The great escape

First, she was abused. Then came cocaine and crime. It took a stint in jail to show Denise McLaren that life was worth fighting for. Find out what it takes to climb to the top when you've sunk to the bottom.

Denise McLaren is walking past the place where she grew up. “That one over there,” she says, pointing to a two-storey house with beige siding. It’s nothing out of the ordinary—in fact, it looks like all of the other suburban houses on this Edmonton cul-de-sac. There’s a small flower bed by the front door; around the side, a barbecue stands by a simple patio set. “Denise!” a woman yells from the yard across the street. “I broke my toe.”

“You’re still as clumsy as ever, eh?” Denise says with a smile as she ambles over to greet her old neighbour. She hasn’t lived here since 1999, but Denise returns once a month. It’s not exactly your typical neighbourhood: there are security cameras overhead, and the grounds are surrounded by an eight-foot fence with rolls of razor wire at the top. This group of houses makes up the minimum-security unit in the back lot of a prison—the Edmonton Institution for Women (EIFW)—and, although Denise didn’t literally grow up here, it’s where she spent four life-changing years.

No one would have called Denise a Chatelaine Soul Model 10 years ago. At 29, she was robbing stores to finance her $1,000-a-day cocaine addiction. Her crimes landed her in jail. But that was then. Now, Denise is wrapping up a BA in psychology at the University of Alberta. She has a job at the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, an inner-city health clinic. She is vice-president of the board of directors for Edmonton’s Elizabeth Fry Society, a group that advocates for women in trouble with the law. And she works with the women’s reintegration chaplain in her community to help women who are about to be released from jail rebuild their lives—and deal with the stigma of being an ex-con.

“I find her fascinating,” says 32-year-old Danielle, a recovering addict and recent parolee who frequently meets with Denise for coffee and advice. “She actually did it. She was where I was and she bettered herself.”

“The word integrity comes to mind when I think of Denise,” says Reno Guimond, a chaplain at the EIFW who has known her for more than six years. “It’s not that common for the women in here to find the courage to make those kinds of changes.”

The 1:30 p.m. meeting in the prison’s lavender-walled chapel begins with the lighting of a candle. Denise sits among four inmates—Debbie, Lisa, Annie and Darlene—while Guimond sits at the front of the group. Denise doesn’t waste any time: “So, where do we want to go with this conversation?” She turns to Lisa, a baby-faced blond who’s expected to be released in just 18 days—for the third time. “Well, I’m a bit worried about the current situation with my common-law partner,” says Lisa, fidgeting and fixing her eyes on the ground. “He’s still using drugs sometimes.”

Denise pauses, then looks up at Lisa. “An addict who uses sometimes? Must be nice….” The women burst out laughing: they all get the irony of the statement. “That’s the thing about you, Denise,” says Lisa. “You just cut through all the bullshit and make me face reality.” She laughs a nervous too-loud laugh, then stops abruptly and looks down at her feet. “Maybe part of me wants to live with him again because part of me wants to use again,” she says.

“Whoa, that’s a pretty heavy statement,” replies Denise. There’s no judgment in her voice; it’s just an observation. “You’re painting a pretty bleak picture and basically saying to me, “Denise, get over it. I’ll see you back in here same time next year.'”

“Well, you can always find excuses for why you can’t do things,” says Lisa, her voice quiet. “And I wonder if I’m looking for more excuses for myself.”

Denise nods: “I think you’ve just answered your own question.”