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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

III. Principles and Processes of Specialized Mental Health Programs

Subsequent sections propose two distinct program models for the regional facilities based on the distinction between women with primarily cognitive challenges and basic skill needs and those primarily with emotional distress needs. Both models are mental health programs and therefore are to be structured and delivered under the auspices of the Mental Health Strategy for Women Offenders (Laishes, 1997). The key principles of this strategy are described below in relation to these programs. Please refer to pages seven and eight of the Mental Health Strategy for the original description of the principles in their broader context.

1. Wellness

    ˇ Programs are to be delivered in a holistic fashion that "recognizes body, mind, spirit and emotions and their interconnectedness in a family and community-oriented context" (p. 7).

    ˇ Labels are to be avoided and are not criteria for admission to these programs insofar as they obscure the unique needs of each individual. The programs must also include provisions to reduce the stigma and labels that may be placed on them by other offenders.

    ˇ Programs are to focus on teaching and reinforcing community skills rather than simply learning to adapt to an institutional environment.

    ˇ Programs must work through a multi-disciplinary process that includes mental health professionals as well as other important resources, including aboriginal service providers, community resources, and families, etc.

2. Access

    ˇ Programs must provide for early identification of problems and needs, timely intervention, and programming in keeping with community standards.

3. Women-Centred

    ˇ These programs "must be offered in a gender specific and gender appropriate manner such that:

    - only personnel sensitive to women and women's issues are involved.

    - programs and services are designed to meet the specific needs of women offenders while acknowledging personal autonomy, connection to others, and positively mutually respectful relationships" (p. 8).

4. Client Participation

    ˇ "Women offenders must be involved in their assessment and treatment such that they play as active a role as possible in their treatment planning and decision-making" (p. 8). Participation in these programs is to be voluntary and based on input from the individual woman. It must be recognized that participation in one of these programs may be required for some women if they are to live at a regional facility.

5. Least Restrictive Measures

    ˇ These programs are to be provided at the regional facilities in order to provide the "least restrictive/intensive form of intervention possible, while ensuring public safety" (p. 8), in order to maximize the amount of responsibility for these women in their daily lives and normalize their living environment relative to community standards.

The Mental Health Strategy also details a number of other essential elements/principles in the delivery of mental health services which are appropriate to these proposals (see pages 8-13 of the Mental Health Strategy; Laishes, 1997). Several of these elements are of particular priority given the needs of the women and are therefore considered as additional key principles for these programs.

6. Structure and Environment

    ˇ "Consistent structure and environment are central to the success of programming endeavors" (p. 9). This is particularly important for women with higher levels of needs. A key element to maintaining a consistent structure involves having a consistent set of relationships through which the individual women can learn to trust in others and themselves. Consistent, trusting relationships are an essential building block of both program proposals.

7. Integration and Information Sharing

    ˇ "Management must ensure that the model of mental health delivery integrate all related activities that are part of the continuum" (p. 10). Although part II of this report distinguishes differing constellations of needs among women with special needs, it is essential that the unique needs and circumstances of each woman are given priority and inevitably there will be important and difficult decisions as to how to best serve each woman. Therefore it is proposed that there be one multi-disciplinary assessment and decision-making process for all of the women referred to these special programs within an institution. The decision on type of program must reside with the woman and the multi-disciplinary team so as to avoid conflicts between programs over suitability, or operational pressure on one individual that could serve to over-rule the multi-disciplinary, decision-making process.

8. Bridging

    ˇ "Bridging services between institutions, and institutions and the community are vital to decreasing recidivism and the gaps in service provision to women offenders" (p. 9). Bridging is a particularly important concept in serving women with special needs, and deserves special attention, as they have a particular difficulty in making the transition between one environment and another because of their need for consistent and trusting relationships.

9. Staff Training/Education

    ˇ "Ongoing staff training and education in the mental health problems faced by incarcerated women is essential to creating an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance for this population and enhancing staff confidence and skills. However, only staff who possess a strong desire to work with women with mental health needs should be recruited" (p. 11). These special programs require distinctive approaches and demand that a high priority be placed: (1) on recruiting staff with a particular interest in working with women with the specific constellation of needs, (2) on training and supporting staff over time to utilize program-specific approaches, and (3) on supporting staff given the high demands that will be placed on them by the women.