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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Program Strategy for Women Offenders August 2004

Part 1 - Strategic Outlook


Mandated by the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) assists the rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into the community as law-abiding citizens through the provision of programs in institutions and in the community. Pursuant to the Act, CSC is also mandated to meet offender needs through correctional programs. The Act states that correctional programs must respect gender, ethnic, cultural, spiritual and linguistic differences of offenders. Therefore, programs must be designed to meet the special needs of women, Aboriginal offenders, ethnocultural offenders, as well as other groups who have specific needs (Ref.: CCRA Articles 76, 77, and 80).

The 5 guiding principles outlined in the 1990 Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women: Creating Choices— empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, supportive environment, and shared responsibility—remain the foundation of the revised Program Strategy for Women Offenders. Programs designed and offered to women offenders reflect this foundation and also the overall statement of principle of the Task Force: “The Correctional Service of Canada with the support of communities has the responsibility to create the environment that empowers women offenders to make meaningful and responsible choices in order that they may live with dignity and respect.”

The original Correctional Program Strategy for Federally Sentenced Women (1994) was developed prior to the opening of the regional institutions for women. Ongoing development in correctional programming (substance abuse, violence prevention, sexual offending), mental health programming (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Psychosocial Rehabilitation), education, employment and employability programs, and social programs, as well as research in the area of programming for women offenders prompted the need to update the Program Strategy.

Program Strategy for Women Offenders

The Program Strategy for Women Offenders provides the framework for program development and program implementation for women offenders in order to maintain a high rate of success on conditional release.

The Strategy outlines the distinctions to be made between correctional programs, mental health programs, and other programs (Education, Employment and Employability, and Social Programs). This distinction, however, does not preclude programs from being “integrated and having a mutually reinforcing effect” . Interventions are multiple, may be different, but most importantly, all interventions support CSC's reintegration efforts with offenders. The Strategy provides CSC staff, the women themselves, and other stakeholders with a scope of the Reintegration Programs available to women, provides guidelines for the delivery of those programs, and the rationale for each type of intervention in relation to CSC's reintegration efforts.

Program participation is voluntary and based on informed consent. Program participants are given the opportunity to accept, decline, or withdraw from a program. However, every effort is made to encourage the offender to remain engaged in their correctional plan.

Women Offenders

At any given time, approximately 50 to 60% of women offenders under federal jurisdiction are on conditional release in the community. While the figure varies from region to region, overall, women offenders have a high reintegration potential; a high level of motivation to take charge of their lives; they are active participants in the supervision process; and, are receptive to the forms of assistance they are being offered.

Women offenders of all cultural groups often present many inter-related problems which need to be addressed (simultaneously or comprehensively) in order to effectively enable them to move forward. Common issues are low self-esteem, dependency, poor educational and vocational achievement, parental death at an early age, foster care placement, constant changes in the location of foster care, residential placement, living on the streets, participation in the sex trade, suicide attempts, self-injury, and substance abuse. While women are held accountable for criminal behaviour, interventions must take into account the social, political and cultural context unique to women in society. “Crime is a choice, or series of choices, made according to the social context” and mediated by an individual's perception of her environment . CSC's reintegration efforts are designed to offer an increased number of pro-social choices to help women become law-abiding citizens.

Although some basic elements of effective correctional programming may apply to both men and women offenders, there are some elements that differentiate the two. Gender-specific programming must reflect an understanding of the psychological development of women. Current thinking in this area suggests that women place great value in the development and maintenance of relationships . Consequently, “situational pressures such as the loss of valued relationships play a greater role in female offending” . While social learning theories and cognitive behavioural interventions have proven effective with offender populations of both genders , some academics believe that relational theory is an approach that adds effectiveness to programming for women. Relational theory focuses on building and maintaining positive connections and relationships. The main goal is to increase women's capacity to engage in mutually empathic and mutually empowering relationships. To enable change, women need to develop relationships that are not reflective of previous loss or abuse .

Risk, Need and Responsivity Principles

The Risk Principle: the risk rating is an assessment of future probability of re-offending if identified treatment needs are not met. The more intensive the risk presented by an offender, the more intensive the intervention should be . Similarly, offenders who present a low risk should receive low-intensity intervention or no intervention. Higher intensity interventions have actually proven detrimental to offenders who present a low risk due to the fact that they are forced to associate with criminal peers through the group process. Similarly, they learn beliefs and values linked to a criminal lifestyle. Effective correctional programming is directly linked to reduction of risk and, therefore, to recidivism.

The Need Principle: offender needs are dynamic in nature and measure a variety of interpersonal areas in an offender's life. The identified needs domains from the Offender Intake Assessment are: substance abuse, personal and emotional factors, attitudes and beliefs, social interactions and associations, family and marital relationships, education level and employment skills, and community functioning. Assessing a woman's needs provides insight into life history and guides program requirements to ensure effectiveness. Emphasis in correctional programs must be on factors that led to incarceration. Literature suggests that the need principle is applicable to women. However, while some criminogenic needs such as pro-criminal attitudes and association with criminal peers are criminogenic for women, there is preliminary evidence to indicate that some factors are more relevant for women offenders: emotional dysregulation, self-injurious behaviour, suicide attempts and self-esteem . There is evidence that self-injurious behaviour is linked to recidivism and to institutional incidents of violence, substance abuse, and disciplinary problems.

The Responsivity Principle: responsivity has to do with matching the style and delivery mode of the program to the learning styles of the participants, as well as their motivation level, their aptitude and ability . Examples of responsivity factors include gender, age, culture, and disability. One major concern with women offenders is the prevalence of mental health needs. Similarly, the needs of low functioning women who need assistance in daily living skills must be addressed. Also, given the added stress associated with prolonged incarceration, timeliness of program participation is of great importance for women serving long term sentences (10 years and over).

Principles of Programming for Women Offenders

CSC is committed to the following principles in its programming activities targeting women offenders in institutional and community settings:

Women-centred: each woman's actions must be understood and addressed within the context in which they live. Programs must take into account the socio-political and economic environment from which women offenders have evolved and to which they will return to once released. Recognition of the need for ongoing support must be integrated in all programs. Current programming must also respect the importance and centrality of relationships in women's emotional development.

Holistic: The approach to women's successful reintegration is multi-dimensional; therefore the approach to programming must be holistic. Programs designed for women must recognise the importance of understanding the link with all the areas of a woman's life such as her own self-awareness, her relationships with significant others, her sexuality, and her spirituality.

Supportive environment: Loss of freedom is the primary consequence of incarceration. An environment that is safe and supportive in its physical layout and which promotes personal interaction and the exercise of responsible choices will help to empower women. It is also essential for staff to assist women in working towards a safe and successful reintegration. To do so, staff must be sensitive to women's issues, and should be fully aware of the goals of correctional programs, mental health programs, education, employment and employability programs, and social programs. The generalisation and transference of skills acquired in reintegration programs is essential to successful reintegration.

Diversity: women offenders as a group are not homogenous. Aside from having different needs, the group includes individuals from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Diversity also adds to the richness of differences amongst participants. Differences are a benefit to correctional programs, mental health programs, education, employment and employability programs, and social programs. Those differences must be recognised and celebrated. Program staff, and agency staff, must foster an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding of racial issues, sexual orientation and other roots of power differentials in Canadian society. Respecting diversity and minority groups among women not only means recognising differences but also learning about them.

Intake Assessment

Programming for women offenders is an integral component of the Reintegration Process. Women offenders are referred to interventions to address treatment needs to reduce the risk to re-offend. Assessment of risk, of criminogenic needs and referral to programs are initiated at the Offender Intake Assessment.

The Correctional Plan details all programming activities to be undertaken by the offender during the sentence to address the problems which led to criminal offending. Based on the information obtained during the Intake Assessment, the plan incorporates the full spectrum of individual needs and choices, including cultural and spiritual needs. Efforts should be focused on preparing for safe release into the community at the earliest possible time. Release strategies are identified during the Intake Assessment phase; steps to achieving them are outlined early in the correctional planning phase.

Correctional planning is an ongoing activity. Review and updating of the Plan through the Correctional Plan Progress Report occurs on a regular basis, which allows the Case Management Team and the offender to assess progress and accomplishments as she reaches agreed upon goals, and to make adjustments to the Plan if necessary.

Correctional Programs, Mental Health Programs, Education, Employment and Employability Programs, and Social Programs

Commissioner's Directive (726) on the Management of Correctional Programs establishes a framework for the development and management of those correctional programs which contribute to offenders' successful reintegration into the community and are effective in reducing re-offending. Correctional programs are defined as interventions which address the multiple factors that contribute directly to criminal behaviour. A correctional program has clearly articulated objectives, participant selection criteria, a process for evaluating progress made by the participant and a process for measuring program effectiveness. Correctional programs are facilitated by qualified and trained program staff and/or agency staff under contract.

There is international support for the development and implementation of correctional programs that are gender specific . In the past decade, the Correctional Service of Canada has set standards of practice that are based on research that is sensitive to the unique situation of women offenders . Consequently, the practice of delivering non-gender specific programs to women offenders is dissipating. Studies based on women offenders highlight the range and density of presenting difficulties . Not all difficulties are criminogenic though, and while it is recognised that to be effective, institutional and community interventions must focus on factors that contribute directly to offending, for women offenders there are important responsivity issues to take into consideration (e.g. victimisation issues) .

Programs for women must use an approach that is relevant in dealing with the multi-faceted needs of women offenders as opposed to narrow windows of issues. Women need to address emotional regulation issues which underlie other needs such as cognitive functioning and/or substance abuse. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and the Women Offender Substance Abuse Program (WOSAP) are approaches that address emotional regulation needs as well as cognitive functioning and/or substance abuse. Future program development should also be DBT/WOSAP informed to ensure congruency in programming. Spirit of a Warrior is a program which also addresses the multi-faceted needs of Aboriginal women though the focus is on violence prevention and anger management issues. Referrals to programs such as DBT, WOSAP, and Spirit of a Warrior allow for the targeting of the main risk factors while providing an holistic framework for healing . Voluntary participation in Survivors of Abuse and Trauma Programs provide a complement to treatment for women who wish or need to address past issues of victimisation.

Programming Guidelines

The priority for interventions to be set out in the Correctional Plan is on Correctional Programs, Mental Health Programs, Education, and Employment and Employability Programs.

Amongst the array of correctional and mental health programs available to women, the main programs designed to address criminogenic needs are:

  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)
  • Women Offender Substance Abuse Program (WOSAP)
  • Aboriginal Programming
  • Institutional and Community Relapse Prevention/Maintenance Program for Women

Considerations for program planning:

  • When a woman is assigned to DBT in the Structured Living Environment, then simultaneous assignment to other correctional programs is inappropriate and may be a burden to the participant.
  • When a woman is serving a relatively short sentence, and she has a high need for substance abuse intervention, then the focus should be on substance abuse.
  • For women in the Secure Units, the focus is on DBT or Psychosocial Rehabilitation (PSR). Other programs should be made available when the woman integrates the medium security population.
  • When a woman is assigned to and completes the DBT Skills Training Program, then she is not required to complete Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R&R).
  • When a woman completes WOSAP, she is not required to complete R&R.
  • WOSAP does not target needs in the area of violence prevention. However, both DBT and WOSAP address issues of emotion management.
  • For those women who are not targeted for either DBT or WOSAP who have a need for R&R and/or the Anger and Emotion Management (A&EM) Program, the National Program Guidelines apply.
  • To avoid over-programming, offenders who complete an Aboriginal program to address a needs domain will not be required to complete a non-Aboriginal program that addresses the same areas of need. For example, a woman who successfully completes the Circles of Change Program will not be expected to participate in R&R as both programs address the same level of need and are mutually exclusive. The same scenario applies for women who successfully complete the Spirit of a Warrior Program. Those women will not be required to participate in the A&EM Program or other violence prevention programs.
  • The Institutional Relapse Prevention/Maintenance Program for Women is multi purpose. The Program is designed to offer continuous support to facilitate the earliest possible release.
  • The Community Relapse Prevention/Maintenance Program for Women is a risk management tool for Community Parole Officers. Entry is continuous and based on risk and needs. The Program can also serve as an alternative to suspension.
  • Programs for Survivors of Abuse and Trauma are mental health programs which are complementary to all interventions. Participation in those programs is voluntary and not to be included in the Correctional Plan.