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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Implementing Choices at Regional Facilities: Program Proposals for Women Offenders with Special Needs

Introduction & Purpose

The publication and federal government acceptance in 1990 of Creating Choices: The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women ushered in a new vision of correctional services for women offenders in Canada based on a plan to close the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario, and replace it with four regional facilities across the country and an aboriginal healing lodge. This plan was guided by five broad principles: empowerment, meaningful & responsible choices, respect & dignity, supportive environment, and shared responsibility. Although the document provided a vision for the development of the new facilities and systems, along with some specific recommendations, a detailed implementation process was required in order to bring it to fruition.

The implementation of the report put into place physical structures, staffing roles and patterns, and policies and procedures which had to respond to intervening program, financial, and political pressures. The result was one type of living facility in the new regional institutions in the form of houses of seven to ten individuals. The women in these houses are responsible for their own cooking, household chores, and immediate living environment with a minimum of supervision. This housing approach has worked well for a majority of women who find it liberating relative to the former prison culture of the Prison for Women. However, for a minority of women with special needs, the regional housing model has not worked. Individual women have not been able to function successfully in these houses, resulting in inmate assaults against staff or between inmates, acting out, and/or self-destructive behaviour. An experimental attempt to house women with special needs in a structured living arrangement at Nova Institution in 1996 ended in a violent incident. As the result of incidents in regional facilities, maximum-security women were shifted to separate secure facilities in the Springhill Institution, the Kingston Prison for Women, and the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. In addition, some women with a medium-security classification were transferred to these maximum-security institutions because they could not manage in the regional facility houses due to their special needs, particularly for more intensive mental health services.

Recent reports on federally sentenced women (Laishes, 1997; Rivera, 1996; Whitehall, 1995) consistently identify the importance of developing specialized programs and living options in the regional facilities for women with special mental health needs so that they can live successfully in a least restrictive environment. There is a Correctional Services requirement under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that women be maintained in the least restrictive environment. In addition, the vision of Creating Choices is to establish living situations that mirror "community standards." In fact, the provision of one type of housing for all members of the society (regardless of its merit) does not mirror community settings where a range of living options are available for people with special needs. For example, women with severe mental health problems may move between settings based on their health status and need for structure, be it a supervised apartment, a small options home, or an independent living situation with outpatient support. For individuals in the community with cognitive limitations and difficult behavior, the trend has been to develop small options homes precisely because they have had difficulty functioning at an interpersonal level in group living situations.

The purpose of this study is to:

    ...investigate the needs of the women who require specialized programming and living options, and make specific recommendations and program proposals to support and assist them to be accommodated safely at the regional correctional facilities at a medium or minimum-security classification.

The research has been limited to the Atlantic and Ontario regions as these two areas were identified at the outset as having the highest numbers of women with special needs who could be maintained in regional facilities, if special programs were in place. The program models recommended may be applicable to other regional facilities.

The research process included an extensive number of interviews with staff at diverse organizational levels at Nova Institution, the Springhill Women's Unit, Grand Valley Institution, and the Kingston Prison for Women. Informal interviews were conducted with women with special needs at Nova, Springhill, and Prison for Women, and files and incident reports were reviewed at all four facilities (see Appendix A for a list of persons interviewed). At Nova, meetings were held with the Inmate committee and the Regional Advisory Committee for the Atlantic Region. The author met with the Inmate Committee, and representatives from the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Citizen's Advisory Council at Grand Valley. Relevant research literature and correctional services reports were reviewed (see bibliography) to broaden and deepen the expertise of the author who is a community psychologist with particular experience in working with persons with severe mental health problems and/or cognitive limitations in institutional contexts, and in program development and evaluation. He also has previous experience with community corrections. For many of the interviews with staff and inmates in the Atlantic Region, the author was accompanied by Donna Pineo, a nurse with extensive experience in managing psychosocial rehabilitation programs for persons with severe mental health and social functioning problems in institutions and the community. She served as a consultant in drafting this report.

Overall, the author attempted to hear from, honour, and integrate as many perspectives as possible in developing this report and the set of program proposals given a limited ten week, part-time framework. Although, individuals had distinctive ways of addressing the issues, and often emphasized different elements, most striking was a broad consensus on the issues that need to be addressed and the approaches which appear to hold the most promise. The report is divided into five sections: (1) review of the experiences with programming for women with special needs in the Atlantic and Ontario regions since the initiation of the regional facilities; (2) identification of the constellations of needs of the various groups of these women; (3) identification of the overall principles and processes through which programming options should be offered; (4) the psychosocial rehabilitation program proposal for women with basic skill needs and cognitive challenges; and (5) the dialectical behaviour therapy program proposal for women with emotional distress needs and severe behavioural difficulties.