Keele Community Correctional Centre volunteer wins national award
A longtime Keele Community Correctional Centre volunteer says the real danger of a facility full of offenders in a residential community is a lack of understanding by its neighbours.
It’s what he strives to educate the public about and it’s this effort that landed Niels Bjelbo a national award. The 77-year-old Bayview and Eglinton avenues area resident received the James A. Murphy CAC Award of Excellence from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
The centre is where inmates of the federal prison system spend the last six months of their sentence, reintegrating into society, many of whom go out and work in the community.
“People look at them and can see some of them are very employable and present very well, but they’ve just had an accident, something went wrong. They’ve done a crime and paid for it,” Bjelbo said.
Bjelbo has been volunteering at the Keele and Dundas streets facility since 2004. He joined the facility’s Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) in 2011. CAC members observe daily operations, and talk to staff, the offenders and the community, and bring up the issues that may arise.
“We are bridge builders,” he said.
Bjelbo’s volunteer work has him going door to door, talking to business owners and residents, hosting open houses and tours, and leading inmates in cleanup projects in the community.
He has helped offenders find work, helped start a loan program where offenders can borrow money to buy such things as work boots and TTC fares, helps them get identification and more.
But in everything he and the CAC do, and what the correctional centre does, public safety is paramount.
“That’s what we have to talk to the public about, about public safety. People fear they just come and go, but no. There is a lot of control,” Bjelbo said.
Each offender has a case management team who know his or her needs. They are monitored when they step outside, have curfews, their employers receive constant communication and more.
Bjelbo said transitioning from the prison to the centre is tough on inmates, which is something the CAC also helps address, but it’s much better than being sent out right from the prison.
“They feel that: everyone can see that I come from the joint. That’s just something they put on themselves but it can be overwhelming for them to come from the prison to the centre for the first time. There’s a lot of unknowns,” he said.
The success rate for inmates to reintegrate into society is high, Bjelbo said, but it’s the community’s contribution that makes it possible.
“By working together, business can help offenders successfully reintegrate. That’s a nice feeling for a business, that you can help someone get back on track again,” Bjelbo said.
CSC commissioner Don Head congratulated Bjelbo on the award, saying the work of the CAC’s and its members across the country is important.
“Their contribution is instrumental in creating safer institutions and ensuring public safety results for Canadians,” he said in a news release.