Knowledge is power.
And it's empowering a group of inmates who are taking classes at the Fort Frances Jail.
Since last April, Tracey Omerod of the Valley Adult Learning Association (VALA) has been holding weekly one on one sessions with offenders and last fall she introduced group sessions as well.
“They've been really receptive to Tracey," said Ellie Tucker, rehab officer at the jail. "I don't know if it's her [English] accent or what, but they just love her,” she laughed.
Omerod, who's originally from the U.K, teaches the “Up Skills” program at the jail on Thursdays. She said the classes are aimed at improving the inmates motivation, attitude, accountability, presentation, teamwork, time management, adaptability, stress management, and most importantly, confidence.
Much success has come from the program, as one of VALA's learners achieved their grade 12, while another has been accepted to Seven Generations Education Institute for welding.
VALA has also helped inmates who singed up for classes there, once out of prison.
“One of the main reasons for the classes is to sort of build up their confidence so that they can come in here [to VALA] and learn,” Omerod explained.
She said it's incredibly gratifying to see the difference in those who take VALA's classes from when they start.
“Just seeing everybody growing confidence and then become motivated to work," Omerod enthused. "That transition's amazing.”
“You literally see them go from being crouched over to them standing proud,” she added.
Tucker said when the inmates are in custody, often times they've “hit their lowest point" and feel segregated or "less than.”
“So when you have people who are coming in and helping them . . . I think it creates that, 'I have a place to turn to when I'm released that will help,'” she remarked.
Tucker noted that there's a huge difference in even the inmates social interactions since starting the courses with Omerod.
“A couple of them barely spoke or talked, were just withdrawn and now they're confident,” Tucker said.
“They've taken on things, like working in the kitchen or laundry . . . whereas before they wouldn't have said nothing. They would have just waited their time out.”
The inmates are now less isolated and have built better relationships with one another.
Tucker said that through the group classes, they're also learning how to work as a team.
“It's created a lot better atmosphere in the back for the CO's [correctional officers] because these people are getting to know each other in a different light so then they tolerate each other better in the back,” she noted.
There's a real buzz at the jail among the inmates in the days leading up to Omerod's classes, according to Tucker.
VALA administrator, Barb Duguay told the Times she thinks Omerod is able to connect so well with those who take her classes because she has 12 years of experience working in law enforcement, from back when she lived in the U.K.
“I think that's part of the success of why she's doing so well in there,” Duguay noted.
“I don't think somebody else would be able to go in there and be as successful as she has been-without that background.”
Omerod approaches the classes without any judgement and her focus is solely on helping the inmates learn.
“I tend to keep quite an open mind and I never focus on what they're there for or anything,” she remarked.
“I don't know half the time and I just treat everybody as an individual and we have a mutual respect.”
Omerod said just because the individuals who she teaches have made mistakes in their lives doesn't mean they don't deserve the opportunity to get back on track and better their lives through education.
Almost all of the inmates who take the classes have indicated they're trying to create better lives for themselves.
During an intake, one inmate wrote, “I came here today because it's a door opening up to me for better career options.”
Another inmate said “I came here today because I'm reaching out for help. I'm a smart person with a lot of potential that has some weak spots and needs help.”
The inmate indicated that he doesn't have any support and could use some guidance.
“I'd like to get back on track, get working, or get help with tasks that are keeping me from rising to my full potential and taking charge of my goals,” the inmate continued.
Tucker said the intake forms show that the offenders are pretty similar to the rest of society, but are struggling and need some help.
“They're not bad people. They're not any different because they're in there,” she remarked.
Omerod said she has been amazed with some of her learners accomplishments.
“They're really quite smart," she lauded. "It blows me away sometime.”
Omerod said there's no plans to stop the program any time soon and it will run throughout 2020.