Rebuilding with purpose

Social supports are the antidote to recidivism, expert says

Joey Fagnan escaped a life of crime when he started working for Purpose Construction.

Supplied photo

Joey Fagnan remembers visiting his family for Christmas and holiday dinners as a child, where relatives shared their stories about the horrors of the residential schools. Fagnan feared he would be abused at school, too.

“I was literally thinking that I was going to get raped or beaten up or something going bad in school, which never happened,” he says.

“I was always having that (abuse) in the back of my head if I ever got sent to the office, or if I was ever alone with a teacher in a private room or with a guidance counsellor. So I said ‘Forget school.’”

When he left school behind between Grade 6 and 7, Fagnan got involved with gang culture and drugs. He started to rack up criminal charges and cycled in and out of custody.

Each time he was released, Fagnan had no interest in working and would return to selling drugs. When he found a job, he heard racist jokes and comments that would cut deep and push him away from working.

“I’m just like, ‘You know what, this is not for me.’ I’m not going to pick up an assault charge because I want to act out on this disrespect that they’re directing at me,” Fagnan says.

It wasn’t until Fagnan found Purpose Construction – a non-profit organization that specifically hires people with criminal records – that he kept a steady job without feeling ridiculed or discriminated against.

Fagnan started as a general labourer, working on a bedbug cleanup crew and working his way up to becoming a division manager. He’s been with Purpose Construction for 11 years and is now a manager.

“My first goal was to have a one-year employment with one company, to stay in one place. And I’ve met that goal,” he says.

Manitoba Justice measures recidivism as “when a person is convicted of a new offence and is returned to provincial custody within two years of release from jail or other supervision.”

From 2022-2023, recidivism rates for adults in custody were 20 per cent, while adults on probation or who had conditional sentencing were 11 and nine per cent, respectively.

This past fiscal year has seen Manitoba’s prison population grow more than 12 per cent. The previous year’s prison population grew by three per cent.

Katharina Maier, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg and board chair for the John Howard Society of Manitoba, says research shows that having a stable job after release reduces people’s likelihood of reoffending. However, people who experience challenges maintaining a job have a higher chance of reoffending.

Maier says people have a greater likelihood to cycle in and out of provincial pris- ons compared to federal prisons because of the lack of social support and the growing prison population.

It’s important to distinguish the difference between recidivism and reintegration, she says.

“Recidivism focuses much more narrowly on just offending,” Maier says. “Reintegration looks more holistically at what people do to rebuild and what people do to achieve a new sense of self.”

She says employment is only one challenge people face when leaving the justice system. Housing, ID access and healthcare all affect someone’s ability to reintegrate.

“Reintegration is a subjective experience. Some people, their need is to focus on family and social reintegration,” Maier says. “Other people might have other priorities.”

If it wasn’t for Purpose Construction, Fagnan says he wouldn’t know what he would be doing.

“Everybody deserves a shot, no matter what your education is or who you are,” he says.

Purpose Construction has employed more than 400 people since opening. The company recently launched a new program for Indigenous, Métis and Inuit people who’ve had a history with the justice system for learning construction skills. The first cohort graduated March 29.

Published in Volume 78, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 4, 2024)

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