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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Parenting Roles And Experiences Of Abuse In Women Offenders: Review Of The Offender Intake Assessments


The purpose of this study was to explore and outline trends regarding parenting roles and experiences of abuse among women offenders, based on the data available in the Domain Comments sections of women's Offender Intake Assessments (OIA). To the extent that it was possible, available data for this study were categorized according to the presentation of findings on similar issues from the Survey of Federally Sentenced Women (FSW) which was completed in 1990 (Shaw et al, 1990). This allowed rough comparisons of some of the results of the two studies. Given that the findings from the Survey represented the basis for some of the recommendations on women's parenting roles and experiences of abuse outlined in "Creating Choices: Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women" a follow-up and monitoring of general trends in these issues for a different sample of women offenders seemed relevant in order to gain a better understanding of future research and programming needs.

The Survey of Federally Sentenced Women consisted of interviewing 170 women offenders with the intent to "... assess the views of the women themselves on the experiences of imprisonment, their need for programs and services, and on where and under what conditions they might prefer to serve their sentences" (Shaw et al, 1990, p.1). One of the main issues arising from the results of the Survey was that two thirds of the women who were mothers had also been primary careproviders for their children. A primary source of distress and pain for women was the fact that they were separated from their children. Since at the time of the Survey there was only one federal institution for women - the Prison for Women (PFW) at Kingston - many women were then geographically distant from their families, and the difficulties and costs of transportation made it hard to maintain contact. Moreover, the women reported that the conditions in the institution were unsuitable for visits with their children.

The Survey also found that an extremely high proportion of the women had experienced abuse, either during childhood or adulthood, or in some cases, throughout their entire lives. Its findings showed that "... 82% of the women in PFW had been either physically or sexually abused and 72% of those in the provinces" (Shaw et al., 1990, p.30). Approximately two thirds of women expressed an interest in taking part in programs on abuse. However, in spite of the need to deal with these experiences, the Survey showed that at the time, there were not enough programs specifically designed to assist women in the healing process.

It is almost impossible to find a study on women offenders that does not highlight the issues of mothering and the experiences of abuse. Both topics are identified in the literature as primarily "women's issues." However, there are certain aspects of these issues that make incarcerated women unique compared to "other" women and they merit specific attention. Incarcerated mothers are separated from their children, which affects their mother-role and may have a wide-ranging impact on both the women and their families/children. Studies indicate that separation from children due to incarceration creates tremendous pain in women, which can seriously affect their well-being (Hairston, 1992; Heney, 1996; Shaw et al., 1990; Wine, 1992). Some women may choose not to contact their children because of the stigma associated with being in prison and because they find conditions in the institution unsuitable for children (Hairston, 1992; Shaw et al., 1990). They may worry and express concern for the well-being of their children at their new "home." In many instances, women's parents, who are often elderly and facing their own difficulties, become the primary careproviders for their grandchildren (Bloom, 1992; Shaw et al., 1990). Some careproviders have reported that having a child to look after affects their financial situation, which may result in children not receiving appropriate care (Bloom, 1992). These are all issues that a mother who is incarcerated - regardless of the extent to which she may be in contact with her child - is aware of, and which may represent a source of great stress for her.

Children whose mothers are incarcerated may experience greater changes in their daily lives than those whose fathers are serving sentences in correctional institutions. If the mother was the sole careprovider for her children, then it means that the children lose not only their primary careprovider, but they most likely also have to change residences, and perhaps schools and friends (Stanton, 1980; Watson, 1995; Wine, 1992; Woodrow, 1992). However, not all women are the primary careproviders of their children prior to incarceration. Some women have given up custody or have lost custody of their children even prior to incarceration (Golberg et al, 1997; Shaw et al., 1990). In other instances, they may have made informal arrangements with family members to take on the everyday care of their children. Nonetheless, the fact that some women did not live full-time with their children prior to incarceration does not automatically mean that they did not maintain contact with children, nor that they would not be affected by the reduced contact that they may have due to incarceration .

Finally, it should be mentioned that as with any "other" women, not every woman who experiences problems with the law and becomes incarcerated is necessarily invested in the mother role; some may simply not want to take on this responsibility. Some feminists have argued that the social construction of the mother-role stems from androcentric ideology and may in many ways be oppressive and marginalizing for women and represent a "burden" for the mother (Allen, 1984; Moody-Adams, 1997; Purdy, 1997; Valeska, 1984). On the other hand, other feminists (Garcia Coll et al., 1988; Ruddick, 1984; Whitback, 1986) note that beyond, or in spite of, the oppressive structures of patriarchal society that shape gender socialization, there are intrinsic and specific values of being a mother, of nurturing and caring, that are of tremendous importance for women. As the title of Garcia Coll, Surrey and Weingarten's (1998) book suggests, there are certain values and mechanisms that keep many women "Mothering Against the Odds" (1998). Feminists' analyses of motherhood highlight the importance of recognizing the complexity of the issue and the multi-layered experiences and perspectives that mothers who are incarcerated may face.

The fact that compared to the general population, the proportion of women offenders who experienced abuse is much higher (Laishes, 1997) indicates the extent to which issues of abuse are also of central relevance for this population. These experiences affect women's lives at every level. Some authors have associated women's experiences of abuse with their chances of coming into conflict with the law (Chesney-Lind, 1997; Comack, 1996; Shaw et al., 1990; Widom, 1989, quoted in Pollock, 1996). Other studies have focused primarily on the mental health issues that stem from childhood as well as adulthood experiences of abuse and the numerous difficulties that may be related to it. For example, in order to cope with intense and overwhelming feelings associated with abuse, survivors may develop emotional numbness (Comack, 1996; Herman 1992), suicidal feelings or inability to discuss feelings (Heney, 1996), or addictions and depression (Lundy, 1991; Miller et. al, 1993; Morrow & Smith, 1995; Prather & Minkow, 1991; Windle et. al., 1994). Finally, some studies bring to light the extent to which women's experiences of prison may be shaped by their previous experiences of abuse. The controlling aspects of incarceration can revive women's experiences of abuse and feelings of loss of control and power over their lives (Heney, 1996; Pollack, 1993; Vallee & Cadieux,1995). On the other hand, it has also been documented that, in view of the extremely difficult and appalling circumstances of their lives on the "outside," some women felt "sheltered" and "protected" in prison (Arbour, 1996; Heney, 1996, Vallee & Cadieux, 1995).

Based on the findings of the Survey, as well as other studies specifically designed and conducted to capture incarcerated women's experiences and needs, "Creating Choices: Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women" emerged in 1990. Embedded in a women-centered approach, this document outlined recommendations for change with respect to the programs, services, and facilities for women offenders. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) undertook subsequent changes by establishing four regional institutions and a healing lodge for Aboriginal women offenders. One of the goals of this undertaking was to allow incarcerated women to be geographically closer to their children, families and homes. The facilities were specially designed to enable women's daily living environment to reflect community standards (Correctional Service of Canada, 1992, p.34), to provide more "home-like" settings for visits by children and family members, and to allow women to have their infants or toddlers live with them in the facility. Currently there are some children who live at the facility full-time with their mothers. Moreover, programs aimed at empowering women and responding to their specific needs as outlined in the "Creating Choices" (such as parenting programs, programs dealing with issues of abuse, Peer Support Program, etc.), were developed and implemented in the new facilities.

It has been almost ten years since the Survey of Federally Sentenced Women (Shaw et al., 1990) was conducted. The OIAs Review study presented here was undertaken to monitor and update the treatment of issues that are particularly salient for women offenders, such as mothering and histories of abuse. OIAs of the 426 women were reviewed and the data coded in such a way that would allow to the extent possible, comparisons with the results and information provided by the Survey.

Due to the different methods used in the two studies, there are clear limitations to comparing the findings of the Survey and of this OIAs Review. The Survey was based on individual interviews with women offenders with the aim of collecting data and assessing specific areas of their lives. The purpose of the OIA, on the other hand, is to provide an "initial `snapshot' of the woman" upon her admission into an institution, and to "identify need and risk factors," whereas "in-depth testing and assessment (of her needs) was to be done by specific program providers" (Correctional Program Strategy for Federally Sentenced Women, 1994, p.13).

Thus, given that OIA interview was not specifically designed to systematically collect data and assess issues of interest to this study, it is clear that the extent to which these data were recorded in women's OIAs may be primarily dependent on women's spontaneous disclosures. Furthermore, women's decisions to disclose this information, particularly in relation to their possible experiences of abuse, may vary tremendously due to many factors. For example, a woman may not feel comfortable disclosing this type of information during the OIA interview, she may not even remember experiences of abuse or, it is possible, the notion of "abuse" may vary considerably, and thus what some may perceive as abuse, others may not. However, it is important to keep in mind that the absence of naming or indicating these experiences does not necessarily mean that a woman did not experience them.