How this Ontario halfway house cares for dying prisoners

TVO.org talks to Dan Haley, founder of Peterborough’s Haley House, about the special needs of elderly prisoners — and how to help them die with dignity
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on May 31, 2019
Haley House in Peterborough
Haley House is a 10-bed halfway house in Peterborough that provides hospice care for federal inmates. 

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For more than 30 years, Dan Haley has been in and out of Canada’s prison system — though not for the reasons you may think. After completing a degree in social service at Peterborough’s Fleming College in his mid-20s, he started working with inmates as a social worker and chaplain, counselling those who were about to die. And his experience with the terminally ill and elderly taught him that these prisoners were not well served by the correctional system.

So, in 2007, he founded Haley House (formerly Peterborough Community Chaplaincy), in Peterborough’s north end. Haley House is a 10-bed halfway house that assists older and ailing federal inmates by providing hospice care in a safe and secure environment. The program addresses what Haley calls a “significant gap” in services — a gap confirmed earlier this year in a report, released by the federal correctional investigator and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, that called for the creation of a national strategy to accommodate the needs of prisoners over the age of 50.

Haley, 62, served as the program’s executive director until 2015, when he was involved in a motorcycle accident: he plans to return to work as soon as his back heals. TVO.org spoke with Haley about the aims of the halfway house, caring for elderly inmates, and what Canada needs to do to improve the system.

What happens at Haley House?

Haley House is a transition house, or halfway house, that really focuses on dealing with death and dying and the older clientele they have in the correctional system. We’re fully accessible with an elevator — I think we’re one of the only halfway houses with an elevator in Ontario. When we were building the addition, we made the hallways wider and the doors wider so you could fit hospital beds, wheelchairs, and scooters. I had a bad motorcycle accident about three and a half years ago, and so I use a cane. If I have to walk very far, I use a scooter. So I'm very familiar with accessibility issues and how they affect people.

Why did you found it?

I've been going in and out of the system for 30 years. It doesn't take much to see where the gaps are. There were guys that just had nowhere else to go. I spoke to one guy who told me, ‘I’m dying. I have to get out of here. I can’t die in this place.’ And I thought, ‘Holy jumpin’. Lay it heavy on me, why don’t you?’ So I started asking questions and finding out what the need was. A lot of these old facilities, they weren’t thinking about aging people or dying people when they built them. I thought that we needed to get these guys out, so they could die with a little dignity in the community.

What’s your relationship with Correctional Service of Canada?

It took a while for them to get on board. There was a learning curve, but they've recognized the service we provide. And now, if they come across people that need our services, they get in touch with us. They're very much in favour of sending people to Haley House if and when it’s appropriate.

What could Canada do to make the correctional system work better for elderly prisoners?

The best thing Corrections could do would be to better partner with the community and get these guys out of prison — to do a better job of releasing inmates to the appropriate facility in the community. When they're inside, there's not much more they can really do. It's a correctional centre. They were never built to deal with death and dying. And they were never built to be an old-age home. You'll never get CSC to have a unit that is just for elderly people. One of the issues is narcotics. Having narcotics in an institution is just a no-no. They're worried about people taking them back and selling them. That's the big worry. But, again, this could be avoided if they partner with the proper facilities in the community that can deal with the elderly. 

What is it like for you, working so closely at Haley House with those about to die?

I've buried about 14 men. It's quite different. It’s an honour to step into these guys’ lives at the end of their lives. We have lots of conversations about where they’re going to go after they die. We talk about their victims, and if the victims were here, what would they say? I challenge them on their crimes and what they've done, and all of them but one turned around and took responsibility for what they'd done and were very remorseful and wanted to see their victim and say sorry. And we were able to do that on a couple of occasions. And, on other occasions, after they passed away, I had the opportunity to take the message to the victim. Everyone is different. But it's rewarding to be able to spend time with these guys when they’re dying. Because they're very concerned about where they’re going to go after they die. We try to work with that and get them to take responsibility and ask for forgiveness. It's powerful work.

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