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Life sentence: The challenges offenders face reintegrating back into society

No matter how hard James Wrigley strives to live a better life, he’ll always see a murderer in the mirror.
Person with arms handcuffed behind back
Victoria is home to the largest halfway house in Canada.

No matter how hard James Wrigley strives to live a better life, he’ll always see a murderer staring back at him whenever he looks in the mirror.

The day he strangled his landlord Kwong Mah in Calgary with a telephone cord in September 1993 is one he’s had plenty of time to think about during the 25 years he’s spent behind bars.

Sitting in a number of federal penitentiaries, Wrigley reflected on the murder daily and had nightmares about Mah’s violent death for years. If he’d never taken the 66-year-olds life, he’d also still have his.

“You have to accept what it is because you can’t change it. It’s best to say this is what I did, this is how I’m going to cope with it, this is how I’m going to make amends as best as I can and how I’m going to move forward,” said Wrigley, who was given a life sentence for his second-degree murder conviction. “I am never going to escape that feeling of looking in the mirror and saying you’re a piece of shit. It’s with you.”

Now at 47 years old, Wrigley is on day parole and is among the 47 men currently living at the Salvation Army CRF (community residential facility) at Johnson and Wharf streets — the largest halfway house in Canada and one of three in Victoria.

The men who come here have served time in some of the roughest prisons across the country. Many are considered high-risk since the facility is among the few that doesn't have a lot of barriers.

Those who are granted day parole are given the ability to serve a portion or the remainder of their sentence in the community — the first step towards integration. They're required to have a curfew, abide by various conditions, check in at certain times and are typically supervised at the halfway house in some manner. Some stay for a couple of days, others have been there for several years, taking counselling, life skills and substance abuse programs to get on the right path.

“We're case managers, we're counsellors, we're supportive figures in their life, we're not judgmental. Sometimes that's all they really need,” said Yin-Yee Yip, a high-risk counsellor who works at the facility.

“A lot of these people come from broken homes, were raised by the ministry or foster homes and don't have any stable influences in their lives.”

The first time Wrigley was given a shot at limited day parole was 11 years ago — an experience he said he promptly blew due to a series of bad choices. He still had the chip on his shoulder that he’d been carrying since the age of 12 when he left his abusive home for life on the streets and started dabbling in crime. Eventually he got hooked on cocaine and began robbing convenience stores to feed his addiction.

Wrigley has spent time in several federal prisons including the maximum security Edmonton Institution and Drumheller Institution, which are both known for their violence. There were many nights he felt scared, but couldn’t show it because weakness is often preyed upon by other inmates. By the eighth year behind bars, Wrigley no longer wanted to get out of bed.

“I was pretty much at the point where I didn’t care anymore. The life that I knew was prison. It was far less stress than life, although it was always in your face. It was a horrible existence, but it was something that I was used to as opposed to the fear of the unknown,” said Wrigley, who now has an appreciation for the little things in life, such as sunsets, pigeons and people who smile on the street.

“I decided a long time ago that I wanted to try my best to avoid being ever responsible for somebody’s pain again and to an extent, that included my own. It’s kind of easy if that’s your starting point, then it’s now what do I need to do? So one day I woke up and I began.”

Wrigley has been in Victoria since November and believes his parole thus far is going well. He’s found part-time work as a cleaner and maintains any criminal mentality went out the door a long time ago.

He knows the process of achieving full parole and integrating back into society will be a long and difficult journey, but there’s nothing he wants more than to quietly fade into the background. If he steps off course, Wrigley will be sent back to prison in a heartbeat. The life sentence will hang over his head until the day he dies.

At 31 years old, Christopher Gaudet has wracked up 47 convictions since the age of 17 when he became involved with gangs in Calgary, then entrenched in a life of crime, committing robberies, home invasions and break and enters.

Like Wrigley, Gaudet has struggled with trying to integrate back into society after 11 years off and on behind bars. He’ll be at the halfway house in Victoria until the end of his sentence in 14 months. The thought of going back to prison this time isn’t an option.

“I hate prison. It’s all a big lie. Really jail is just sitting around,” said Gaudet, who doesn't really know a life outside his associates and crime, and has problems with anxiety.

“I'd walk into a room and people would stare at me and I think it's because they know I'm from prison. I've got the tattoos, I'm not small, so you always think I look like a criminal. So where do you belong in society? There's a lot of stuff that goes with having that past. How do you build a future when you're always second guessing the things you've done or what people are going to think? It's very difficult.”

Stay tuned for Part II of Life Behind Bars.