When people think of prison, they tend only to focus on its negative aspects. Sometimes, however, there are positive things that can come out of being incarcerated for long periods of time.

A 12-member Native Brotherhood at the Ste. Anne des Plaines minimum security institution, which includes eight Natives and four honorary members, has been giving the inside of the prison walls a more friendly and familiar appeal by building a traditional Native village. James Jacobs, a Kahnawake Mohawk and the president of the Brotherhood, spearheaded the project. He told the Nation that the village is a way of healing, which is something that most people, imprisoned or not, don’t do enough of.

Jacobs was found guilty of murder 10 years ago and sentenced to life imprisonment. During that time he has searched for himself in maximum and medium-security federal prisons like Donnacona and Leclerc.

It was only when he got to Ste. Anne’s two years ago that he was able to pursue his traditional interests. Before he was imprisoned, he said, he followed a traditional path in life.

Somewhere along that road he took a wrong turn.

“I was traditional until I started getting in trouble and I dropped those roots and I took other roots. I found myself again over here at the minimum. Now I’m putting it [his life] back together,” Jacobs said.

The first word that comes to mind when entering the prison is security. Or lack thereof. The inmates roam freely at the institution and are not confined to the prison by any physical barriers. It’s the mental barriers that keep them there. They know that minimum-security is like Club Med when compared to maximum-security prison and they don’t want to get sent back down the ladder or jeopardize their chances of one day getting out by testing freedom for a few days.

The traditional area is what gives hope to the members of the Brotherhood, known by its official name, “In Spirit of a Roaming Buffalo.”

“It’s helping us to find out who we are and what we have – our culture, our roots – to try to find a different path in life instead of coming to prison and then [transferring to] another prison for the rest of your life,” he said. “When you find out who you are and where you’re going and where you come from, it’s that much easier to try to make a future. It changes your mind about a lot of things. This is the only institution that I’ve been in that gives us the right to practice and learn about our culture.”

The Brotherhood he represents makes up a small percentage of the 115 inmates at the institution. Despite this, their strength does not come in numbers, but a dedication and willing ness to rediscover the ways of the past.

When entering the village at the far edge of the prison property, it almost feels like being on any given First Nations reserve. That is, if you don’t turn and look over your right shoulder to see the hulking fence of the medium-security prison less than 200 feet away.

The village looks like a few different Nations have inspired its creation. Upon entering there is a large teepee to the left and a sweat lodge to the right. Venturing further in leads to the discovery of two long-houses. Next to them is an arbor which is used to shelter drummers and dancers during one of the four changing-of-the-season ceremonies held here.

A little left turn ends at the garden. Here lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli and other assorted vegetables are grown. Whatever the inmates don’t consume is donated to the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal. Tobacco is also grown in the garden. Last year tobacco was given to Six Nations, a reserve in Ontario that has been helping out in the traditional healing process.

The staff at Ste. Anne’s is very supportive of the Brotherhood and the rehabilitating effect it has on the Native inmates.

“We have a small brotherhood, but it’s very active,” said Jean-Luc Gougeon, the warden at the institution. He went on to praise the hard work of the prisoners and the outside help they have gotten from family, friends and community members to build their village. “It’s important to have a big network of volunteers. That’s exactly what they have here.”

All of the structures were built by the Brotherhood except for the teepee, which was purchased by regional headquarters.

There are plans to add other buildings, such as what Jacobs termed a “Hut”. He said this would be built for the Inuit who will be transferring from another prison.

“We’re still in prison, but at the same time if we’re going to practice our culture we have to try to feel as much as possible at home,” said Jacobs, who is also in the midst of getting his high school diploma. “We’re trying to make it comfortable for Native people when they come.”

To visit or volunteer to help out with traditional aspects at the institution, write to the address below. James Jacobs 344 Montée Gagnon Ste. Anne Des Plaines, Qc JON 1HO