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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Survey of Federally Sentenced Aboriginal Women in the Community


"At times when I'd burn my medicines, when we had sweetgrass smuggled into us because sometimes it was seen as contraband, the sweet smell of the earth would create a safe feeling, a feeling of being alive even though the cage represented a coffin, the prison a gravestone, and my sisters walking dead people. Those medicines were what connected me as a spirit child. One time when I was close to suicide I was told by Mista Hiya that my spirit was alive and it was housed in my physical shell. And from that hard time I learnt that my spirit was more important than my body because my body was controlled by the routine of life in prison. It was then the connectedness to being an Aboriginal Woman, began. I began feeling good about myself even though I had only a few reasons to feel good. I understood there was a spirit within me that had the will to live."

This is a report about First Nations women in the Canadian federal prison system. It is also a very personal document, one in which it is difficult for us to be impartial. The experiences to which this report speaks are our experiences: we, the researchers, have lived them. When we retell the stories of the 39 Aboriginal women who speak through the pages of our report we are also sharing our own stories, for we too have known the brutality, violence, racism and oppression of which the stories tell.

Our participation in the Task Force has been difficult. We entered the Task Force as prisoners. As prisoners we spoke with grave hesitation. It was our experience that the last 12 task forces, the numerous commissions, working groups, federal department officials, and other organizations that are said to represent women in cages had already conducted study after study. We felt that another task force would be repeating what is already known and documented somewhere... in some brown file... in some room... covered with dust. We felt that this task force would be as useless as all the other task forces that have been shelved.

In Task Force meetings, faced with theoretical discussions of the condition of women in prison, voiced by people whose responsibility is bureaucratic, we felt repulsed and suffocated. This talk had no connection to the reality we had experienced. When our rage became uncontainable we spoke of prison conditions, of the actual experiences of being Aboriginal women in prison, of real-life brutality. Yet our words were met with tense silences and appear nowhere in the minutes of meetings. Our descriptions of the reality are buried as our sisters are buried in prison.

In the past we have spoken to other Task Forces, Sentencing Commissions, reporters, investigators, Correctional Service staff and various other people who listened politely and nodded in apparent understanding. Yet afterwards our conditions, the conditions of our sisters, remained unchanged. The segregation unit continued to hold us hostage without heat in the dead of the winter, without toothpaste or a tooth brush. More seriously medical treatment for crisis situations was so deplorable that we often believed that death was inevitable for Sisters who slashed. In three years the shower in the bathroom on the upper tier of segregation remained unrepaired. Cells in population have had hot water only since 1987, installed after grievances were organized.

To each task force that we met, we outlined typical issues that affected our lives in prison. We described archaic conditions, arbitrary mass punishment, sexism and racial barriers imposed by administration and security classifications that were applied to us because as Native women we were seen as a collective, as a war party that posed a risk to the good order of the institution. We outlined personal accounts of involuntary transfers to Prison for Women for people who were supposed to serve provincial sentences. We talked about living under the special handling unit standards of the blanket 230 code. For the simple fact is that maximum security Native women at P4W were prejudged as violent, uncontrollable, and unmanageable because we refused to cooperate with male guards who ordered us to remove our clothes in provincial prisons or population. We told the numerous task forces that medical/psychiatric evaluations were not culturally appropriate. We knew the questions they asked us were questions made for white people, for white men. We vocalized that most of us were survivors of sexual abuse, rape and wife battering and the only option for treatment was at Kingston Prison for Men. We pointed out that KP is older than P4W and that it housed sex offenders, the perpetrators who symbolized the same men who victimized us. How did they expect us to help ourselves when that was the only treatment available and it was no damn good in the first place? How can anyone expect to heal themselves under those conditions? And because Native women refused to go for treatment, refused to accept drug treatments offered, our parole applications were not supported because we "didn't address our own treatment needs."

The starting point for action lies not in abstract discussions but in the experiences of the women themselves. An essential recognition: prison and release from prison are not the starting point. As our stories show, Aboriginal women who end up in prison grow up in prison, though the prisons in which they grow up are not the ones to which they are sentenced under law.

When movement passes were introduced at P4W in 1982 or 1983, they echoed another history. Our ancestors were required to obtain passes from the RCMP or from the Indian Agent to travel off reserve. Now we required written permission to go up a flight of stairs or to move three feet from A Range to the hospital. Our ancestors also understood that such laws were made to be broken. All this may seem trivial, but each part of prison existence for Aboriginal women has a context. It is experienced through eyes and feelings that are FEMALE, ABORIGINAL AND IMPRISONED. Each of these things makes a great deal of difference to the way prison is experienced. There is a great deal to be said here, but first it is best to let the women to whom we talked share their stories.

No amount of tinkering with prisons can heal the before-prison lives of the Aboriginal women who live or have lived within their walls. Prison cannot remedy the problem of the poverty of reserves. It cannot deal with immediate or historical memories of genocide that Europeans worked upon our people. It cannot remedy violence, alcohol abuse, sexual assault during childhood, rape and other violence Aboriginal women experience at the hands of men. Prison cannot heal the past abuse of foster homes, or that indifference and racism of Canada's justice system in its dealings with Aboriginal people. However, the treatment of Aboriginal women within prisons can begin to recognize that these things ARE the realities of the lives that Aboriginal women prisoners have led. By understanding this, we can begin to make changes that will promote healing instead of rage.