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Former Grand Valley inmate shares tips to get through isolation

‘The minute I found out I was going to prison I knew I wanted to create something positive,’ said Emily O'Brien, founder of Comeback Snacks

As the middle child of three daughters, Emily O’Brien describes a peaceful existence, until she started experimenting with drugs and alcohol in high school. In university, she would hone the skill of drinking and misbehaving, while maintaining good grades and holding a job.

“The binge drinking led to my first critical mistake - a DUI,” she says, “I never did it again. I saw how selfish it was, but for some reason, I wanted to learn the hard way.”

In 2015, after entering a new relationship, she was invited to take a trip. “Before we left, he asked me if I would still go if I knew he was bringing drugs back?” She declined the vacation.

Later that night, he said, “forget I ever said anything about bringing drugs back, that was a stupid idea. Let’s just go, me and you. It will be fun.”

Midway through the trip, this changed.

“I was in a foreign country, and the only person I could trust was him. I said I didn’t want to, but he had already given my passport information to people organizing the mission. The safest way I could get home, was by doing it.”

She says she knew enough about the drug trade to know that she had no choice. “He promised he would never let anything happen to me. I had to believe him.”

“We land at Pearson airport, and after being summoned to secondary screening, we both were subsequently arrested. When I was arrested, I actually felt safe,” she recalls.

In 2018, she was handed a four-year sentence, for which she would serve 10-months, at Grand Valley Institution for Women.

While in prison she launched Comeback Snacks: ‘Popcorn so good, it’s criminal,’ as a social enterprise, with the mission of hiring the formerly incarcerated while advocating to other businesses to do the same.

Flash forward to the current pandemic, O'Brien says her experience in prison will help her stay focused during isolation. "Like most people, I was disappointed," she said.  But instead of having the '2020 is cancelled' attitude, she chooses to focus on how she can make the situation work for her. 

She shares strategies she adopted during her incarceration that can also of value during COVID-19 social distancing, quarantine and isolation:


  • Balance. We can consume all the tv and social media we want, but if we can produce things that we are proud of, it helps build confidence and self-sufficiency.


  • Learn something new. Challenge yourself to do things that you used to find boring or impossible. I used to hate typing on a computer and think I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t focus, but it was because I wasn’t eliminating the things that were interrupting that focus.


  • Bring back old hobbies that you enjoyed as a kid. Find nostalgia and joy in those things and embrace playful activities that create intrinsic joy.


  • Create goals, a long-term and a short-term. If you are having a hard time, break down the large goal into smaller ones. 


  • Develop a close circle of people who can actually relate to you. In prison, my closest friends were the ones who went through the exact same experience as me. We all shared our stories and found that through the sharing we were able to bond.


  • Abandon grudges. Holding resentment and blame for my situation did not serve me well. In times such as these, it’s easy to be mad. It’s easy to hate, but it’s also exhausting.


  • Ride out the emotions. It’s ok to be sad. It’s okay to cry. But instead of using sadness as a form of weakness use it as a tool for growth. I call these growing pains. Feeling sad or uncomfortable isn’t something we should fear or try to avoid because it’s those feelings that will actually make you stronger. It also makes you really appreciate what you have, and helps you understand what you don’t want. I learned to like being alone.


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