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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Ten-Year Status Report on Women’s Corrections



On April 1, 1996, the Solicitor General of Canada released the Honourable Louise Arbour’s report, Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women. As outlined in the Terms of Reference for the Commission, Louise Arbour, a judge of the Court of Appeal for Ontario at the time, was appointed as a Commissioner to:

…investigate and report on the state and management of that part of the business of the Correctional Service of Canada that pertains to the incidents which occurred at the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario, beginning on April 22, 1994, and on the responses of the Correctional Service of Canada thereto… [and] to recommend improvements as may be required, to the policies and practices of the Correctional Service of Canada in relation to such incidents.

The incidents under investigation commenced with a violent confrontation that took place between six women offenders and various correctional staff at the Prison for Women. The investigation addressed this incident as well as the offenders’ subsequent lengthy period of segregation, Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) deployment of a male Emergency Response Team, their role in the strip searches of the women offenders and CSC’s response in the aftermath of these events.

The Arbour Report contained 14 main recommendations with over 100 sub-recommendations that focused primarily on women’s corrections but had broad policy and management implications throughout CSC. Adherence to the rule of law was at the crux of the Arbour Report. Upon the report’s release, the Solicitor General commented that it was “…aimed at establishing a healthier and just environment in women’s corrections.”

Various committees were convened to examine the findings and develop action plans to address the recommendations of the Arbour Report. Many recommendations were addressed immediately, or in the short-term, while others required multi-year implementation.

Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women

It is important to reiterate that significant change was underway in women’s corrections prior to 1996 with the construction and opening of regional institutions for women offenders. The closure of Prison for Women and implementation of new regional institutions were in keeping with the recommendations of the 1990 report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women, Creating Choices. This Task Force had been established by CSC in 1989 to develop a comprehensive strategy for the management of women offenders. It was distinct in many ways, including the fact that it was co-chaired by both CSC and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and included diverse representation from government, correctional practitioners, community advocates, Aboriginal organizations and women offenders.

Reemphasizing the conclusions of previous Commissions and Task Force reports on women’s corrections, Creating Choices detailed the framework of a new correctional approach to better address the needs of women offenders. Five underlying principles were identified in Creating Choices as the foundation for a correctional strategy for women offenders, principles that continue to serve as the basis for our work: empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, supportive environment and shared responsibility.

This unique approach to Corrections was accepted by the Government of Canada in September 1990 and challenged CSC to look at new and innovative ways to assist women offenders in their safe reintegration into the community. The Creating Choices consultation process, their report and proposed model marked a significant turning point for CSC in terms of the management of women offenders following a long history of calls for reform.

While operational planning for the new sites was initiated in 1990 upon acceptance of Creating Choices, there has been a tendency over time for people to link the opening of the regional institutions to the findings and recommendations of the Arbour Report. This can likely be attributed to the timeframe of the report’s release which generally coincided with the opening of three of the new institutions. Additionally, the Prison for Women did not officially close its doors until 2000, four years after the Arbour Report.

A New Structure and Approach – Regional Institutions for Women Offenders

Nova Institution for Women, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge and Edmonton Institution for Women all opened in 1995, six months prior to the release of the Arbour Report. Joliette Institution and Grand Valley Institution for Women opened in 1997. A sixth regional women’s institution, Fraser Valley Institution, opened in 2004 following the closure of Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women (BCCW). Up to that time, federal women offenders in the Pacific Region had been accommodated at BCCW under an Exchange of Services Agreement with the Province of British Columbia, which enabled these women to remain in their home province. Additionally, Isabel McNeill House, in Kingston, Ontario, was established in 1990 as a minimum security facility for women offenders and remains open to this day.

The existence of regional women’s institutions is in itself a significant indication of the progress in the past decade. The opening of regional institutions, rather than maintaining one institution for all federally sentenced women, significantly alleviated a multitude of concerns that had been voiced over the years regarding the experience of incarcerated women. Primarily, there were concerns about most of the women’s geographical distance from their families, friends, and communities. As well, there was a lack of programs specific to women’s needs, no programs and services for francophone women, little in the way of programs and services to meet the cultural and spiritual needs of Aboriginal offenders and the building and space were inadequate.

Most of the regional women’s institutions are designated as multi-level sites and, therefore, accommodate women classified at the minimum, medium and maximum security level. The design of the regional women's institutions is reflective of a community-living environment as recommended in Creating Choices:

  • Stand-alone houses clustered behind a main building with staff offices, program space, a health care unit and a visiting area; an Enhanced Unit was also included as part of the original design with traditional cells and rooms for reception;
  • Each house has communal living space, a kitchen, dining area, bathrooms, a utility/laundry room and access to the grounds; and
  • There are up to 10 women per house, responsible for daily living needs: cooking, cleaning and laundry.

The Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge differs in some respects from the other women’s facilities. This Aboriginal Healing Lodge was the first institution of its kind to be developed with First Nations’ communities. Its design and operational philosophy are based on Aboriginal teachings, spirituality and traditions. The Healing Lodge accommodates women classified at the minimum and medium security level. Isabel McNeill House differs from the other institutions; it is a smaller, standalone facility that accommodates women classified at the minimum security level.

The original design of the regional women’s institutions has been modified over the years to effectively respond to the changing profile and needs of women offenders and to address capacity issues.

A number of serious incidents occurred in late 1995 to early 1996 at Edmonton Institution for Women involving women offenders who were classified at the maximum security level. Following these incidents, CSC made the decision to accommodate maximum security women in separate units at men’s institutions until security was enhanced at the regional women’s institutions. A unit for maximum security women was opened at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, followed by units at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia and at the Regional Reception Centre in Quebec. These units remained open until 2003-04.

Commencing in 1996, an Intensive Healing Program for women experiencing difficulties such as self-injurious and assaultive behaviour was designed by CSC and implemented in the Churchill Unit at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies) in Saskatoon. No similar program had been previously offered in CSC. This 12-bed unit has been operational since September 1996 as an immediate response to various reports suggesting this type of intensive intervention was needed for a small proportion of women. It is a community-accredited mental health facility that treats those inmates/patients who consent to treatment. Since 2004, women with intensive mental health needs may also be referred to the treatment unit for women at Institut Philippe Pinel de Montréal. CSC has a contract with Pinel, a provincial psychiatric facility, to provide designated bed space and services to federal women offenders requiring intensive mental health intervention.

In 1999, CSC developed the Intensive Intervention Strategy (IIS), an accommodation and management strategy, aimed at better addressing the needs and risks of women classified as maximum security and those classified at minimum and medium security that have mental health problems. As part of this Strategy, the Enhanced Units at the regional women’s institutions were renovated into Secure Units. These are more traditional accommodation with pods of 4‑6 cells, program areas, kitchen and staff offices. Eight-bed Structured Living Environment houses were also built at each institution for the lower security women with mental health problems. Both units have 24‑hour supervision and an inter-disciplinary team who receives additional training including specialized mental health training. The Structured Living Environment houses opened in 2001 (Fraser Valley's unit opened in 2004) and the Secure Units opened in 2003-04 (Fraser Valley's unit opened in 2006).

While Creating Choices established a new correctional model for women, the Arbour Report’s findings and recommendations were markedly influential in terms of infusing reforms within CSC’s organizational culture and in terms of our policies. Within this framework of change, the Arbour Report further shaped the policy, management and culture of the new regional women’s institutions which had just opened.

Key Reviews on Women’s Corrections

Since the release of the Arbour Report, and the subsequent opening of the new institutions, there have been additional major reviews on federal correctional services for women:

  • The Cross-Gender Monitoring Project, First Annual Report (1998), Second Annual Report (1999) and Third and Final Report (2000/2001)
  • Auditor General Report on the Reintegration of Women Offenders (April 2003)
  • 26th Report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (November 2003)
  • Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), Protecting Their Rights – A Systemic Review of Human Rights in Correctional Services for Federally Sentenced Women (December 2003)

These reviews examined systemic correctional issues pertaining to women’s corrections and CSC’s processes aimed at the reintegration of women offenders, including issues of security classification, case management and programs. While acknowledging the work and advancements by CSC in women’s corrections, each report put forth various, often related, recommendations to identify opportunities for improving existing practices. CSC responded to the findings of each report with an Action Plan to address the recommendations.

The Cross-Gender Monitoring Project, launched in response to a recommendation of the Arbour Report, reviewed the specific area of cross-gender staffing in women’s institution over a three-year period. The Monitor commenced her work and completed her First Annual Report in 1998. The Monitor’s Second Annual Report was submitted in 1999 and her Third and Final Annual Report was submitted in 2001. As indicated in CSC’s Response to Cross-Gender Monitor’s Third and Final Report, the completion of the Monitor’s final report coincided with the commencement of the CHRC’s extensive review and consultation process that would also include the issue of men as frontline workers. Given the considerable overlap between the recommendations of the CHRC report and those in the Cross-Gender Monitor’s final report, the response to the latter was released in conjunction with CSC’s Action Plan to the CHRC report.

Reviewing a Decade of Change

Women’s corrections in Canada has been chronicled many times since the days of 1835 when three women inmates were first housed in the infirmary of Kingston Penitentiary. The issue has been even more emphatically debated throughout the Prison for Women years, commencing only a few years after its opening in 1934. This Status Report brings us forward in time by focusing on progress in a new era of women’s corrections. The tenth anniversary of the release of the Arbour Report, and the completion of subsequent major reviews, is an appropriate juncture at which to review the overall state of affairs in women’s corrections to highlight our progress, challenges and future direction. Principal themes will be highlighted such as human rights, cross-gender staffing, Aboriginal women offenders, security classification, management of security incidents, segregation, programs and community transition.

Four supplementary documents are annexed to this report that provide current Action Plan updates on each of the recommendations in the Arbour Report, Auditor General’s Report, Public Accounts Committee Report and the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) Report. A separate annex is not included for the Cross-Gender Monitor’s Third and Final Annual Report in this Ten-Year Status Report; CSC’s Action Plan Update to the CHRC report in Annex D, largely responds to the recommendations of the Monitor’s Report.

The intent of the annexes is to provide the reader with the most current status on the issues by referencing milestones within the last few years; however, it is important to bear in mind that continuous work over many years has brought us to this stage of development. The annexes also serve as CSC’s annual update to the Office of the Auditor General and the CHRC. They will receive their specific Action Plan Update as part of the Ten-Year Status Report which will allow them to assess progress against their specific recommendations within the context of the overall ten-year period.

It is clear from this Status Report that the momentum for innovative change that commenced in 1990 with the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women was maintained in the years that followed and continues today. Women’s corrections has been transformed since that time as evidenced by a vastly different operational model, structure and approach within the regional women’s institutions and the ongoing development of a continuum of gender- and culturally-informed policies and programs.

This Status Report is an update at this point in time and provides a thorough account of developments and progress at this ten-year milestone. Nevertheless, Corrections is dynamic. Therefore, while CSC considers many of the recommendations from the reviews of the past decade to be complete, there are issues that will always require CSC’s sustained efforts to remain effective through future change.