Whenever the inmates from the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre roll up to the Albion fairgrounds, Lorraine Bates always feels better.
Without the heavy labour that the crews provide setting up fences, stands and displays and getting the barns ready for Country Fest every summer, then taking it all down again after the event, the hard work would be up to volunteers, many of whom have limits.
“This heritage organization would have been gone a long time ago if it had not been for them [inmates],” says Bates.
“They just do all the grunt work.”
The same goes for every fall when Ghost Ridge Haunted House gets assembled in the old barns on the fairgrounds. That requires setting up three-metre high heavy metal fences and walls, all put up and taken down by a crew composed of a dozen or so inmates of Fraser Regional Correctional Centre.
And with the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Christmas Hamper now underway, the inmates are packing toys off trucks and setting up tables so that hampers can be put together.
Bates said the partnership between the three community events and B.C. Corrections has been ongoing for 30 years.
She commemorated the partnership when she entered Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Agricultural Associations’ long-running Country Fest in the Outstanding Community Partner competition at the annual convention of B.C. Association of Agricultural Fairs and Exhibitions held in October.
Her entry won and Country Fest and B.C. Corrections received a plaque to honour their efforts.
B.C. Corrections spokesman Cindy Rose said there are training programs at each prison around B.C., teaching inmates everything from horticulture to carpentry, to helping out at fish hatcheries, and repairing bicycles and eyeglasses before the items are sent to poorer countries.
The programs help with job searches once inmates are released.
“It’s also very rewarding for inmates to have the chance to give back to the local and global community,” Rose said.
“The partnership with the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Agricultural Association is just another example of providing inmates the opportunity to rehabilitate through giving back to the community and gaining employable skills.”
Bates is used to having inmates around. They’re just part of the team in getting the events ready and they hang around and eat and work along with everybody else in order to ensure the events go ahead.
Working with prisoners isn’t as easy for some, however.
Some people won’t even get out of their car if they see the prisoners around, said Bates.
“These guys they’re not mass murderers. They’re usually in for drugs, or drinking or driving or theft and things like that. And they’re usually at the end of their term.”
Bates points out people need to be worried about people around that haven’t been caught.
She notices that at Christmas time, putting together hampers for needy families can sometimes hit a nerve for inmates, because their families may have benefited from those in the past, or they may be thinking of those at home.
Once the hampers have all been delivered, she cooks a Christmas meal just to say thanks.
“So we treat them as we would any volunteer and it’s noted by them and they can’t thank you enough.”
She tries to offer encouragement as well and tells them, ‘I don’t care what you’ve done and why you’re in here … but you need to know that you’re putting a lot of smiles on kids faces, and just remember, that when you’re sitting in your bed at night time, you made a difference.’”