Sitting across the table from a relative in a prison visitation room is one place most Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) employees never expect to be.
But for Kelly Taylor, Director of Correctional Research in CSC's Research Branch, having a family member incarcerated is what led to her current career and her passion for helping offenders change for the better.
"That's not a situation anyone ever wants to be in," says Kelly of her unexpected introduction to the correctional system. "You're entering a world that's very foreign. That's a scary time obviously. There was an extreme sense of helplessness in terms of how you can intervene, especially as I got older. I'd always seen my parents and my aunts and uncles struggle with this, but now as an adult, it's – 'how can I help?' And then the questioning; 'what contribution did I make to this behaviour? Was I not there to support this individual? How could I have changed what happened?'"
One of the Research Branch's driving motivations is to better understand offender behaviour and its causes, Kelly says, and be able to contribute to offender rehabilitation. For her, that message truly hit home through her years dealing with her troubled relative, who spent time in and out of the provincial and federal correctional systems for offences including break and enter and theft.
Growing up together, Kelly says her relative began having "extreme and concerning" experiences early on, including problems at school, which escalated as a teenager until he landed in provincial, and then federal, institutions.
"What contribution did I make to this behaviour? Was I not there to support this individual? How could I have changed what happened?"
"There started to be smaller things, like he got expelled from school, and the next thing you know that builds to the police being at your door because they brought him back for stealing something," she says.
"Emotion-wise, it was always just high-stress, high- tension. As a child (and sometimes as an adult), you want to remain close but there's always that uncertainty in terms of being able to trust them 100 per cent and feel like you can be confident in their actions and your relationship with them."
Though the family member has since turned away from crime and returned to the community to successfully rebuild his life, Kelly says it's been a lengthy process, though one that helped lead her to CSC.
"The family continues to struggle with the reality of past actions," she says. "So despite success, there is still uncertainly because of the damage that was done for years and years."
"When you have that personal connection, you really have that desire to understand and to be able to help because you've lived through it."
Wanting to help make a difference is a philosophy that holds true for all of the Research Branch, whether that's making an impact on CSC policies or operations, with outside partners or even Canadians. Working on areas such as offender health issues, security operations and the effectiveness of correctional programs provides researchers with an opportunity to contribute.
"The more we know, the more we can impact the interventions," Kelly says. "We don't get researchers here that aren't passionate. They come to CSC for a reason. It's about influencing change and providing empirically based evidence to give our executives the confidence in making the decisions they make."
One example of a tangible, on-the-ground impact CSC research has is the development of a tool for reassessing the security ratings of women offenders. The Security Reclassification Scale for Women, which was created by the Women Offender Sector's Kelley Blanchette and Kelly, helps CSC staff to reassess a woman offender's security level on an ongoing basis. Having this more dynamic tool is critical, Kelly says, since it responds to the unique needs of women offenders in a dynamic manner. It marks the changes in behaviour and progress CSC staff hope to see once an offender has had access to programs and other resources throughout their rehabilitation, and to ideally prepare offenders for reintegrating back into the community.
"It allows us to assess that change, and hopefully if all is going well, we're going to see a decrease in the offenders' security level," she says. "Certainly, if you look on the community side of things, if we're better able to assess change and transition them down through the security levels, they're that much more prepared for reintegration upon release, as opposed to being released from maximum security, for example".
"For me personally, it's one of my biggest accomplishments as a researcher. When I tell people [that Research developed the scale], they're amazed by it. They're like, 'oh, that's what research can do'?"
But Kelly is quick to stress that the Research Branch's work doesn't happen in isolation. There are two key components to making CSC research as effective as possible, she says – ensuring that it's timely, and collaborating and engaging with others such as staff, partners and offenders. "When we do research, we can't do it without staff input [or] offender input," Kelly says. "If we're evaluating a program, we recognize that we don't evaluate the program in isolation. We go and talk to the program people about what their interests are, what their questions are. Understanding the operational perspectives and talking to the frontline staff is critical. In terms of the implementation of research, when it's time to go do interviews in an institution (for example), instead of us coming in and no one having any idea what's going on, we have colleagues from the institution on board to contribute and assist already. In turn, they recognize what we're doing, why we are doing it and they've sometimes contributed to how we're going to do it."
Though offenders may seem to be unlikely participants, Kelly says they are deeply engaged in what the research means and the affect it may have. They also provide a unique perspective on the correctional system itself.
"Often what the offenders say is that they know that the results of the research may not impact them directly, but it'll impact all of the offenders that follow," Kelly says. "What they bring to the table in terms of offering us insight into their lives, into the programs, into the operations of an institution, is 100 per cent invaluable. You don't get that from anyone else."
The benefits of engagement and collaboration in research are clear, Kelly says. In recent years, CSC research has become more on target by recognizing staff questions and allowing their needs to drive the studies being done, which helps create real change in the community and on the ground in institutions.
"It's about understanding why [breaking the law] happens to one person and not another," says Kelly. "You can have two people in the exact same scenario – whether it's poverty, substance abuse, no support system, mental health – and those two individuals will go down two completely different paths; one towards crime and one not". Research assists in understanding these diverse paths.
"The reality is, I don't think I could have done anything to change what happened [with my relative]. In some ways, it's certainly what drives me to do what I can do, because I couldn't necessarily help him, but if I can understand what happens behind that criminal behaviour, to then be able to inform others who can intervene with them … maybe what I learn and what I research will help others down the road."
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