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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Survey of Federally Sentenced Aboriginal Women in the Community


This report summarizes interviews with 39 women all of whom have served federal time. Each of these women was interviewed by one of us – Lana Fox or Fran Sugar – and we, like the women interviewed, have also served federal time. The number of interviews completed has a great deal to do with who we, the interviewers, are. These 39 women shared their stories with us because we share a history with them, because we are their sisters.

Each of the women to whom we talked was asked to tell her life story; the story of how she grew up, how she came to be in prison, and of what has happened to her since she emerged. We tried to direct these stories as little as possible; to ask for more detail when the telling slowed, but to do so only with general questions. As much as possible, we wanted – and still want – the stories to speak for themselves.

The stories we heard are to a large extent about violence. In the terms of the Criminal Justice System, many of us were convicted and sentenced to federal prison for crimes of violence. Ten of the 39 women interviewed had been charged with murder and half of these had served life sentences. Fifteen of the 39 had served time for manslaughter, and 17 for assault. From the viewpoint of criminal statistics, these facts mark us as an unusual group. Violent crimes are typically male crimes: women are usually the victims of violence.

To be a woman and to be seen as violent is to be especially marked in the eyes of the administrations of the prisons where women do time, and in the eyes of the staff who guard them. In a prison with a male population our crimes would stand out much less. Among women we do not fit the stereotypes, and we are automatically feared, and labelled as in need of special handling. The label violent begets a self-perpetuating and destructive cycle for Aboriginal women within prisons. In P4W, everything follows from this label. But the prison regimen that follows serves to reinforce the violence that it is supposedly designed to manage. It creates of P4W a place in which it is impossible for us to heal.

Essential to an understanding of the destructive nature of P4W is the history of violence that most of us share. For our stories show that we have all been the victims of violence. Many of us are not the victims of violence in the way in which victims of a mugging experience violence. Instead, and all too often, we are the victims of long term and systematic violence. Many of our stories tell about sexual and physical abuse during childhood. Some of this violence occurred in our birth families, in some cases it arose in foster homes and juvenile institutions. Twenty seven of the 39 women interviewed described experiences of childhood violence: rape, regular sexual abuse, the witnessing of a murder, watching our mothers repeatedly beaten, beatings in juvenile detention centres at the hands of staff and other children. Twenty one had been raped or sexually assaulted either as children or as adults.

    • Father obsessed with power. As an example, any question that was answered by kids was answered as a yes or no only. Yes dad. No dad. No personal power except when approved by dad. He beat the kids regularly with belt and fly swatter, and anything that would hurt worse than his hand. As the kids got older he would punch them. Often when he was drunk he was more abusive. The kids would hide from him or go and sleep outside even in the dead of winter in order to stay away from him. Our mother would often leave with all the children to sleep in women's shelter and then return home in the morning. Even when drunk father was nasty. No kindness in his heart. Ran away often. Turned self in to welfare. Told everything about booze and home life thinking they would help me. Father was sober, non presentable, came to get her. Thought that it might scare them into realizing what alcohol was doing. Father immediately drunk after court. Beat me and my mother up. I ran away and vowed it was for good.
    • They grabbed my hair and dragged me in there (to a place in a juvenile detention centre, Dales House) ... they brought me to Dales House. I was fighting again. Segregation was just like prison. They had cells with bars. I stayed there all the time. I never made it to where the rest of the kids were. They had thinking rooms down there too. Rooms with nothing in them. Not a bed or toilet. Just four walls. They called them thinking rooms because they thought that's where you would think about where you were. It was a technique to make us co-operate. They wanted to know about our families, our history. I didn't tell them anything. Who in the fuck were they. Nobody. Just a bunch of fucken white people. The only privilege there was to take out the garbage and even then there was two staff with you, watching damn close.
    • I didn't like the way the social worker didn't believe us, she said if you're lying those people won't get foster children ever again, you can wreck their lives if you say they molested you.
    • My mother used to take her anger out on me and beat me a lot. She would go drinking and leave us alone and bring people home and party. I was sexually abused by my older brother, by my uncles, and by other people from the parties that she had ... when she would pass out.
    • In girls school I was very bitter because of what I went through in life physically and sexually. I did not deal with my anger regardless of how I felt. I did not know how. I started developing until a man started to manhandle me.
    • The foster father tried to molest me plus a sister would cause trouble for me. I pulled a knife of the foster mother. I thought it was the only way out of there.

For many of us this childhood violence became an ongoing feature of life, and continued into childhood and adulthood. Twenty seven of the 39 women had experienced violence during adolescence. For many this violence was simply a continuation of childhood experience: sexual abuse by fathers or other relatives, physical abuse from parents, watching regular beatings of our mothers. However, to these things were added the violence of tricks, rape and assaults on the streets. In adulthood, 34 of 39 had been the victims of violence, at the hands of abusive spouses (25), from tricks who had beaten and/or raped them (12 of 39 shared this experience and 9 had been violent towards tricks), or from police or prison guards.

    • Followed him downtown. Learned to steal and make money. Needed place to sleep and food to eat. SURVIVAL. Watched hookers make money. Wanted the money, wanted to work too but was still a virgin. "I needed a boyfriend so I wouldn't be a virgin anymore, even if I was just fifteen. I knew that the money was more than I was making while I was stealing." "I turned myself out. My first trick asked me if it was my first time. I wasn't even experienced in sex. He told me to move (sexually) so that I would make more money."
    • "Those fucken tricks are sick. I was just little, only fifteen, they had to know how old I was. Those tricks know that kids are out there on the street."
    • My girlfriends turned tricks for a living. I turned myself out to have money. I hated it. A trick offered me and my girlfriend money to make love to each other. It was my first lesbian experience. I tricked like this after that. Was jealous when my girlfriend would turn tricks to fuck men. One time I stabbed this trick six times out of hatred for prostitution and jealousy. Sick tricks you know. It was my first adult charge. I was found guilty, sentenced to three years for attempted murder.
    • Where did the bitterness come from? Her reply was: My mother was stolen from me as a child. Growing up never knowing why I didn't know my own mother. Then as a woman, my life sentence, again life stolen. This time I was even. I stole a life too. Then my mother and I were so close to meeting (when she was murdered) and my life sentence was so close to being over. Life stolen. I didn't achieve a fucken thing in my life."
    • They stripped me down on 8 different occasions. The screws would restrain me and cut off all my clothes with scissors. Each hand was cuffed to the bed, each foot handcuffed to the bed with my legs spread wide open facing where the screw was sitting. I showed you when I got to P4W the bruises on my arms from the cuffs. That still bothers me. I don't like to show my body. Mr. (guard) knows where every birth mark on my body is.
    • Usually women are there because of men.

The violence of which we are the victims, and of which our stories tell is not occasional or temporary. Most of us have experienced sustained abuse extending through much of our lives. Indeed, our stories have much in common with what the criminal statistics on violence say. The violence we have experienced has typically been violence at the hand of men.

But to understand why not, to understand why places like P4W cannot help us, requires another insight, an insight into who we are. Not only are we women who are both the victims and initiators of violence, but we are also members of the First Nations, the survivors of people now forced to subsist on the margins of the lands where once they lived freely.

Our understandings of law, of courts, of police, of the judicial system, and of prisons are all set by lifetimes defined by racism. Racism is not simply set by the overt experiences of racism, though most of us have known this direct hatred, have been called "dirty Indians" in school, or in foster homes, or by police or guards, or have seen the differences in the way we were treated and have known that this was no accident. Racism is much more extensive than this. Culturally, economically, and as peoples we have been oppressed and pushed aside by whites. We were sent to live on reserves that denied us a livelihood, controlled us with rules that we did not set, and made us dependent on services we could not provide for ourselves.

The Indian Agent and the police are for us administrators of oppressive regimes whose authority we resent and deny. Like other peoples around the world who live under illegitimate political structures, we learn that the rules imposed by this authority exist to be broken, that they are not our ways, that they are only the outside and not the inside measure of the way a person should act. As children we were taught to fear white authority because of the punishments it could enforce. Faced with institutional neglect and overt racism, our feelings about white authority even before we encountered the criminal justice system mixed passive distrust and active hatred.

Our stories tell of this. Most of the women interviewed have histories that have lead them to mistrust white authority. Twenty of the 39 described negative relationships with police, many of these descriptions portray this distrust as "inherent", a consequence of the role the police play in the lives of Aboriginal people. Other white authority figures are commonly the source of negative experiences and are seen as abusive, racist or non-supportive. Of 14 women with experiences in foster homes, 12 described negative relationships with foster parents, and only 2 had had positive relationships. Thirty two of the 39 women report experiencing racism at some time in their lives. Twenty three had felt discriminated against in school, 15 in halfway houses, 6 in detox centres. These experiences extend to those who are supposed to provide helping services: case officers (13 reported this relationship as negative), parole officers (20), and social workers (9). Relationships with prison guards are reported in extremely negative terms: physical beatings, rape, sexual harassment, and verbal intimidation.

    • Back when I was growing up in Manitoba, if you were a Native person in care you were put in a foster home or a mental institution. My brother was deaf. He was kept in the bug house until he was twelve. Finally they realized that ... he was not mental, only deaf. People in Portage still talk about it today.
    • The boarding school was run by nuns. They used to call us savages. To this day I hate the word savage.
    • Out of all the women involved I was the only one maced, they had me face down on the floor. One of them had their foot on my head. I couldn't move, they were hitting me on the back with billy clubs. To this day I have a scar there 3 ½ inches long, then the goon squad dragged me to seg after they beat me in front of the whole range. Now they sent my sister home in a box!

In many cases, attitudes to white authority formed an important background to the way in which the women received federal sentences. There are several reports in the interviews by women who had neither believed that the court system would treat them justly, nor trusted the lawyer who was supposed to act on their behalf. Since they felt powerless and had no trust in or understanding of the process, some acquiesced. They accepted an unfavourable plea bargain, or remained silent refusing to offer evidence that either exonerated them or implicated others in the more serious features of the crimes with which they had been charged. They endured being sent to prison in the same silence with which they had greeted past victimization.

    • I do not know why you are slapping me with murder, why are you doing this to me? I am not the killer I did lots of time with this woman, she was my friend, I don't know why you slapped me with murder. Is it because of my record? Is it because I am a Native?
    • Lawyers are not impartial.
    • I was young. I didn't have a part in the robbery. I was just there. I was the only one pinched. I didn't understand the court system, I got the time.
    • Before trial, after our arrest we need support. Most of us were raised in residential places like prisons and the judges convict us for that. I believe we are victims being victimized. We get federal sentences for running away from jail and yet that's all we have ever done is run away from institutions. They think it's nice in there, why in the hell would we run away in the first place?

For Aboriginal women, prison is an extension of life on the outside, and because of this it is impossible for us to heal there. In ways that are different from the world outside, but are nevertheless continuous with it, prisons offer more white authority that is sexist, racist and violent. Prisons are then one more focus for the pain and rage we carry. For us, prison rules have the same illegitimacy as the oppressive rules under which we grew up. Those few "helping" services in prison that are intended to heal are delivered in ways that are culturally inappropriate to us as women and as Aboriginal people. Physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists are typically white and male. How can we be healed by those who symbolize the worst experiences of our past? We cannot trust these so-called care givers, and all too often in the views of those interviewed, we again experience direct hostility from the very people who are supposedly there to help. This is why Aboriginal women express anger at these care givers. This is why we refuse to become involved, and then are further punished because we fail to seek treatment.

    • Sentencing should be fair. Alternative sentencing intensive treatment, why blame the damn victims. The victims rights groups should be looking at women in prison and why they are there. If they knew that most women are there for self-defense or their crimes are attributed to men, they wouldn't be advocating the death penalty or longer sentences. Shit, we don't kill numbers of people or rape anyone.
    • They make me angry, so fucken degrading. Any little thing is destroyed. We couldn't have an injured bird on the range, all we wanted to do is call this sanctuary for birds to come and pick it up. Good order of institution my ass it was cruelty. When people build themselves up they harass us until we flip. It makes us manipulative, and power hungry, it's no wonder we fight ourselves or we end up in relationships in there. The guards are so fucken cruel in their hearts. (Guard) says "DIE" when someone is desperate and they slash or hang themselves. Fuck, the warden heard that one time when we were having a firedrill. She didn't say a fucken thing. She knows the guards are to blame for the half the shit that goes in there.
    • P.C. in P4W was hell. (P4W guard) and (P4W guard) were constantly harassing women in P.C. Total number of P.C.'s was eight. Picking on each other was normal. Never joint charges laid. What could they do to us?
    • Prison guards don't treat you with respect in there. A person is treated with contempt as if we did something damn personal to them. How are we expected to reform ourselves???? The feelings are mutual, I hate them all. Not one human being wears a uniform, if they had feelings how could they work there?
    • I was told that, before we help you out (as) a provincial prisoner in a federal prison, I would be treated as a federal. I tried to apply for parole. I was then told I couldn't because I was provincial.
    • I attended Brentwood for the last five months that I was there. I liked the program, it was deep, dealt with a lot of childhood stuff and inner stuff that I needed to look at. The program was really confrontative, angry, aggressive type therapy. Well, I'm mad as hell too but when it comes from men, directed at me, I can't handle it. I was so abused by men, Brentwood was run by men then, I heard they have women now but I wonder if they are trying to deliver services like men. Women survivors of abuse can't only be talked to in the tone of anger. Shit, we need to cry, to be soft, to centre ourselves as women, as mothers. I don't think I was as soft as I was in my heart as I was with my children. It felt like the Brentwood men hated women. I told them that I hated men. They said good!
    • I don't trust you. I'm only talking to you because I have too. When you see the shrink in there there's always fear that I might say the wrong thing, god only knows what they might do or what they might ask for or worse NPB would just love to keep you in there not to mention your C.O. The C.O. doesn't even support you anyway.
    • Never had passes until damn near 10 year mark. Always denied. Never had therapy. Haha. Denied on that basis. First of all didn't know why I needed therapy. Said no one knew me in institution. I did ten years. They said I wasn't cooperative. I only wanted to do my life sentence if I could do it. At first it looked like forever. I hated the whole world. Hate was my survival. I hated people like you wouldn't believe. More than that I hated myself. I killed and I liked it. Was I supposed to tell my C.O. that? I never really kicked my habit. I was fucking my work supervisor for money. We had the whole thing set up. He brought me in what I wanted. I had heroin, cocaine, whatever I wanted. I needed that. I needed drugs. I needed sex, they were the staples in my life. My life or my success on the street wasn't because of they system. I wanted to change my life from the violence in my younger years.
    • I was uncomfortable being in Oskana Centre. Other residents were all male. I had no other choice.

Almost all the healing experiences that Aboriginal women who have been in prison report in our interviews lie outside the conventional prison order. They come through the bonds formed with other women in prison, through the support of people on the outside, and from the activities of Native Sisterhood. There are occasional reports of positive relationships with caseworkers, but these stand out as exceptions to the prevailing pattern. The refusal of Aboriginal women to trust the "helping" services of prison becomes one more strike against them. Many of those interviewed share the experience of being seen as uncooperative. They were kept at high security classifications and denied passes. They were located far from their families who could not afford to visit them and had their parole applications turned down because they refused treatment or were uncooperative.

    • Native Sisterhood was there and I liked all the Indian women, they were the softest. I got beat up and stabbed in a drug deal by these white women. I stood alone, I didn't have any friends at the time. Hated too much. Wanted to die. Too proud to hang myself. I went to Native Sisterhood regularly. Met (X), he was so kind, he would tell us he loved us, share teachings.
    • Because of Native Sisterhood I finally knew the meaning of spirituality. I learned how to pray in a sweat and with sweetgrass. I learned the meaning of the Eagle feather and colours. With that I was even more proud of who I was in my identity.
    • Slowly I was changing. Feeling better about myself. My mother was quite traditional. When I got out I went back to my family. The whole reconnection to my people meant my family to me. I wanted life after going to Native Sisterhood, it meant everything to me.
    • Most women need extensive counselling, not prison.
    • Family is part of integration. All should be a part of counselling. We need to keep the family together. It all comes down to life or death and who do we have ... our families. P4W and the national Parole Board separates us, stipulations to stay away from husband, sisters, brothers, and then even associates or what do they call it? ... known criminals ... please ... my grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, the whole Indian national would be known criminals.
    • Always released to the city. Wanted to go home to reserve but no one there for me.
    • After 6 months, was granted AA passes. Attended AA and at time Native Sisterhood. Spoke Cree, liked pow-wow's ...
    • I've had no therapy for the sexual abuse as a child or the abused experienced as a woman or for being a murderer. My burden is heavy. I stay out because I want to.
    • After two months began seeing (sexual abuse worker). Worked intensely with her on history of abuse and coping with death of child. Kept busy with school, high school work, writing letters, TV and crafts. Liked seg time. S.H.V. 24 hours of confinement. Pre-Release 29 day parole ... to Kingston, Ontario. No stipulations. Could not continue seeing (sexual abuse worker). Support nil. Passes deinstitutionalized me. Felt passes compensated for segregation P.C. unit. Admin. very cooperative.
    • Finding my mother was also finding myself, as an Indian woman. Me and my mother never met. Her mother was murdered a year after their telephone contact. They spoke twice on the phone during that year.

Twenty six of the women are mothers, and all of them reported negative impacts on their relationships with their children. Such an impact is not surprising, but it is made worse by distance, the impossibility of seeing their children, and by the orientations of prison officials who are widely seen as insensitive to mother-child relationships. Children were placed in foster care, juvenile detention centres, or moved between family members. Twenty five of the mothers had difficulty being mothers, resuming their relationship with their children, on release, and only 17 were reunited with them.

    • ... never had visits. No family support. No children.
    • When I was in prison I never knew how my children were or where they were.
    • I had to learn to be a mother all over again but this time with bigger children. I can't relate to them now I have no patience.
    • Too far from home. I was lonely for my children and had no communication from them while I was there.
    • When I went to prison I lost everything I ever had, not just the material things, but all relationships I ever had in my life.

I remember how we'd encourage each other to "maintain". Maintain meant to stay cool, to maintain our anger and our hatred of the screws. We'd tell each other to turn our backs on the open bars so we wouldn't have to look at their faces. How we'd rather look at the toilet in the corner of our cages than a screw's face. And then we'd be notified that another task force would be touring the prison and they requested to meet with Native Sisterhood members. We always agreed to meet, somehow believing that there was hope for change. That little hope flame in our circle wasn't for ourselves, wasn't because it might get us a parole or a pardon, but because at every meeting someone in our circle was always missing, usually in segregation on some ridiculous charge. And that hope flame raged into a strong fire in our circle because we could speak for each other and those words were strong heartfelt words that were hard to say out-loud especially to white people who had the political power to change the punishment of prison. It would hurt me to see each of you say out-loud, sometimes in low whispering voices, "Why are we maximum security?" "What makes our crimes different?" "Why don't we get passes when we apply?"

We never said out-loud that we were teaching them something about being a people. The circle of chairs we sat in represented the cycle of life from birth to death and that circle did not exclude anyone. In the ceremony of life that we are told to celebrate, we forgive and accept each person as an individual, who has made mistakes on their path of learning and teaching and teaching, and who can strive to reach a place where their spirit is healed. We'd come out of our circle meeting relieved at the outlet of anger at the prison system. In our private conversations afterwards, we felt that even though those officials were our enemies, our jailers, our keepers, the all-powerful representatives of white authority and the state, that they would have heard our truth.

I have often said that the women inside have the understanding to help themselves, that all that is required is the right kind of resources, support and help. The money spent on studies would be much better spent of family visits, on culturally appropriate help, on reducing our powerlessness to heal ourselves. But the reality is that prison conditions grow worse.

    • Survivors of abuse all need understanding, we need love too. I think love makes us responsible. As long as one person believes in us we have hope. If we are isolated in the prison system form C.O.'s which most Indian women are, then for sure we need that community support. The systems kills us, look at Patti, and Sandy, and then all the others that have left this world in that world or prison. No hope. Desperate. Fuck, I nearly killed myself just to get out of there, I couldn't believe I would see the outside again. I even wanted to kill myself just because that woman died, the trauma and shock, and then living through it.
    • Why are you doing this (research for the Task Force)? What the fuck will it do? What about those women that are still there? ... I've planted trees for a living, we gave back life to the trees. Who is putting anything into the lifers of all the prisoners in Canada. Nobody gives a fuck about nobody.
    • There wasn't anything for Native women. When Sisterhood found excellent resources people Social Development told us there wasn't any program dollars. We could arrange a drug program that was culturally appropriate. Hell, we got enough support from people outside that had the know-how to do sexual abuse sessions for over a year. It was a starting point for the sisters, it only ran for ten weeks or so but it was good. Then the ten weeks were over, we asked for more time and dollars to continue the work we started and we were told it would happen but the THE TASK FORCE ON FEDERALLY SENTENCED WOMEN was in progress and we're still waiting. I told them, too. Stupid bureaucratic games. When we try to help ourselves as Native women they hold us back, cut us down, they must like seeing us die in here. So many give up.

This project began when we voiced our concern that the Task Force had not heard the views of Aboriginal women who have served time at P4W. We believe that these women have an essential contribution to make to the work of the Task Force. The life stories we have heard speak strongly to the special treatment needs of Aboriginal women, needs that differ from those of non-Native women.

The critical difference is racism. We are born to it and spend our lives facing it. Racism lies at the root of our life experiences. The effect is violence, violence against us, and in turn our own violence. The solution is healing: healing through traditional ceremonies, support understanding and the compassion that will empower Aboriginal women to the betterment of ourselves, our families and our communities.

It is racism, past in our memories and present in our surroundings, that negates non-Native attempts to reconstruct our lives. Existing programs cannot reach us, cannot surmount the barriers, of mistrust that racism has built. It is only Aboriginal people who can design and deliver programs that will address our needs and that we can trust. It is only Aboriginal people who can truly know and understand our experience. It is only aboriginal people who can instill pride and self-esteem lost through the destructive experiences of racism. We cry out for a meaningful healing process that will have real impact on our lives, but the objectives and implementation of this healing process must be premised on our need, the need to heal and walk in balance.