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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Program Strategy for Women Offenders August 2004

Part 2 - Correctional Programs, Mental Health Programs, Education, Employment and Employability Programs, and Social Programs


Correctional programs target criminal behaviour (e.g. substance abuse). Mental health services are aimed at symptom reduction and well being (e.g. personality disorders, schizophrenia). Education programs prepare offenders to access improved employment opportunities upon release. Employment and Employability programs are interventions that directly focus on increased job readiness of offenders. Social programs (e.g. community integration program, leisure program) assist and reinforce successful reintegration of offenders as productive members of society. Social programs allow women to demonstrate their wellbeing and support the transfer and generalisation of skills learned in correctional programs.

The distinction to be made between these types of interventions allows CSC to better direct its resources based on its legal mandate. Each type of intervention plays an essential role in safe and successful reintegration and may contribute to reducing the risk presented by women offenders in different phases of their sentences. All programs should be integrated and have a mutually reinforcing effect.


Substance Abuse Programming

Research indicates that women are likely to have a different range and types of problems related to their use of substances than male offenders do . There is accumulating evidence that eating disorders, major affective mood disorders (e.g. depression) and a history of abuse, possibly related to post-traumatic stress disorder, are highly prevalent in women with substance abuse disorders. It should be noted that the physical impact of substance abuse is often worse for women than for men; that the serious physiological ailments caused, for example, by alcohol abuse, may occur with a lower level of consumption or after shorter abuse history for women than for men.

Experts have suggested that programming is most effective when it includes all aspects of the environment. A key component of Women Offender Substance Abuse Programming (WOSAP) is community building. The framework for WOSAP is a strengthening of the community or ‘milieu' through program integration. WOSAP is a shift from a separate collection of programs to a systemic approach to substance abuse. The interdependency of the different programming components can create momentum and move programming beyond structure and content to living and experiencing change, therefore, creating a supportive environment for remaining drug and alcohol free in the immediate surrounding community. Community building efforts reinforce program goals by fostering a positive institutional culture. As a community building strategy, the implementation of Intensive Support Units in the women's institutions complements programming by offering supportive housing to those women who are committed to remaining alcohol and drug free. Additional community building strategies include: peer support, self-help groups, and community forums.

The Programming components of WOSAP are:

  • Initial Engagement;
  • Education & Pre Treatment;
  • Intensive Therapeutic Cognitive/Emotive Intervention;
  • Institutional Maintenance and Community Maintenance.

Sex Offender Therapy for Women

Sex Offender Therapy for Women is available at all the women's institutions as well as in the community. There are five sex offender specific modules: self-management; deviant arousal; cognitive distortions; intimacy, relationships and social functioning; empathy and victim awareness. The primary goals of treatment for women who sexually offend are to learn to identify the factors that influenced their offences, and to learn how to deal more effectively with them, in order to reduce the risk of re-offending. Factors that influence offences of women who sexually offend may include past victimisation and/or relationships with intimate partners.

A Protocol for the Assessment and Treatment of Women Who Sexually Offend has been implemented to ensure consistency in the assessment and treatment of this small group of women. In addition, a national consultant in the field of women who sexually offend is available for consultation on each of the cases. The intervention begins with a specialised assessment at the time of admission, is ongoing and includes maintenance in the institution and the community. Both short and long-term evaluations will be carried out. In the absence of an empirically based static and dynamic assessment tool, evaluation is based on responsivity to treatment.

Reasoning and Rehabilitation Program (Cognitive Skills Training revised)

The literature suggests that deficits in the area of living skills are common among women in conflict with the law. Therefore, the Reasoning and Rehabilitation Program, adapted for delivery to women offenders, is being offered at the women's institutions.

The Reasoning and Rehabilitation Program consists of 38 sessions that focus on the development of interpersonal reasoning skills for effective life management. The Program targets the following specifically identified cognitive deficit areas:

  • Self-regulation/self-management: impulsivity;
  • Self-regulation/self-management: poor emotions management;
  • Egocentrism and social perspective taking;
  • Assertiveness and social interaction;
  • Criminal attitudes and attributions;
  • Critical reasoning;
  • Rigid cognitive style

Anger and Emotion Management Program

The Anger and Emotion Management Program has also been adapted for delivery to women offenders who have learned to use violence, or have learned to use anger in conflict resolution. The Program incorporates the past experiences of women as both survivors and aggressors. Time is built in for discussion of personal issues, with recognition to the importance of childcare and child custody, of histories of personal abuse, and of grief associated with loss and trauma. There is also recognition that the context of relationships for women offenders is a priority.

The Anger and Emotions Management Program consists of 25 two-hour group sessions, structured into six sections. It is based on a cognitive-behavioural approach to anger reduction. It is meant to teach offenders the skills needed to manage anger and other emotions associated with the occurrence of aggression. Although the primary focus of the program is the management of anger, it contains a section on the management of other emotions.



Gender appropriate mental health programs must respond to the experiences and related mental health needs of incarcerated women. This includes systemic factors such as marginalised backgrounds and situations that may include poverty, discrimination, abuse, and substance abuse.

Commissioner's Directive 840 on Psychological Services defines treatment as therapeutic intervention which targets problem behaviour directly related to criminality and essential mental health needs. The 2002 Mental Health Strategy for Women Offenders defines principles essential to all mental health services for women offenders. The principles are wellness, access, women-centred, client participation, and least restrictive measures. These principles are compatible with the principles defined in Creating Choices.

Abuse and Trauma

The high prevalence of violence in the lives of incarcerated women has only been acknowledged since the early 1990s. Surveys of women offenders in Canada indicate that the majority of offenders are survivors of abuse and trauma in their families of origin or with their intimate partners. A 1998 study of women serving sentences for homicide found that 82% had been victims of physical or sexual violence during their lives . Previous studies found that 60% to 90% of women in Canadian federal institutions had been victims of some form of violence in the course of their lives. Furthermore, women offenders under federal jurisdiction have been found to suffer longer periods of abuse and at an earlier age. Abuse was found to be more widespread amongst Aboriginal women .

Though surviving abuse and trauma has not been linked directly to criminal activity, services for survivors are an important component of treatment for women offenders and the need was identified by the women in Creating Choices. Each of the women's institutions has ongoing contracts with community agencies to offer counselling for survivors of abuse and trauma (refer to: Program Guidelines Survivors of Abuse and Trauma).

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is a systematic and comprehensive mental health treatment program targeting emotion dysregulation and the various behavioural difficulties associated with it. In DBT , problematic behaviour is viewed as the result of: 1) deficits in important interpersonal, self-regulation and distress tolerance skills, and 2) personal and environmental factors that reinforce maladaptive behaviours and/or inhibit the use of existing behavioural skills and the development of new skills and capacities.

DBT targets skill development to address dysregulation in the sphere of emotions, relationships, cognitions and behaviours while increasing adaptive behaviours. The goal of DBT is for individuals to increase dialectical thinking, emotional and behavioural patterns—to learn and refine skills to identify and change rigid, dichotomous patterns associated with significant problems in living that are causing them considerable distress.

DBT treatment is a process that involves the collaborative efforts of the clinicians/service providers and the individual in order to devise the most effective intervention. This process encourages individuals to acquire and generalise skills to more appropriately and effectively address their mental health and other needs at a pace consistent with their needs and learning styles.

CSC has adapted three models of DBT available at the women's institutions that differ with respect to intensity of treatment components and milieu: Comprehensive DBT (for use with inmates residing in the Structured Living Environments); General DBT (for inmates in regular population); and Secure Unit DBT (for maximum-security women). The two primary treatment components are: 1) Individual Psychotherapy (1 hour/week); and 2) DBT Skills Training Sessions (individual and/or group). It is imperative that in the implementation of DBT, these two components are provided concurrently; individuals cannot be in DBT Skills Training without concurrent individual DBT psychotherapy. Other treatment components include: Support /Coaching; Team Consultations (various formal and informal consultations with DBT treatment team members); and DBT National Consultations.

DBT Skills Training involves weekly (or bi-weekly) 2 hour sessions in which specific skills considered relevant to addressing dysregulation in the sphere of emotions, relationships, cognitions and behaviours are taught.

There are six Modules: 4 focus on developing skills in the following areas:

  • Mindfulness;
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness;
  • Emotion Regulation; and,
  • Distress Tolerance.

2 focus on:

  • Formulation of Goals;
  • Self Management;
  • Skills Generalisation; and,
  • Analysis and integration of crime cycle and relapse prevention materials.

Modules in the DBT Skills Training Program are usually taken at least twice during participation in the treatment. For both the CSC Comprehensive and General DBT Models, DBT Skills Training Sessions follow sequential order in terms of delivery. In the CSC Secure DBT Model, the order of Modules is made in consultation with the Unit Psychologist (based on individual needs), and the content is delivered individually or in dyads.

As part of the CSC Comprehensive DBT Model, Skills Training is an ongoing requirement while residing in the Structured Living Environment.

Psychosocial Rehabilitation

Psychosocial Rehabilitation is a comprehensive approach that is the most appropriate and potentially effective program model for individuals with basic skill needs and cognitive challenges (particularly persons with severe and persistent mental illness, e.g., severe and treatment-resistant mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and related disorders). A fundamental assumption of the approach is that all persons with mental illness, no matter how severe, have the potential to learn and grow. The main goal of PSR is to help clients take back control of their lives so they can formulate goals and plans that improve their quality of life.

Successful reintegration to the community has often been impeded by an individual's: loss of community living opportunities and supports because of their institutionalization; limited resources, skills and supports; isolation, and a sense of hopelessness brought on by institutionalization; and, inappropriate behaviour patterns learned through institutionalization.

PSR interventions have proven effective at increasing adaptive behaviours, including self-care, interpersonal, vocational and living skills and at reducing problem behaviours, including psychotic behaviours and aggression. It uses a social learning approach that incorporates a variety of techniques based on fundamental learning principles, as well as a variety of skills training, cognitive remediation, positive reinforcement, vocational training and psycho-educational components. This is done within a highly structured schedule. As much as possible, skills are taught in the daily context where they would usually be used.



While correctional and mental health programs focus on the individual and the factors that directly contribute to criminal behaviour, education, employment and employability programs, and social programs are interventions that focus on the safe integration of offenders into society. Education programs are interventions that have been shown to reduce recidivism and also function as preparation to participate in other programs such as employment and employability programs and correctional programs. Employment and employability programs are interventions that focus directly on increasing job readiness of offenders and are ultimately aimed at sustained employment in the community upon release. Research has consistently shown that employment instability predicts re-offending . Therefore, employment is an important area that can aid offenders in their efforts to remain law-abiding. Employment needs must be identified at intake, built into correctional plans and in release planning. Vocational programs and all work-related assignments must be considered as a set of integrated tools to address the significant employment and employability deficits in the offender population.

Social programs help offenders to identify pro-social lifestyles, to choose activities that will integrate them as productive members of society and law-abiding citizens. Women offenders are encouraged to participate in activities and social programs relevant to their interests and needs. Social programs allow for transfer of skills learned in correctional programs, teach women offenders healthy ways of living, and introduce them to increased pro-social choices. Even though they do not directly target wellness or criminal behaviour, social programs, as activities supportive of correctional and mental health programs, play an essential role in CSC's efforts to actively encourage offenders to become law-abiding citizens. Institutions are required to offer education, employment and employability programs, and social programs that are deemed essential to CSC's efforts to safely and successfully reintegrate offenders.


Education Programs

Education is an essential program to assist women offenders to become productive members of society. Institutions are required to offer education programs as per Commissioner's Directive 720 on Education of Offenders. The purpose of CD 720 is: “To provide offenders with provincially accredited or certified programs which meet their identified education needs to assist them to reintegrate into the community as law-abiding citizens”. The focus is to actively encourage women offenders to complete a grade 10 level of education as a pre-requisite to employment while serving a federal sentence. This does not preclude participation in work assignments concurrently.

In all women's institutions, offenders have the opportunity to complete provincially accredited or certified programs.

The Keys to Family Literacy Program provides a creative and flexible approach to literacy while facilitating learning and is closely related to parenting programs. The goals of the program are to link literacy with parenting skills, and to encourage positive familial attitudes and behaviours. This Program is a literacy program that further enhances and expands literacy skills.

Employment and Employability Programs

Employment presents a unique challenge for women as they face a double jeopardy; they have a criminal record and they are members of socially disadvantaged groups in terms of accessing meaningful employment. Therefore, employment and employability programs are needed not only in the institution but must be accessible in the community as well.

Employability is an important contributing factor in enhancing successful reintegration. The collective responsibility of CSC is to ensure that all offenders are job ready. While incarcerated, women offenders need to be given the opportunity to: develop employability skills; gain certified work experience; understand and experience the performance expectations of a private sector employer in terms of pace of work, quality of work, hours of work, etc. Once in the community, women need help and support to access meaningful employment. To achieve this, women offenders should be referred to employment centres in the community where available and when appropriate to the women's needs.

Vocational programs are programs that are normally three months in length, and third party certified. They provide marketable work skills that will prepare women offenders for employment in the institution and the community. Vocational programs for women offenders must provide an adequate amount, intensity, and quality of training in work that is relevant to the job market. Vocational testing is a requirement for women who meet the criteria. Where possible, testing results should be matched to appropriate employment opportunities in the institution.

Institutions are required to offer employment opportunities to women offenders.


Parenting Skills Program

Parenting Skills Programs are designed based on the 1995 Guidelines for Parenting Skills Programs for Federally Sentenced Women. The Guidelines were designed to help CSC plan, develop, implement, and evaluate parenting skills programming for women. The Guidelines were also meant to help program developers design and deliver material that would best match the needs of this specific population.

A 1999 study based on a review of the Offender Intake Assessments of women offenders revealed that 81.2 % of women offenders have or have had children. Many women offenders are concerned over the lost custody of one or more of their children and have reported that contact with their children, regardless of their age, was essential to their personal well being.

The most promising parenting programs allow for mothers and children to bond, or re-bond in some instances, through long-term contacts. Parenting Skills programs typically include child visitation. Visitation fosters the development or re-development of positive attachments between mothers and children, which are linked to the principles of relational theory. By encouraging women to establish positive attachments to their children, parenting programs produce considerable benefits: more stable mothers, who after resolving their conflict with the criminal justice system, can then model pro-social values for their children.

Consequently, the women's institutions are required to offer Parenting Skills Programs.

Mother-Child Program

One unique program for women is the Mother-Child Program. Commissioner' Directive 768, Institutional Mother-Child Program aims “to provide a supportive environment that fosters and promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship”. The pre-eminent consideration is the best interests of the child in all decisions relating to participation in the Mother-Child Program. This includes ensuring the safety and security as well as the physical, emotional and spiritual well being of the child. Institutions are required to offer the Mother-Child Program to eligible inmates. However, this requirement is based on long-term accommodation availability.

Community Integration Program

The Community Integration Program was designed to assist offenders in their transition to the community by offering them relevant information. The Program aims to: provide factual information surrounding community living; influence participants' readiness to integrate into society; decrease stress associated with community living; provide an opportunity for participants to objectively evaluate their lifestyle; influence motivation to be successful; identify and develop goals that will assist with personal progress; increase awareness of possible roadblocks to goals; acquaint participants with the development of affirmative action alternatives; and increase participants' awareness of valuable resources available in their community. Offender must have the opportunity to complete the Community Integration Program either in the institution or the community.

Choosing Health in Prison (CHIP)

Choosing Health in Prison was developed to provide offenders with education on various health-related topics with the goal of enabling them to make healthy choices. Throughout the program, several topics are covered such as: how to manage stress, the importance of exercising, the different types of infectious disease and nutritional facts.

The Choosing Health in Prison Program includes nine sections that consist of eight individual workshop topics. The sessions are one hour in length. The written workshop presentations are one-half hour in length and are designed to encourage discussion.

Peer Support Program

Partly based on relational theory, the Peer Support Program is a national program and is an inmate-based program for which inmates provide peer support services to other inmates. Parolees can provide similar support to other parolees in the community. Peer Support Team members are volunteers and accepted based on personal suitability and are trained to offer support services to their peers. Recent evaluations have demonstrated that offenders who complete the training feel empowered. Furthermore, the research demonstrated the value of this program for its contribution to creating a safe and secure environment in the institutions.

Leisure Education Program

The Leisure Education Program is a national program which has been developed locally by the institutions. The Leisure Education Program promotes health, wellness and nutrition. Recreational and leisure activities and involvement both with and in the community are important areas of concern for women offenders.

Lifeline Program

Unlike most other offenders, those receiving life sentences do not have fixed release dates. The Lifeline Program is an innovative service provided in partnership with CSC, the National Parole Board and non-governmental organisations. It is a correctional concept involving convicted, but paroled, men and women serving life sentences who have been successfully reintegrated into the community for at least five years. The mission of Lifeline is to provide, through the In-Reach component and community endeavours, an opportunity to motivate inmates and to marshal resources to achieve successful, supervised, gradual reintegration into the community. In-Reach workers are recruited to help other lifers throughout their sentences by returning to institutions to help develop programs for lifers; help motivate offenders; help offenders reintegrate; and contribute to public safety.

The Lifeline program is disseminated through three key components: In-Reach, community resources, and public awareness. In-reach workers try to help other lifers use their time in prison productively. Community services assist lifers as they leave the institution to reintegrate into the community. In-Reach workers and other members of the partnership (CSC, NPB, community-based sponsoring agencies) also meet with interested groups to raise public awareness as to effective, humane corrections, and the situation facing lifers, which in turn fuels community support. They also perform preventive work by trying to deter young people from getting involved in crime or drugs and by developing positive role models.

Spirituality & Spiritual Services

Spirituality is a key component for all women. It impacts on her outlook on life, her self-worth, her purpose, moral and ethical values and ultimately her choices . There is also a strong connection between spirituality as it relates to grief and loss, which is an important part of Chaplaincy ministry.

The Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy functions in an advisory capacity to the CSC and ensures that religious and spiritual care of offenders are being provided for in a manner that meets the standards of what is acceptable. Chaplaincy to Women is represented on the Interfaith Committee. Spiritual beliefs and practices are often closely linked with an individual's culture and as such must be considered in addressing spiritual needs. To fulfil the requirements to offer spiritual services, CSC considers a number of factors including religious diets, sacred writings, different days and ways of prayer, and diverse religious and/or spiritual leaders. The CSC Manual on Religious and Spiritual Accommodation offers guidance as well as direction on what the community standards are as well as what is possible in the correctional environment. Through connection with community volunteers and faith groups, CSC endeavours to meet the multi-faith needs of women offenders by providing support from the faith community.

Aboriginal offenders have access to Elders, traditional social, cultural and spiritual activities.

Community Chaplains provide innovative and supportive initiatives that assist women to safely and successfully re-enter society. Among these are Circles of Support. Circles ideally begin while the woman is incarcerated and continue long after the woman is released to the community. This assistance comes in the form of mentorship, fellowship and practical support. They help many women stay out of prison.

Canine Program

The Canine Programs offered in some of the women's institutions has proved beneficial in many ways. Participants have the opportunity to develop specialised skills in animal training, to provide useful services for the community, to learn a skill which may help them find meaningful employment, and that enables them to use the skills learned in correctional programs. For example, inmates who work as dog handlers gain numerous benefits as they:

  • Contribute to society by rescuing and training an unwanted dog;
  • Experience a completely accepting, non-judgmental relationship;
  • Become exposed to another disenfranchised group by training an assistance dog;
  • Become skilled in Operant Conditioning/Behaviour Analysis, a non-punitive, reward-based system of training;
  • Practice self-discipline and the setting of boundaries;
  • Learn to end relationships in a healthy manner;
  • Learn to respect the efforts and successes of others.

Recreational Therapy

Recreational therapy is a process which uses recreation for purposeful interventions in some physical, emotional, cognitive and/or social behaviour to bring about change and to promote growth and personal development. Leisure education encourages offenders to acquire leisure skills, awareness, and knowledge necessary for initiating, planning and participating in recreation activities and maintaining a fulfilling and self-directed lifestyle. This becomes an important factor in self-management and relapse prevention. The types of activity facilitated by the recreational therapist include arts and crafts, music, games and fitness programs.

Horticulture Program

Horticulture is a program offered in some of the women's institutions. The program's objective is two-fold: to foster personal development through self-knowledge and working with others; to foster the acquisition of knowledge and development of autonomy. Horticultural knowledge and the ability to organise work increases job readiness skills.

Arts & Crafts

Arts and crafts are a recognised valuable leisure activity available in all institutions. Commissioner's Directive 760 on Leisure Activities is the policy document which enables arts and crafts activities to be available for inmate populations.