Correctional Service Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Common menu bar links

Women Offender Programs and Issues

Warning This Web page has been archived on the Web.

Federally Sentenced Women Maximum Security Interview Project: "Not Letting the Time Do You"

Summary of Key Findings

This report presents the results of a study sponsored by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). The research was undertaken to help identify interventions necessary to suitably address the issues and needs of maximum security women, and to facilitate the reduction of women's maximum security classification. Through interviews, the perspectives and experiences of non-Aboriginal women serving a federal sentence and classified as maximum security were sought in order to increase understanding of their personal and institutional realities.

The information in this report is based on voluntary interviews conducted with 14 of the 15 women in the non-Aboriginal maximum security population in February 1998. These women were housed at either the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario, or at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia. Data were analyzed using a thematic approach guided by the topics addressed in the interviews. Where applicable, relevant information has been analyzed and integrated from the Offender Management System (CSC's automated database) and other CSC files of these maximum security women. The report also incorporates information collected from interviews and focus groups held with CSC front-line and operational staff in each institution where women were interviewed. A qualitative methodology was utilized because this best suited the small size of the population and most appropriately reflected the purpose of the research. Qualitative methods emphasize the importance of exploring individuals' subjective experiences and how they understand events in their lives; in short, emphasizing meaning over measurement.

The following areas were explored in the present research:

    · Maximum security women's opinions of why they are classified maximum and their perspectives regarding criteria for a maximum security classification;

    · The risk and need factors of maximum security women and perspectives on addressing these factors;

    · Identification of factors which motivate maximum security women to work toward reducing their security levels and participate in programming;

    · Perspectives on what CSC's role should be in facilitating the reduction of women's maximum security classification levels;

    · Opinions on existing policies, procedures, and programs that CSC has available for women to reduce their security level from maximum to medium; and

    · Determination of staff and facility characteristics that facilitate, interfere with or are conducive to the reduction of maximum security levels.

The report is organized in four parts. Part A presents an overview, background information relevant to this study, an explanation of the research objectives and methodology, and a description of security classification measures and procedures. Part A also presents demographic and other background information specific to the maximum security inmate population discussed in this report.

Part B presents results of the interviews with the 14 women. The presentation of results includes a summary of data for the whole population interviewed, followed by a separate and more detailed accounting of the responses of women in two population segments (described below). To help clarify and emphasize the data results, many direct quotations from the women are included in the data presentation (the women were given pseudonyms).

Although the predominant focus of the present research is on the perspectives of non-Aboriginal maximum security women offenders, the views of staff who work with these women were also considered critical in this initiative and are presented in Part C. Staff perspectives are summarized and presented in the form of dominant themes captured under the following headings: Identification and Needs of Maximum Security Women, Intervention, and Staff Needs/Issues. Again, direct quotations from the staff interviewed are included in this section (however, staff positions are not identified in the quotes presented).

Part D summarizes and elaborates on the conclusions of the study, and offers direction for future consideration.

    Summary of Key Findings

    ¬ One of the most important conclusions found in the results of this project is that the non-Aboriginal maximum security woman offender population is heterogeneous. To consider this population only as a whole is misleading and problematic. This population is most readily differentiated on the basis of the following three identifiable, but not mutually exclusive, sub-populations:

    · Those with anti-social behaviour and criminal attitudes;

    · Those with special needs resulting from serious emotional and mental health issues; and

    · Those with special needs resulting from cognitive limitations and basic skill deficits.

    It is important to emphasize that the construction of sub-populations and population segments is subjective. These constructions are useful for understanding broad differences in the issues, needs, treatment and management of the maximum security women population, but any such consideration must be done with an eye to subjectivity, fluidity, and context.

    With respect to the above sub-populations, data from this study support several other conclusions. First, although maximum security women in each of the above sub-populations should be considered as having special (and high) needs of one sort or another, the needs of the women in the latter two sub-populations are extraordinarily high. Second, information from the interviews with the women offenders and staff clearly indicate that these sub-populations require separate programming and accommodation.

    ¬ This study notes that there is a much higher amount of institutional assaultive behaviour exhibited by maximum security women compared to those in medium or minimum security. Study findings suggest there is opportunity for developing more accountability among these offenders for their assaultive behaviour.

    ¬ The "inmate code" was of particular importance to a high percentage of the women interviewed, especially during times when they were not interested in reducing their security classification. A strong adherence to the code implies that the women believe that what they do while incarcerated is inconsequential; this is problematic with respect to these women genuinely investing in rehabilitative efforts. The title of this report suggests that becoming positively involved in how one "does their time" is considered central in changing the behaviour and attitudes necessary to reduce security level. Therefore, finding ways to pragmatically challenge and break down the inmate code is of fundamental importance in managing these offenders.

    ¬ A number of interesting findings with respect to what the non-Aboriginal maximum security women offenders identified as need areas were revealed in this study. Two-thirds of the women did volunteer information that corresponded with one or more of CSC's Case Needs Identification and Analysis (CNIA) domains.

    The CNIA personal/emotional orientation domain was identified as a need for all women in this study and was also a prominent theme raised by the staff. Furthermore, many of the women focused on this domain when identifying their own needs, particularly acknowledging their difficulties concerning impulsivity, coping and anger management. This suggests that non-Aboriginal maximum security women require a lot of assistance in learning strategies to deal with interpersonal problems; setting realistic goals; and coping with conflict, crisis, and emotions. Such coping skills would help them to reduce their security level and successfully integrate into the communal living environment of the medium and minimum houses in the regional facilities.

    Finally, when women were queried with respect to their perceptions regarding their criminogenic needs, the overall amount of agreement between these perceptions and the needs identified by the CNIA was less than 50%. There appears to be room for generating a greater amount of agreement or understanding for the women in terms of what CSC considers as criminogenic need areas and what women consider their needs to be and the relationship of these needs to their criminality.

    ¬ A number of findings relate to the current system and process of classifying maximum security women offenders. Information obtained from both the OMS file review and from the staff discussions indicated that distinctions in behaviour, risk, and need exist between women offenders classified as maximum security and those classified as medium or minimum security. File reviews of the women in this study indicated that approximately two-thirds were designated as both "high-risk/high-need."

    Most of the women indicated that being classified as maximum security did affect how they served their time; the effects most frequently mentioned by the women related to issues of institutional placement and restriction of movement. As well, approximately one third of the women expressed the opinion that being classified as maximum security affected their opportunities for programming and believed that their classification level meant that opportunities afforded other federally sentenced women are not available to them. Finally, more than half the maximum security women rated their level of understanding of how security levels are reduced as poor, suggesting an opportunity exists for further information sharing.

    Most women view the responsibility of reducing security levels as shared between the individual woman and CSC. Changing behaviour/attitude and following one's correctional plan were seen as the individual woman's responsibility, while offering appropriate programming, presenting a willingness to alter one's perceptions of inmates, and recognizing an inmate's attempts at change were seen as the primary responsibility of staff.

    More than three quarters of the maximum security women stated that there had been periods of time in which they had not been interested in reducing their maximum security level or had actively engaged in behaviours to achieve or maintain maximum security. This is an important finding that differentiates challenges associated with managing women who are complacent regarding their higher security classification from issues associated with assisting women motivated to reduce their security level.

    ¬ With respect to the identified need areas for correctional planning, interview data suggest that greater involvement of the women in the development of their correctional plans might increase their ownership and interest. Correctional plans were viewed as overwhelming and not precisely focused. Given this, it is suggested that correctional plans for the maximum security women offenders might be incrementally constructed. This would provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement at the completion of each increment.

    ¬ Motivational theories should be explored for their relevance to this population and for their potential impact on behavioural and attitudinal change. Increases in motivational content could be broadly incorporated into all current programming as well as specifically applied to new and dedicated motivational programs and interventions. Motivational theory also provides insights into differences noted in the types of needs identified by the women and by CSC. The observation is made that the types of needs and issues that the women see as relevant and are most likely to want to engage in are primarily physiological, safety, or existence needs whereas CSC tends to emphasize "future-focused" or growth needs, particularly in programming areas.

    ¬ Much information was gathered in this study with respect to all aspects of programming, including content, options, accessibility and mode of delivery. Findings include:

    · Distinct programming strategies, both in terms of program content and delivery, are necessary given the variability in the sub-populations with respect to such things as the women's cognitive capacities, attention spans, and ability to contain emotionality.

    · Programs need to be highly structured and intensive, incorporating an understanding of the particular and highly differentiated needs of maximum security women;

    · There is a need to explore more individually-based programming models;

    · Where current core programming is considered too difficult for some individuals, adaptations are needed to make core programming more suitably accessible;

    · Programming must actively seek increased self-esteem objectives that are clearly articulated in the delivery and content;

    · There is a need for intensive programming to address aggressive behaviour/attitudes and alternatives to violence; and

    · Women who have completed Grade 12 should be offered facilitated self-instruction courses (e.g. computer skills).

    ¬ All women emphasized that staff interactions impacted their security level both positively and negatively in a very significant manner.

    The women perceived negative staff attitudes as being disrespectful, intimidating, diminishing their sense of self, frustrating them and sometimes being deliberately provocative. Ultimately, the consequences of negative inmate-staff interactions can result in conflict and charges.

    Positive inmate-staff interpersonal relations were identified by both the women offenders and staff as integral to a positive institutional environment as well as to the offenders' positive institutional adjustment and changes in their behaviours and attitudes. With respect to achieving this, the following factors were considered as particularly important:

    · Open communication between inmates and staff;

    · Zero tolerance of inappropriate and deliberately provocative behaviours on the part of staff;

    · Positive reinforcement of both inmates and staff;

    · Regular staff on the unit; and

    · A consistent supervisory style that is present, accessible, and responsive to individual needs.

    ¬ In correctional settings, structured, predictable, and safe confinement is central to positive inmate-staff interpersonal relations. When supervision and structure are attentive, consistent and predictable, women offenders clearly know what is expected of them and are able to concentrate their efforts on themselves. Furthermore, the presence of a predictable and, relatively speaking, safe environment lessens the risk of psychological decompensation with corresponding management and clinical problems.

    ¬ This study revealed several findings with respect to the physical environment or accommodation of this population. Most importantly, as mentioned earlier when discussing the population segments, allowances must be made in the physical environment for separating women in the different population segments both in terms of accommodation and programming. There also needs to be opportunities and space for therapeutic quiet. Related to this, there is a need for a variety of physical management options in terms of dealing with this population. Some of these options require the ability to separate and deal with these women on an individual basis and in small groups. As such, there is a need for physical space to accommodate quiet time, individual counselling or programming sessions, group programming space, and both types of segregation (administrative and disciplinary segregation).

    ¬ Another important finding from this study concerned the value of using a multidisciplinary approach to manage this population. Clearly, many of the identified need areas for the non-Aboriginal maximum security women are interrelated, and as such this study supports an intensive, multifaceted, multidisciplinary and holistic approach to interventions and programming with these women. While the intricacies of such an approach will need to address differential sub-population issues, at the core level all interventions and programming must target emotive, cognitive, and behavioural factors. Interventions will need to address a variety of issues and will require highly skilled staff who have been trained in multidisciplinary approaches.

    ¬ Given the mental health needs of this population, managers, treatment and correctional staff are challenged to understand issues of mental health and psychological illness, and the association of such issues to criminal behaviour and institutional adjustment. Both women offenders and staff commented on the need for further staff training, specifically in the areas of women's issues and mental health/psychological conditions.

    ¬ Much research has demonstrated that exposure to traumatic events in their history is widespread if not epidemic among incarcerated women. A process for the identification of abuse histories and assessment of resulting issues needs to be incorporated into the approach of managing these women.

In closing, certain limitations of the present study must be acknowledged and may point to directions for future studies. Caution must be used when interpreting the findings. The study relies heavily on self-report and therefore these data are susceptible to interviewee's offering their perceived socially desirable responses. Also, given the very small number of study participants and that this is a relative population in time, findings must be considered cautiously and in relation to this particular context.

Findings from this research support an appreciation of the deep complexity of the challenges in understanding and managing non-Aboriginal maximum security women offenders and assisting these women in reducing their security classification level, stressing the necessity for intensive, creative and unique solutions.