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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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


We treat them a little different - you're a little more compassion prone. We have more compassion for them...And they'll actually come back and thank you. Which is something that never happens with the males. It's an altogether different world.

Staff reported that working with maximum security women offenders was demanding-emotionally, physically, and mentally. They also reported that this work was rewarding. Interviews revealed a number of themes that related to areas of staff needs and issues.

All front-line staff communicated the need for training. They expressed their need for information and education regarding the variety of emotional and mental health problems present in the maximum security women's population. Staff want to know more about the reasons for and effects of mental health problems, pharmaceutical interventions, non-violent conflict resolution, informal counseling skills, information on why women slash, and how to intervene appropriately.

Everything. Everything we could get. Something to help us understand their [the women's] moods or their behaviours. About medications - how they work - to understand a bit more of why [the women] do some of the things they understanding that some of the meds do dry your mouth out so when an inmate keeps asking for juice or milk - so then we understand that it's not a demanding thing. Not so much security stuff - but more like behaviours - like why do they slash? More about mental health things so that we are better able to deal with whatever. Like when we're in an overnight - it would be nice to have a little more to go on. It's not realistic to think that the inmates will only act out between eight and four [o'clock].

Negative about working with some of the maximum security women for me would have been getting some of the psychiatric-type cases where I'm not trained to deal with it and having that be an added stressor - as far as their unpredictability and what not.

In a related fashion, staff expressed the strong need for more specialized staff resources.

In terms of the high mental health needs women - we need the professional support, otherwise the frustration is just horrendous.

Staff expressed the importance of and their need for positive reinforcement and feedback, both in regard to their general job performance and in relation to specific interventions.

[Management] gives us numerous TeamLinks [internal electronic mail] or pats on the back - like "job well done," and that's good because you're recognized...

because it's so small here it gets back to the managers...and sometimes it will be the inmates that will say something and [management] will say "keep up the good work."

Staff in both institutions identified a need for staff accountability. Inappropriate or deliberately provocative behaviour and attitudes on the part of a few of their colleagues distressed staff, especially when it is left unchallenged by management. In the opinion of the staff, failure to make their colleagues accountable for these behaviours and attitudes was to give it tacit approval and make it much more difficult for them, in turn, to interact appropriately and consistently.

In particular, the staff at Springhill Institution reported isolation from colleagues who work on other units. The staff commented that peers minimized their efforts on the women's unit, viewed the unit as problematic and troublesome, and pathologized the women. In addition, staff indicated that comparisons between women and men offenders were often made, with accusations of women offenders being given preferential treatment. This appeared to place staff in the position of constantly defending perceptions of women offenders being treated differently, that is, more favourably.

People [other correctional officers] that don't work here - they just make fun of us - that's a hard thing - we get a lot of teasing - big time...again, they've never worked here, but they've heard the stories.

Staff at Springhill Institution emphasized their concerns about the limited amount of living space available for the maximum security women.

    The drawback - I go back to it many times - we have females in a male institution - they are so limited because they physically cannot leave the living unit.

As well, the staff at Springhill Institution raised their concerns regarding the proximity of the segregation unit to the living unit and the implications for inmates and staff. The staff member(s) who witness/deal with an incident that results in segregation still have to directly interact with that inmate while in segregation.

    With male offenders -- the inmate will de-escalate sooner because he is not dealing with the same staff that were part of the original incident. Here there is no separation - there is no isolation. The problem for the individual staff member - if it happened on the first day of a shift - they have six more days of having to deal with a segregated inmate and the issues coming up over and over and over - neither gets quiet time.

Staff identified the need for an enhanced communication strategy, internally, between regions, and corporately from CSC National Headquarters.

    There needs to be more communication between here and the regional facility - there's not as much as there should be. Anyway, they're resistant to us because we're dinosaurs and we're resistant to them because we don't see them as being able to do their job well enough to be able to handle one or two problems that might pop up. [It's a] matter of perception - not the actuality.

Correctional officers, in particular, identified a need for a more comprehensive internal communication process from specific to their dealings with the women.

    Before management gets involved in individual inmate decisions, have them ask the inmate, "Have you asked - whoever is running the range today?" or "Have you approached the Correctional Supervisor?"

Staff said that links between regional facilities are critical to facilitating transfers and ensuring that important information about the women is forwarded.

Finally, staff raised concerns about the clarity of the corporate message as it relates to future direction, programming, and their continuing employment working with women offenders.