From clinical psychology to the frontlines of corrections, working with offenders in institutions and in the community, it was a combination of skills, interests and experience that led Lynn Stewart to her current job as the Senior Research Manager for Interventions and Women Offenders Research with the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
"It’s the perfect outlet for all of my interests and skills, as well as my values,” Lynn says. “Working in corrections is aligned with what I’m interested in – investigating what motivates people’s thinking and actions about ethical issues and moral dilemmas. I’m a naturally curious person, so I want to understand why people do what they do. In particular, it’s interesting to speculate on why people do things that are so outside of the norm – why are offenders in the federal system doing things that most members of society would never consider?"
Lynn’s current research looks at women offenders and correctional interventions, which include correctional programs, mental health services and social programs. One of her ongoing projects is a comprehensive study of women who take part in correctional programs assessing whether their skills or attitudes improve with participation, and if that has an impact on how they fare on release.
"The women in CSC are a very unique population in many respects, because they make up a small percentage of offenders overall,” she says. “Research on women offenders is a contribution, not just to CSC, but internationally. CSC has probably done more research in this area than many agencies."
Another area that touches almost all of her work is Aboriginal offenders, Lynn says. According to the research, Aboriginal offenders respond just as well as other offenders to CSC’s general programs and interventions, but culturally or gender-sensitive approaches may be even more beneficial for them.
"Another current project examines a population of offenders who have taken correctional programs and assesses whether being involved in activities like sessions with Elders, education programs or employment programs adds to the positive effects of being involved with correctional programs," Lynn says.
A large-scale study on the prevalence of mental health disorders among offenders is also underway. Given the number of offenders believed to be entering the federal corrections system with serious mental health issues, exploring this issue is essential, she says.
"We’ll be able to tell whether there are in fact high rates of mental disorder, and also the extent to which these men and women are debilitated by these disorders,” Lynn says. “Many people with a mental disorder are functioning quite well, and our research will be able to determine if that is also true for offenders with mental disorders."
All of the research is critically important, Lynn continues, since most of the offenders in CSC’s custody will eventually return to the community.
"Many of them have led tragic lives and have sad stories, and unfortunately they’ve created sad stories – they’ve created victims,” she says. “Our job is to, in a humane way, promote better outcomes for them on release. That helps the offenders and it certainly helps their families, but it also helps the public at large to know that they’re coming back into the community as law-abiding citizens because of the work that we do, and coming back with some training, attitudes and skills that will make them more productive."
Before coming to correctional research, Lynn completed her PhD thesis on moral development – that is, looking at how children up to 16 years of age consider and approach moral dilemmas – at York University in Toronto, Ontario. In 1987, she began her career with CSC on the frontlines as a clinical psychologist at Warkworth Institution, and later as a community district psychologist, where she worked with offenders on release and assisted their parole officers.
Halfway through her career, Lynn moved to CSC’s National Headquarters, where she used the foundation of her operational experience to inform correctional interventions research, looking at whether offender programs are successful and why.
"CSC has a good reputation for being an evidence-based agency, and the researchers from CSC are well-respected internationally ... it’s wonderful to work with people who are so passionate about their job,” she says. “I think in general CSC is guided by evidence-based decisions, and it’s because of that that we have a better idea of what we should be doing to promote public safety and humane corrections. I worked with program officers, parole officers, and quite rightly they say, ‘why should we be doing this? What’s the evidence that this is going to be effective?’ and if you can provide that answer for them, they’re much more likely to have that buy-in that will support the initiatives."
Alongside her almost 30-year career with CSC, Lynn has contributed her time and talents to other initiatives both at home and abroad. For the past 10 years, she has worked on a contract basis with England’s international accreditation panel for correctional programs.
"[I got involved because] they have adopted some of our programs and a lot of our approach,” she says. “I think they take a very evidence-based approach as well. They have to show that in fact programs reduce recidivism and what the cost-savings are. They want to be doing what is effective and put resources where you get the best mileage."
Lynn also serves on the Chief Coroner’s committee that reviews all domestic violence homicides in Ontario. The committee’s role is to look at the cases in detail, find any systemic areas where changes might mean that the event could have been avoided, and make recommendations to agencies, correctional systems and police services. One initiative the committee has promoted is an awareness package on domestic violence, to increase understanding of what neighbours, friends or family members can do if someone they know becomes a victim.
"Sometimes there’s nothing that could have been done – it was unexpected, nobody would have been able to avoid it – and in other cases, it’s very sad to see that all along the way, with the right knowledge and the right services, a tragedy might have been prevented,” Lynn says. “It’s not possible to read [a case of domestic violence homicide] and not be affected by it. It does make you anxious about the safety of your own family. Still, there’s a side of me that finds even tragic stories very, very interesting – to understand how people come to this and how they come out of it, and what might have been done to have changed the outcome."
Much like her work with the Coroner’s committee, Lynn says one of the major goals of CSC’s Research Branch is improving outcomes – changing the lives of offenders, increasing their odds for success on release, and by extension, creating more positive impacts for the people around them.
It’s a goal that she takes to heart, and one that has been well-served by her work with CSC and beyond.
"I see now my life in research as kind of a trajectory,” Lynn says. “The work that I did in the institutions, the work I did in England, the work that I did in parole and in reintegration programs, all of that led me to where I think I can be most productive and have more insight as far as research is concerned. I didn’t aim for this, but I’m so glad that this is where I ended up."
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