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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"


This study has addressed a recognized gap in the research literature on maximum security women offenders. Its particular value is in its qualitative approach and the opportunity this affords all those interviewed, particularly the women offenders, to name their experience and share their perspectives. This process speaks to CSC's commitment to provide the opportunity for these views to be heard.

This research has provided a description of non-Aboriginal maximum security women and their needs. Through this process, our understanding of who these women are has increased. Part D summarizes the major conclusions of this study, offers elaboration, and provides direction for future consideration.

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:

    1. Those with anti-social behaviour and criminal attitudes;

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

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

Data from this study warrants that women's responses be given distinct consideration in terms of population segments. Clearly, the responses of women offenders regarding their offences, needs, and experiences of incarceration, as well as the responses of staff with respect to understanding and dealing with these women, differentiate population segments.

With respect to the above population segments, data from this study support several more conclusions. First, although maximum security women in each of the above population segments 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 (as represented in this study by the SNP segment). Second, information from the interviews with the women offenders and the staff clearly indicate that these population segments require separate programming and accommodation.

Another conclusion from this study relates to the current system and process of classifying the 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. In terms of selectively differentiating those women classified maximum security, it is important to emphasize that those classified maximum are reviewed on the bases of ratings on the three dimensions of Institutional Adjustment, Escape Risk, and Public Safety. To be clear, women are not classified maximum security solely on the basis of having serious emotional and mental health issues and/or cognitive limitations/low functioning. In fact, it is important to note that there were, for example, equal numbers of women classified maximum security and medium security in the Special Needs Unit at P4W during the course of the interviews. In short, not all women with severe mental health needs are classified as maximum security.

Regarding classification, the OMS file review of the women in this study indicate that approximately two-thirds were designated as both "high-risk/high-need." In terms of their security classification dimensions, almost all of the women in this study were rated high on Institutional Adjustment. Interestingly, for some of these women, prior changes in institutional behaviour have resulted in corresponding changes in their security classification (i.e. lower Institutional Adjustment ratings corresponded with a medium security classification).

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. It is important that this degree of assaultive behaviour be recognized and pragmatically or operationally contextualized when dealing with and planning for the non-Aboriginal maximum security women. The absence of such recognition and contextualization could have a number of potential consequences, including:

  • A missed opportunity for positive interventions for change;
  • A missed opportunity for developing a better understanding of this population on its own terms. This understanding, in turn, could contribute to developing a behavioural paradigm against which to measure assaultive incidents;
  • That, in the absence of such an understanding, there is an increased likelihood that incidents of assaultive behaviour may be pathologized and deviantized; and
  • Failure to recognize and contextualize that this assaultive behaviour can erode the trust and confidence of both the staff and other women offenders, add considerably to the stress of the environment for both staff and women offenders, and inadvertently work against the women offenders.

Interestingly, although this higher amount of institutional assaultive behaviour is acknowledged by women offenders, they tend to minimize its effects both in terms of injury to others and in terms of its significance as a factor in their higher security classification. Study findings suggest there is opportunity for developing more accountability among these offenders for their assaultive behaviour.

A further point regarding high ratings of Institutional Adjustment concerns the "inmate code." The interviews with women offenders and staff revealed that, particularly for the women in the GP segment, following, if not enforcing, the inmate code was of particular importance to them, especially during times when they were not interested in reducing their security classification. Certainly, there is a link between adherence to the inmate code and demonstrations of aggressive behaviour (since the use of and tolerance for violence is a part of the code), and of posturing in an "us and them" mentality against staff. However, such an adherence could also be linked to the seeking of external sources for self-esteem and social approval. Inadvertently, this adherence reinforces, in a maladaptive sense, that the code "works" for these women offenders. 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; consistently confronting these negative thinking and behavioural patterns in a way that is process-oriented will assist these women in focusing on themselves and their individual needs.

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.

  • First, when asked what led to their being in prison, two-thirds of the women did volunteer information that corresponded with one or more of the CNIA domains.
  • Second, in terms of women identifying their own needs, most of the women spontaneously identified one or more needs that coincided with CNIA domains. However, there were clear differences in the extent and nature of the needs expressed by the women in the two segments. Women in the GP segment predominantly focused on their personal/emotional orientation needs and to a lesser extent, needs concerning their substance abuse. Conversely, women in the SNP segment identified fewer needs and those they did identify were often of a more basic nature (e.g. community functioning).
  • Third, the CNIA for these women identified them as having difficulties in multiple domain areas. The personal/emotional orientation domain was identified for all women in both segments. Moreover, needs in this domain were determined as "considerable" for the majority of this maximum security population. Although women in the GP segment had more CNIA needs than women in the SNP segment, when needs were identified for women in the SNP segment, they were more often identified as "considerable needs."
  • Finally, when women were queried with respect to their perceptions regarding their criminogenic needs the overall amount of agreement, across both population segments, was less than 50%. The concept of what constitutes a 'need' for the women therefore, in and of itself, raises an interesting point. Specifically, 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.

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, all women in the GP segment predominantly focused on this domain when identifying their own needs, particularly acknowledging their difficulties concerning impulsivity, coping and anger management. This suggests that the non-Aboriginal maximum security women require a lot of assistance in learning strategies to deal with interpersonal problems; set realistic goals; and cope with conflict, crisis, and emotions. In the absence of such coping strategies, behavioural manifestations of the women's anger and impulsivity, which often permit them a degree of control over others in their environment, is reflected in their poor institutional adjustment. In short, it is important that these offenders be taught structured coping skills for handling mental health crises as well as general coping strategies and social adaptive daily living skills. These 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.

With respect to the identified need areas for correctional planning, interview data suggests that greater involvement of the women in the development of their correctional plans might increase their ownership and interest. Again, this is a place where the discrepancies between needs identified by OMS and those that the women themselves identify and see as relevant could be addressed. Also, these women were identified with needs in most of the CNIA domain areas, and for the most part were aware that these areas had been targeted for programming. Consequently, even though they were aware that some of these needs had been prioritized, they considered their correctional plans to be overwhelming and not precisely focused. Given this, it is suggested that correctional plans for the maximum security women offenders might be incrementally constructed. For example, their correctional plans could be structured in phases, focusing both understanding and efforts on one phase at a time. In turn, this would provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement at the completion of each phase rather than an overwhelming sense of futility in effort.

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. To clarify, the types of needs and issues that the women see as relevant and are most likely to want to address are primarily physiological needs and safety needs (Need Hierarchy Theory) or existence needs (ERG Theory). In contrast, CSC focuses on growth needs. In short, the offenders primarily tend to concentrate on "present-focused" needs, while CSC tends to emphasize "future-focused" or growth needs, particularly in programming areas. To enhance movement along maximum security women offenders' correctional plans, it would be worthwhile to explore some form of bridge programming between these two divergent focuses. A key component of such bridge programming would clearly be motivational.

Much information was gathered in this study with respect to all aspects of programming, including content, options, accessibility and mode of delivery. The interview data pointed to the following:

  • Distinct programming strategies, both in terms of program content and delivery, are required 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.
  • Programs need to incorporate an understanding of the particular, and highly differentiated, needs of maximum security women.
  • Programming needs to be intensive, especially for the GP women.
  • There is need to explore more individually-based programming models. Subsequently, time in such individually-based models should be spent working towards eventual participation in a group model.
  • Where current core programming is considered too difficult for some individuals, adaptations are needed to make core programming more suitably accessible. A good example is found at P4W, where the Problem-Solving/Coping Skills program was initiated for those women who found the core Cognitive Skills program too difficult.
  • Programming must actively seek increased self-esteem objectives that are clearly articulated in the delivery and content. Dedicated self-esteem programming could be considered.
  • There is a need for intensive programming to address aggressive behaviour/attitudes and alternatives to violence. Again, such programming needs to be adapted to the specific issues of the differential sub-populations, acknowledging differences in the underlying causes and manifestation of such violence.
  • More programming opportunities for women offenders at Springhill Institution need to available.
  • Women who have completed Grade 12 should be offered facilitated self-instruction courses (e.g. computer skills).

The impact of inmate-staff interpersonal relations is another conclusion supported in the present study. 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 women 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-both need to know when they are doing a good job;
  • Regular staff on the unit; and
  • A consistent supervisory style that is present, accessible, and responsive to individual needs.

In correctional settings, a structured, predictable, and safe confinement is central to positive inmate-staff interpersonal relations. In the present findings, the concept of supervision and structure needs to be deconstructed when operationally applied to the management of this group of women. A greater amount of structure is not necessarily a bad or negative thing; rather than viewing it as retributive or penalizing, it would be valuable to construct supervision and structure for this group of women as necessary and helpful. Supervision and structure need to be construed as good practice. In fact, the women who were focused on reducing their classification level held this view. When supervision and structure are attentive, predictable and consistent, the women offenders clearly know what is expected of them and are able, in turn, to concentrate their efforts on themselves rather than diluting their attention on attempts to control or manipulate a less defined environment.

Another important finding from this study concerned the value of a multidisciplinary approach to managing 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. The foundation of a multidisciplinary approach is collaborative consultation which, in turn, sets the context for integrative inmate care and management. Such collaborative consultation involves the involvement of various disciplines in inmate care and management and the interactive exchange of information between all those involved. Findings from this study support the need for such an integrated approach in managing these offenders. Interventions will need to address a variety of issues and these interventions, in turn, will require highly skilled and dedicated multidisciplinary staff to address the complex nature of the needs evident in a majority of these women. Among the advantages of a multidisciplinary team approach is the ability of team members to work closely in more flexible ways with other specialists. Another advantage is that individual team members can play multiple roles (including, for example, teaching, consulting, evaluating).

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 the 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. Information from the staff indicated that through educational initiatives already in place, staff have come to view apparently resistant, oppositional, or demanding behaviour as having a context with respect to a mental health/psychological condition or situational factor.

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. This should substantially increase the likelihood that the manifestations of past trauma will be visibly factored into the equation and opportunities provided to address identified traumas. At the same time, this process should also substantially decrease the likelihood that these significant issues will be ignored or fractured into a less holistic understanding. It is important to relate this to the point made earlier regarding the need for the correctional environment to be predictable and, relatively speaking, safe. The presence of such an environment is a critical factor for the management and care of the offender with a history of trauma. In the absence of such an environment, there is a heightened risk of psychological decompensation with corresponding management and clinical problems. Furthermore, although correctional staff recognize the traumatic histories of the majority of these offenders, they acknowledge that their understanding of how the aftermath of these traumas impact on the carceral setting is less clear. This suggests another opportunity for further staff education.

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. In meeting this need, it might also prove beneficial to explore the possibility of introducing alternative methods of assisting women in relaxation and structured quiet, such as meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga. 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 counseling or programming sessions, group programming space, and both types of segregation (administrative and disciplinary segregation).

This study notes a number of findings with respect to non-Aboriginal maximum security women offender's regarding their classification and its effects. Generally, the women were aware of their classification and could provide some explanation as to why they were so classified. Furthermore, most of the women agreed with the reasons for their having been so classified, but criticized the process or the length of time between reviews as too long. Interestingly, most of the women in the GP segment did not consider themselves to be typical maximum security inmates, and as already stated, minimized their institutional violence and rationalized it as necessary. More than half the women felt that there is a stigma attached to being classified a maximum security inmate. Similarly, most of the women indicated that being classified as maximum security did affect how they served their time; the effect 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. These findings support the need for greater information sharing with the women offenders regarding the restrictions imposed as a consequence of security classification and accommodation and programming options available to them at their higher security level. Similarly, interview data suggests that both women and staff need more information about the reasons behind security classifications. In particular, women offenders need to know the consequences of certain behaviours on their security classifications and they need to be given some indication of the relative duration of corresponding consequences. 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 additional information sharing.

Interestingly, most women consider 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. The mutuality inherent in this finding is encouraging when considering efforts to assist women to reduce their security level; basically, the women are acknowledging that it is a "two way street."

A related finding reveals that 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. Clearly this finding broadly differentiates the challenges associated with managing women who are complacent regarding their higher security classification from issues associated with assisting women motivated to reduce their security classification. Some women, and for varying amounts of time, will simply not be interested in reducing their security level and therefore, will not be interested in changing their behaviour or attitudes. What is important here then, is that the necessary structure and supervision be in place to facilitate and encourage the types of internal changes the women identified as helpful in changing this outlook. Supportive structure and supervision will also help to limit the distraction these women may cause themselves and other maximum security women. This kind of environment leaves all women more free to focus on the changes necessary to reduce their security level.

Before leaving this point, it is important to contextualize the differences between the population segments with respect to their resistance to security classification reduction. The reasons for women in the GP segment not pursuing a lower classification generally involved active adherence to the "inmate code" or indifference/acceptance of their current situation. Conversely, for women in the SNP segment, the majority of whom were not seeking classification reduction at the time of the interviews, their reasons were more likely to centre around their fears and insecurities regarding the level of independence and life-skills required to function in the houses (e.g. responsibility for cooking, cleaning, laundry). For individuals within this group (and likely for all maximum security women), this suggests the need to teach them basic life-skills prior to their security being reduced.

In closing, certain limitations of the present study must be acknowledged and may point to directions for future studies. As stated at the beginning of this report, it is important to emphasize that the findings reported here must be interpreted with caution and in relation to the particular context of the study population. The necessity of giving careful consideration to the findings is due to the small number of study participants, the fact that this is a relative population in time, and a reliance on self-reports, which are susceptible to the possibility of interviewees' biases. Establishing links between facilities dealing with maximum security women offenders is important to enable staff to adapt effective practices to their institutional environments. Directions for future work include continuing to assess the differential presentation of needs and mental health needs by population segments of maximum security women offenders. This study has also raised some interesting questions regarding how CSC can best facilitate the types of internal changes that women identify as pivotal to their having changed their attitude or behaviour and engaging in efforts to reduce their security level. Finally, 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. This research stresses the heterogeneity of this population and the necessity for intensive, creative and unique solutions.