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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Ten-Year Status Report on Women’s Corrections


Aboriginal Women Offenders

The opening of Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge (OOHL) in 1995 was a major milestone towards meeting the healing and reintegration needs of Aboriginal women offenders. OOHL is located on the Nekaneet Reserve in Saskatchewan and the chosen name means “Thunder Hills”. OOHL’s focus on traditional healing practices in a culturally relevant environment marked a complete shift in correctional approaches for Aboriginal women offenders. The offender population of OOHL includes women classified at the minimum and medium-security level.

Healing for Aboriginal women means the opportunity, through Aboriginal teachings, programs, spirituality and culture, to recover from histories of abuse, regain a sense of self-worth, gain skills and rebuild families. Through healing, Aboriginal women are able to change or release negative behaviours such as addictions and criminal behaviour. Delving deep into issues allows for an intensive healing experience, which improves their ability to re-establish themselves in their community.

A Healing Lodge in the Prairie Region was envisioned in Creating Choices which proposed that the features and design of the facility be developed by CSC in close partnership with Aboriginal people. The Operational Plan and facility design that evolved focused on the importance of nature in Aboriginal culture, the need for privacy in healing, community interaction and Aboriginal specific intervention strategies.

In the years leading up to the opening of OOHL, a vast amount of work had been accomplished under the leadership of a Planning Circle which was comprised of representatives from CSC, Elders and other members of the Aboriginal community. The Planning Circle initiated the development of a comprehensive plan for staff selection, training and program development for the Healing Lodge. The staff selection process emphasized the recruitment of Aboriginal employees and working with Aboriginal communities.

In the other women’s institutions, access to Aboriginal forms of healing are facilitated through Elders and Aboriginal Liaison Officers. Staff encourage and support these efforts, recognizing how difficult this personal journey can be for the women. The Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies) offers weekly Aboriginal programming to all women in its care.

The Arbour Report acknowledged the opening of the Healing Lodge for Aboriginal women as “…probably one of the most progressive steps ever taken by the Correctional Service.” A recommendation put forth in the Report proposed building on this innovation by making the Healing Lodge accessible to all Aboriginal women regardless of their security classification. Subsequently, the report of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) made a similar recommendation that CSC base admission to the Healing Lodge on individual assessment rather than having a blanket policy of not allowing maximum security women at the Healing Lodge. In conjunction with this, the CHRC recommended that CSC “reassess the classification of all Aboriginal women currently classified as maximum security using a gender-responsive reclassification tool.” CSC did not accept the recommendations pertaining to the accommodation of maximum security women at the Healing Lodge for reasons detailed in Action Plan Updates for the Arbour and CHRC reports (Annex A, recommendation 7 (a) and Annex D, recommendation 2(c)).

Other issues raised in the Arbour Report, and the reports of the Auditor General, Public Accounts Committee and CHRC address access to Elders, Section 81 and 84 Agreements and culturally sensitive staff training.

CSC’s responsiveness to Aboriginal women offenders has evolved to encompass a holistic framework for healing. Ten years ago, there were very few programs or services to meet the unique needs of Aboriginal women offenders. Today, a national Aboriginal strategy for women is in place which establishes a continuum of culturally-specific services and community healing programs to rehabilitate and reintegrate these women into their families and communities.

The active involvement of Aboriginal communities in the correctional process is essential if we are to successfully reintegrate Aboriginal offenders. Sections 81 and 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act give Canada’s Aboriginal communities the opportunity to become more involved in the care, custody and release of all Aboriginal offenders. CSC is currently working with Aboriginal communities so that they are involved in planning the conditional release of Aboriginal offenders. Restoring harmonious relationships among offenders, victims and communities is a cornerstone to Aboriginal correctional policy.

The number of incarcerated Aboriginal women offenders has increased over the past decade, with Aboriginal women currently representing 31% of the total women offender incarcerated population. The profile of Aboriginal women sentenced to federal custody has not significantly changed over the past decade. These women have multi-facetted needs, including pervasive substance abuse, and have physical and/or sexual abuse histories.

Aboriginal women’s disproportionate representation in the justice system is a reflection of long-standing systemic issues that go well beyond the capacity of CSC alone to remedy. Although CSC cannot directly affect the overall rate of incarceration of Aboriginal peoples, it plays a fundamental role in potentially reducing re-incarceration rates. It does so by partnering with other jurisdictions, departments, agencies and diverse Aboriginal groups and communities to develop integrated and targeted approaches which respect different Aboriginal cultures and focus on healing and safe reintegration initiatives.

While considerable work has been undertaken, there remains much work ahead of us to meet the needs of Aboriginal women offenders. CSC will continue to place a high priority on enhancing its capacities to provide effective interventions for Aboriginal women offenders.

Key Accomplishments

  • OOHL offers services and programs that reflect Aboriginal culture in a space that incorporates the traditions and beliefs of Aboriginal peoples. As well, OOHL maintains strong links to the local community and women offenders often participate in temporary absences to attend events on the Nekaneet Reserve.
  • The Aboriginal Pathways Program has been established at Fraser Valley Institution and is planned for Edmonton Institution for Women. Pathways is a component of CSC’s strategy to build a continuum of Aboriginal specific services from intake to release, including a specialized Aboriginal orientation unit and healing units within existing correctional institutions.
  • CSC’s Security Reclassification Scale for Women was implemented in September 2005 and is valid and reliable for Aboriginal women offenders.
  • Cultural and gender-specific programs, Spirit of a Warrior and Circles of Change, are being delivered at regional women’s institutions.
  • The Women Offender Substance Abuse Program has been successfully implemented in all regional women’s institutions. Development of a substance abuse component within the Spirit of a Warrior Program has recently been initiated specifically for Aboriginal women offenders.
  • The role of Elders/Aboriginal liaison has been enhanced in the development of Correctional Plans and Criminal Profile Report.
  • Ten Aboriginal Community Development Officer positions have been staffed across the country to create links for both men and women offenders with Aboriginal communities, raise Aboriginal community interest in participating in the correctional process, and initiate Section 84 agreements.
  • An Aboriginal advisory committee has been established in the Pacific Region to explore Section 81 and 84 agreements for women offenders.
  • A Section 84 Conditional Release Planning Kit has been produced and widely distributed throughout CSC and communities to provide a comprehensive guide on this type of release option.
  • Each women’s institution has identified a staff "Champion" to serve as a promoter of OOHL.
  • While CSC did not accept the recommendations pertaining to the accommodation of maximum security women at the Healing Lodge, a Healing Readiness Commitment Process has been designed for these women who wish to work toward reducing their security classification and eventual transfer to OOHL.
  • The women’s unit at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies) has developed an intensive treatment service utilized predominantly by Aboriginal women offenders (particularly maximum security). The program incorporates two half-days of Aboriginal programming delivered by Elders and Aboriginal Liaison Officers.
  • Community residential accommodation for Aboriginal women has been established with Anderson Lodge in Vancouver.
  • CSC’s Aboriginal Initiatives Branch now reports directly to the Senior Deputy Commissioner to ensure senior-level leadership.

Challenges and Next Steps

CSC’s Aboriginal-specific programs, such as Pathways, are starting to result in increases in movement to lower security levels, fewer incidents and reduced re-offending among those who participate. However, there are gaps in our capacity to meet the needs of urban Aboriginal offenders and those from the North. To make an impact, we need to continue to build community capacity, through strategies such as those discussed above, and expand CSC’s understanding and application of Aboriginal approaches in corrections.

Aboriginal women offenders are also more likely to return to custody for a breach of a condition of community supervision. CSC will continue to work at narrowing the gap in the rate of revocations for Aboriginal offenders while they are under supervision in the community. Aboriginal issues continue to be a priority area for CSC.