Spending time with people on the wrong side of the law is Mark Knox’s job: he’s a criminal defence lawyer in Halifax. But he also devotes a lot of time to ex-offenders.
He revived the Nova Scotia chapter of an international organization called the 7th Step Society. The organization aims to help repeat offenders change their behaviour and attitudes to become productive members of the community. It started in the United States and there are also chapters in British Columbia, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Knox recalls first hearing about the 7th Step Society in 1989. He was just starting to practice law and representing a client named Joe. “He was alcoholic,” Knox recalls. “I’m sure he was a chronic drug addict. He’d been in jail a lot.”
Joe kept telling Knox to call his parole officer Jerry. Knox brushed it off; he couldn’t imagine how talking to a parole officer would help him defend his client. He assumed that Jerry would want to keep Joe in jail and wasn’t trying to help him, but it turns out, it was the opposite.
“Jerry, I found out, had been a serious criminal who turned his life around and got a pardon and became a parole officer, which doesn’t happen,” says Knox.
Jerry, it turns out, cared a great deal about Joe and about helping other offenders to change their ways. Jerry introduced Knox to the 7th Step Society. “We used to go to Carlton Centre, the halfway house, and we used to have meetings with guys, just like we do now,” says Knox.
The local group fell apart shortly after and it didn’t revive until Knox decided to get in touch with the national organization in 2013. “December 4 of 2013, we had our very first meeting right here,” says Knox tapping the glass desk in his cozy office in Central Halifax.
He remembers meetings when it was just him and one other person. It’s hard to imagine today: the group now has 20 to 25 members at any given weekly meeting.
For Knox, it’s not just once-a-week commitment though.
Glenn Keizer is an ex-offender who was in and out of prison across the country for years. He has now been out of jail for two years and credits Knox and the 7th Step Society for helping him turn his life around. “He texts me a lot, asks me how things are going,” Keizer says. “He communicates with you as an equal and shares with you his daily life.”
That’s what makes him different from other lawyers. “A lot of times when you leave the court room, with your five or 10 years, you never see them again,” explains Keizer. “But Mark, he’s there at the other end when you’re getting out so that makes a lot of difference.”
The 7th Step Society encourages ex-offenders to use their experiences as positive influences rather than feeling embarrassed about the past. That means speaking at schools, prisons, and other venues as well as supporting new group members.
“I thought my background and upbringing and mistakes I made were not of any value,” says Keizer. “But it turns out there’s lots of value in helping someone else, whether it’s an ex-offender or a volunteer or a young guy or gal.”
While the goals of reform and giving back to the community are similar to groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, the structure of this group is different. “Nobody comes to the group until we talk about it in the current group,” Knox explains.
The group has to agree to allow a new member to come, so one member can make a recommendation and the members can voice any objections they have. The group is made up of ex-offenders, persons under supervision who are on parole, and people who are incarcerated, plus volunteers like Knox who support the other members.
“They need more than is just offered in the system and they need friendship and they need respect, they need to integrate with pro-social people,” says Knox.
Now that the group is well established, they get referrals from parole officers for people who they think would be good candidates for the program. But most of the referrals come from the group’s current members.
Kathryn Shorkey remembers her first meeting. “I really felt the energy in the room and the positivity and not being stigmatized.”
She has also reached the “seventh step,” which is giving back to the community and helping others. She’s introduced new members to the group: like Jason David who has now been part of the group for a year. “It’s like a big family, everybody helps everyone else,” says David.
Each meeting begins with the reading of the 7th Step pledge: “I pledge to face and accept the truth about myself, to maintain my freedom, to become a useful member of society, to help others as I am now being helped.”
A reading of the seven steps follows the pledge. After that, everyone takes turns sharing how their week has been. There is often reaction from the group: celebration when someone shares a success and offers of support when someone shares a challenge or vulnerability.
After attending four consecutive meetings, a member undergoes what’s called a hot seat. It’s exactly what it sounds like. The group asks the person rapid-fire questions about commitment to both the group and to the seven steps. After passing that, the newcomer is considered a core member, able to vote when the group is making decisions and expected to uphold the group’s pledge.
The biggest challenge facing members of the group who are reintegrating is finding work. You’ll recall Jerry, the man who introduced Knox to the 7th Step Society, who was granted a pardon for his past crimes allowing him the possibility of finding work. In recent years, it has become much more challenging to get a pardon. It takes longer and it’s expensive.
It’s something the group would like to see change on a national level. In the meantime, they have accomplished many of their goals in the local community.
When the group started back up in 2013, they wanted to begin working with area jails. They wanted to have members start working with inmates before they were released. In the past year, those things have happened.
“That’s the most important thing to a person who wants to change is to see someone who’s gotten out and has changed,” says Knox. “Those people are role models to the people inside.”
And Knox says seeing that transformation is what it’s all about. While everyone loves to hear stories about people who turn their lives around, volunteers like Knox are part of that rare group of people that makes those transformations happen.
“One of the greatest things, is to see people turn around,” he says.