind the new publication Voices Unchained.

While people were buzzing over last summer’s Netflix series Orange is the New Black, a universal truth remained.

The lives of female prisoners isn’t a topic commonly discussed, nor is it a neutral one. The prison system tends to be a very touchy subject. But Kelly Rose Pflug-Back wants to change that.

Pflug-Back was released this February after spending eight months incarcerated at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ontario.

She and two others are behind the upcoming newsletter, Voices Unchained, which will be available in print at various female prisons across the country, as well as online to the public.

Voices Unchained is responding to a really terrible dearth of resources available to women prisoners,” Pflug-Back said.

The publication will provide an uncensored platform for prisoners to share their struggles and drive the public to think critically about the often-misconstrued prison system.

“These stories can enhance the understanding of what it is like to be criminalized, what it is like to be in jail and what it is like to live a life of poverty,” she said.

Access to media in prison is incredibly limited. The newsletter will include important information on issues relating to women behind bars, such as children’s aid services, HIV treatment and welfare policies.

The Toronto-based publication will also feature creative pieces penned by women currently in the system.

“Creative pursuits are a way to reclaim a bit of that humanity that is removed from you through being chewed up and spit out by the system,” Pflug-Back said.

Since most of these women come from very dehumanizing life circumstances, which the prison system exacerbates, she said, reclaiming one’s self-concept is imperative.

“People find a lot of ways to exercise their creative abilities while incarcerated,” Pflug-Back said. “It’s not just therapeutic for the individual. It can be a source for social change.”

By giving this outlet to female prisoners, she said she hopes to decrease the stigma regarding the prison system and inspire the public to question it.

“Hopefully [this will] make some of these issues more open to the public and start to help people ask questions like, ‘why is the percentage of female prisoners rising so drastically in the past few decades?’”

Pflug-Back pointed out that the vast majority of women are imprisoned for non-violent offences, most of which stem from economically-disadvantaged situations.

“Why are we, to such an extent, criminalizing poverty in society?” she said.

She said it’s important to emphasize restorative justice instead of punitive justice.

“We need to think more about what pushes a person to commit fraud,” she said. “Is it some kind of antisocial tendency or is it the fact that they are impoverished?”

It doesn’t matter that you robbed a convenience store because you were late on rent and your children are going to be out on the sidewalk in the middle of winter — all that matters is that you robbed a convenience store, Pflug-Back said.

The newsletter intends to help put a face to the rising number of female prisoners, demonstrating the significance of the arts as a coping mechanism.

Many of them are survivors of past traumas, like childhood abuse and domestic violence.

“We need to start really looking at the root causes of crime in society rather than just treating it as an individual, malicious act,” she said.

With around 20 volunteers across the country, Voices Unchained supporters in Kingston will host a benefit concert, showcasing local musicians, for the publication this weekend.

The benefit show for Voices Unchained will take place on Saturday, Oct. 26 at The Artel. Doors open at 8 p.m.

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