Support and Opportunity Empower Women Leaving Prison to Rebuild Their Lives

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The future is bright for Lisa Bowden but not long ago, things were not quite so promising. Lisa had come into conflict with the law, which led to her incarceration, first in a provincial prison in Manitoba and then at a healing lodge in Saskatchewan. During this time, she learned about restorative justice, which sparked a passion for creating a positive difference for both herself and others.

When it came time for parole, Lisa applied for a place at Columbia House, an Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver (EFry) transitional housing program in New Westminster, B.C. that helps women re-establish stable lives after incarceration.

“I learned about Columbia Place from a friend who had been there and found everyone very supportive,” said Lisa. “I was really interested in the work EFry does and hoped at some point I might have the opportunity to contribute to it.”

It didn’t take long. Within two months at Columbia Place, Lisa was offered a job at Woolwerx, EFry’s social enterprise that trains and employs marginalized women in transforming donated waste wool into a variety of artisanal wools, yarns and fleece products sold at craft fairs or online at woolwerx.com.

Working at Woolwerx has been really healing because there’s no stigma. Everyone has that common experience of being incarcerated and then choosing to pursue a different kind of future. We’re all really supportive of each other. If you’re having a hard day emotionally, there’s always someone to help. And I find it rewarding to create things of beauty and value out of something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Lisa Bowden

Lisa’s interest in helping women avoid future conflicts with the law also continued to grow.

“There’s this perception that anyone who’s been in prison is bad, and that simply isn’t true,” she said. “Sometimes people just make mistakes and in a lot of cases, challenges with mental health are what led to the issues. I’ve experienced both being punished and being supported and let me tell you, helping someone heal is much better at stopping recidivism.”

Last summer, EFry launched PathwaysNotPrisons.ca, a website aimed at raising awareness of its decarceration advocacy campaign. The initiative calls for changes to reduce the number of women in prison by removing racism from the justice system; eliminating roadblocks to bail, such as poverty resulting in holding women pretrial; and treatment rather than prison for women with substance use and mental health challenges. Lisa was excited to become involved.

“EFry was hiring people with lived experience to help with the program and I got one of the jobs,” said Lisa. “I wanted to continue working with Woolwerx too and they made it possible for me to do both. I’ve learned so much about how organizations like EFry can make positive change happen.”

On top of her two jobs, Lisa is one of several Columbia Place residents contributing to the development of a collaborative cookbook for justice-involved women. Before her legal system involvement, Lisa was a cook and drew on that expertise to provide easy recipes and stories she hopes will help women re-establish healthy relationships with food.

Soon, Lisa will return to Manitoba to be with her partner.

“I feel so ready for my new life,” she says. “I look forward to using the skills I’ve learned to help more women build brighter futures just like I have.”

EFry is a charity dedicated to helping women and children at risk, involved in or affected by the justice system. Donors make many of its programs possible. To learn more or support EFry, visit efry.com.

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EFry is a non-profit organization uniquely focused on delivering gender-specific support. Our goal is to support criminalized and marginalized women, girls and children in achieving their potential. With the right support, we know females from difficult circumstances can transform their lives – and those of their families – for the better. Dignity, opportunity and equality are the gateway to a world of potential.

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