CALGARY — Josie Pelletier sits crossed legged on the front lawn of the Calgary half-way house where she is staying, nervously lights a cigarette, and begins to tell her story.
“I did what I had to do to survive,” Pelletier said drawing on her cigarette. “I didn’t have the family support or have anybody who believed in me. I didn’t even believe in myself. So, I gave up on life.”
Pelletier, 30, has been in and out of jail or prison since she was 13. In total she has had just over two years, on and off, on the “outside.”
Her background includes time in a residential school, poverty, family violence, family and personal drug abuse (she became an intravenous drug user at 13), experience in the foster care system, involvement in gangs and an extensive criminal record.
Pelletier was released from prison just a few weeks ago after serving time for armed robbery.
Pelletier has been labelled a long-term offender meaning for the next seven years, she must check in with authorities on a regular basis.
Even on the inside, Pelletier took the hard road.
She spent more than a year in solitary confinement or what she called “the red card” where she was “locked down” 23-hours a day.
Pelletier said she was so violent, she would spend her one-hour outside of her cell shackled and chained from top to bottom with a spit mask placed over her head.
Pelletier said it was during this time she drew inward and reached out to her higher power.
“To not go crazy I turned to the Creator,” Pelletier said. “And that’s when I started praying and asking for forgiveness. I was desperate to see my son again.”
One day on the “inside” Pelletier said her 15-year-old son paid her a visit.
She said she made him a promise to change and do whatever it took to come home and be a mother to him.
It hasn’t happened fast enough. Pelletier said her son is following in her footsteps. He’s been in and out of foster care, is involved with gangs and is currently in jail.
“I’m so desperate for help right now. I want to change my life, I don’t want my son to grow up to be like me,” she said.
Living in the half-way house provides minimal support.
Although Pelletier has an elder she can access, she said she needs more support to make it on the outside world.
She said she is “institutionalized” and doesn’t know any other way of living, except running to the streets or surviving behind bars.
“I can’t even go out alone without getting lost or getting anxiety. I told a psychiatrist I needed help,” she said. “Sometimes I contemplated suicide because I don’t know if I can make it out here,”
Pelletier said she is hoping to get into a live-in treatment center where she can address her inner demons and past trauma.
“Trying to change my life is really hard. But for the first time in the past month I’ve been dressing like a lady, wearing dresses and wearing makeup. Before it was straight track suits and hats, tattoos and putting on a disguise,” said Pelletier. “Now when I look in the mirror it doesn’t even look like me anymore because I’ve changed and I’ve grown. When I look in the mirror I see a beautiful person, a survivor.”
But she said as each day passes, it’s getting harder and harder to cope. She sleeps on the floor of her room because the beds are too soft compared to the cold, hard slabs of concrete she’s used to sleeping on in jail.
“I need help. How to learn how to unlock my mind from being an angry person. From being locked up all the time and fighting. I want to be in control of my mind, feelings, my heart and my body,” she said. “I want to be a mom, I want to give my son something to look at and be proud of.”
Marion Lerat is an elder who works with Pelletier. She said she believes a lot of Aboriginal women in the prison system aren’t receiving enough supports and are often misunderstood in the mainstream justice system.
Pelletier (left) and Elder Marion Lerat. Photo: Brandi Morin/APTN
“They put them in there, lock the door and throw the key away,” said Lerat. “They don’t work with them.”
She said the answers to the problem are complex but it comes down to finding out who they are.
“They need to believe in the Creator and He’ll move obstacles out of the way. Josie feels trapped and I don’t blame her. There’s no respect in jail, you just have to survive,” said Lerat.
However, Pelletier said she is determined to keep holding on to the hope that she can make it and one day lead a near normal life.
“I honestly believe that Creator is working in my life in every way. I’m feeling all my emotions that I’ve never, ever felt and I’m getting through it and surviving through it,” she said.