Heather Mason is a mother, peer researcher, advocate, former federally sentenced woman and survivor of Fentanyl addiction.
Q. If you could give your past self some advice, what would you tell yourself?
Sometimes your stubbornness only hurts yourself.
Try to learn the first time, not the sixth time.
If you have to be stubborn and do it six times, you will become skilled at helping others in your circumstances.
Q. What do you have going on that you’d like to share?
I started using drugs at a young age. Unfortunately, my addiction progressed and led me to be incarcerated five times provincially and once federally at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. After my release, I became an advocate for women in the criminal justice system, with a particular focus on the failures of the prison system to address addiction, mental health challenges, and problematic policies related to strip-searching and transfers from men’s to women’s prisons.
I sit on the Board of Directors for Strength in SISterhood (SIS) Society. We are a group of women who have endured prison and are now working collaboratively with allies to end imprisonment for women. In addition, I provide advocacy support to female prisoners to assist them with navigating policy and law, such as the correctional grievance system. I offer consultant and research support on prison issues, including programming, security classification, conditions of confinement, parole and gender differences. SIS is part of The Women Equality Coalition with feminist organizations in Canada and has recently been granted leave to intervene in the constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution law.
Additionally, I am currently working on a project related to the experiences of individuals released from custody during the COVID-19 pandemic. My role involves conducting qualitative interviews with members of the target population to understand how service disruptions to mental health and substance use care have impacted them, focusing on disruptions, adaptations, and consequences. The study’s findings will inform present and future pandemic planning, notably ensuring people with incarceration histories are adequately supported.
Q. Where do you see yourself in five years? How do you envision your future?
It is hard to know where I will be in five years. The envisioning is the easy part.
That said, I expect to be a licensed paralegal (I am currently enrolled in a college program to become accredited) and use these skills to help women in prison defend themselves in disciplinary court when they are charged and fined by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
I am also interested in representing prisoners in civil litigation. I believe this can be an effective way to hold the CSC accountable in instances where it may have violated prisoners’ legal rights. These prisoners are often unsupported when seeking recourse for injustices they incur, so we need more people to help them achieve legal remedies.
Q. Do you have a mantra or phrase you live by? What is it?
We never fail unless we stop trying.
but it started with the saying,
“I never fail unless I stop trying.”
My third-grade teacher had a sign with that saying hanging on the corner of her chalkboard. It stuck with me because I was always scared of failure growing up, so I never tried.
As an adult, the phrase reminds me of Narcotics Anonymous. It was my one-year medallion party in Grand Valley Prison for Women. I told the NA volunteer that I wanted that saying on my medallion. He corrected me and said, “We never fail unless we stop trying,” he said, “it’s a WE program.
He is right because “I can’t, but WE can.”
Recovery is Possible.