Amanda Maxwell helps Black prisoners when they are released


Amanda Maxwell with the Montréal Detention Centre

Estranged from his family after serving four years in prison for armed robbery, Quincey had no one on the outside to help him pick up the pieces when he was released in 2020.

No one, that is, except for Amanda Maxwell.

“She was able to send me in the right direction,” says Quincey. Maxwell pointed him toward resources to write his resumé, which in turn helped him get training and land a job as a construction flagger.

It’s all in a day’s work for Maxwell, the support services co-ordinator at the DESTA Black Community Network in Montreal’s Little Burgundy. From finding them furniture, affordable food and a place to live to listening to their worries, Maxwell helps incarcerated people and the newly freed prepare for and adapt to life beyond bars.

Little Burgundy was a rough neighbourhood when Maxwell grew up there in the 1980s, and she saw the consequences of drug trafficking up close, losing her brother-in-law to gun violence and some of her friends to the prison system.

“I started to see them both as victims — people that lost their lives and those that also lost their lives to the prison system. I’ve seen family suffering on both ends,” she said.

She witnessed first-hand the toll the prison system takes on a person’s mental health, after she reconnected with an ex-boyfriend she’d known since childhood.

He was only 16 when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Maxwell said. After serving time, his newfound freedom paralyzed him.

“I remember [him] when he first came home — just being overwhelmed going into the grocery store for the first time … choosing a chocolate bar,” she said. “Seeing him struggle with no support was something like a light bulb for me.”

“Just seeing that really opened my eyes to how broken the system is.”

For Quincey, meeting and forming a friendship with Maxwell through the DESTA Black Community Network was the difference between feeling helpless and being capable of rebuilding his life.

When he’d call her from prison, he says, she was almost always available to talk.

“Sometimes it is difficult to reach out to somebody, or it’s nice to have somebody to talk to and be able to explain and set up things,” he said.

“There’s no bias [with her],” he said. “She’s there to help you as much as she can.”

Maxwell co-produces a podcast, Stories from the Inside Out, showcasing the challenges faced by people currently or formerly incarcerated. Her guests share their struggles with mental health issues and with navigating life after prison while working on becoming productive members of society.

“They’ve done a bad thing, it doesn’t make them a bad person,” she said.

Maxwell also runs a poetry-exchange program in which inmates correspond with volunteers on the outside, sharing their creative writing.

She says she hopes to create programming in prisons that are “meaningful and culturally relevant,” such as a mentoring program matching young men with people who were formerly incarcerated to help keep them from going down the wrong road.

“I feel like I should be doing more,” said Maxwell, who is also a regular volunteer at the Union United Church food bank, “just to show them that we’re here, and we see them, and we didn’t forget about them.”