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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Ten-Year Status Report on Women’s Corrections


Program Strategy for Women Offenders

When we reflect on earlier eras of women’s corrections, there is no doubt that there has been a transformation in correctional programs for women offenders. Historically, the major critique in this area has been that CSC’s programs for women offenders mirrored those for male offenders without factoring in the specific need areas for women offenders and gender differences underlying their criminal behaviour. The recommendations of the past decade were directed at the need for programs with a gender focus and made recommendations pertaining to an employment strategy, substance abuse programs, Section 81 and 84 options and continuity between institutional and community programs.

…Program categories that fail to address the unique reasons why women commit crimes will penalize women inmates by impairing both their chances of being released at the earliest possible date and their chances of successful reintegration.

A concerted effort to improve programs commenced following acceptance of the 1990 report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women, Creating Choices and with the implementation of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (1992). Section 77 mandates program development specifically for women. In response to the short-term recommendations of the Task Force, CSC undertook to enhance programs at Prison for Women, including the provision of increased therapeutic services to address abuse histories and addiction issues and enhanced Elder services for Aboriginal women offenders. In planning for the new regional women’s institutions, the Correctional Program Strategy for Federally Sentenced Women (1994) was structured to respect women’s gender, ethnic, cultural, spiritual and linguistic differences and provide direction for effective programming for women offenders.

Although some basic elements of effective correctional programming may apply to both men and women offenders, there are some elements that differentiate the two. Gender-specific programming must reflect an understanding of the psychological development of women. There is also international support for providing correctional programs that are gender-informed. In the past decade, CSC has set standards of practice that are based on research that is sensitive to the unique situation of women offenders. Consequently, the practice of delivering non-gender specific programs to women offenders is dissipating.

While women offenders are accountable for their behaviour, interventions must take into account the social, political, economic and cultural context unique to women in society. CSC’s reintegration efforts are designed to offer an increased number of pro-social choices to help women become law-abiding citizens. Approximately 56% of women offenders under federal jurisdiction are on conditional release in the community at any given time. While the figure varies from region to region, overall, women offenders generally have a high reintegration potential; a high level of motivation to take charge of their lives; they are active participants in the correctional planning process; and, are receptive to the forms of assistance they are being offered.

Ongoing research and development in correctional programming (substance abuse, violence prevention, sexual offending), mental health intervention (treatment programs in the specialized units for women, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Psychosocial Rehabilitation), education and employability programs, and social programs, prompted the need to update the 1994 strategy. The revised Program Strategy for Women Offenders (2004) provides a framework for program development and program implementation for women offenders to help women maintain their high rate of success to reintegrate safely into the community at the earliest possible time. It outlines the distinctions between correctional programs, mental health interventions and other programs (e.g., Education, Employability and Social programs). Although there are distinctions, all programs are integrated, have a mutually reinforcing effect and most importantly, all interventions support CSC’s reintegration efforts with offenders. The intent of the Program Strategy is to provide CSC staff, the women themselves, and other stakeholders with a scope of the reintegration programs available to women, to provide guidelines for the delivery of those programs, and the rationale for each type of intervention in relation to CSC’s reintegration efforts.

Studies based on women offenders highlight the range and density of presenting difficulties. Not all difficulties are criminogenic though, and while it is recognized that to be effective, institutional and community interventions must focus on factors that contribute directly to offending for women offenders, there are important responsivity issues to take into consideration (e.g., victimization experiences). Programs must use an approach that addresses the multi-faceted needs of women. Women need to address emotion regulation issues which may underlie other needs such as cognitive functioning and/or substance abuse. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and the Women Offender Substance Abuse Program (WOSAP) are approaches that address these multiple issues.

Spirit of a Warrior is a program that also addresses the multi-faceted needs of Aboriginal women. Referrals to programs such as DBT, WOSAP and Spirit of a Warrior allow the main risk factors to be targeted within a holistic framework for healing. Voluntary participation in Survivors of Abuse and Trauma Programs helps women who wish to address past issues of victimization.

In 1997, CSC published the Mental Health Strategy for Women Offenders; this strategy was updated in 2002. The strategy provides the framework for a continuum of care from assessment services on intake to warrant expiry, through intermediate care using DBT in the Structured Living Environments, to intensive care in the special units for women at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies) in Saskatoon, and Institut Philippe Pinel de Montréal.

The Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies) is a community-accredited mental health facility with a unit exclusively devoted to the mental health needs of women offenders. The Churchill Unit manages women with some of the most severe mental health needs in the women offender population. Over the years, program approaches in this 12-bed unit have undergone many changes. Treatment options are broadly based and include DBT, psychotherapy, Aboriginal healing and services that include Elders and Aboriginal liaison officers, as well as gender-informed psycho-educational and behavioural interventions.

In May 2003, in cooperation with the Institut Philippe Pinel de Montréal, CSC opened a second intensive mental health unit for women. While similar in scope to the RPC unit, the women's unit at Pinel provides treatment in both official languages and helps to keep those women from eastern Canada closer to home.

Education, Employability and Social Programs

While correctional programs and mental health interventions focus on the individual and the factors that directly contribute to criminal behaviour, education and employability programs and social programs are interventions that focus on the safe integration of offenders into society. Education has shown to reduce recidivism and prepare offenders to participate in other programs. Employability programs focus directly on increasing job readiness of offenders.

Social programs such as Community Integration, Leisure Education, Parenting Skills, and Canine Programs help offenders to adopt pro-social lifestyles, to choose activities that will integrate them as productive, law-abiding members of society. Social programs allow for transfer of skills learned in correctional programs, teach participants healthy ways of living and introduce pro-social choices. Even though they do not directly target wellness or criminal behaviour, social programs support correctional and mental health programs and play an essential role in CSC’s safe reintegration efforts.

CSC has demonstrated a commitment to developing and providing gender-informed programs based on up-to-date research about the unique needs and risks of women offenders and correctional programs continue to be refined based on new research and approaches. CSC’s focus has also been on addressing concerns that hinder effective program delivery and the potential for timely reintegration. These issues include minimizing delays in correctional planning, ensuring accessibility to programs, addressing program delivery issues and ensuring program effectiveness through research-based evaluations.

Key Accomplishments

  • Implementation of a Program Strategy for Women Offenders outlining a range of gender-informed programs, including substance abuse programs, mental health interventions, Aboriginal programs, sex offender therapy for women, anger and emotion management, reasoning and rehabilitation and social programs. The Strategy will be updated periodically to reflect the implications of new research.
  • Improvements to program delivery: establishment of a flexible entry system so that women offenders may commence program participation as soon as possible following admission; and changes to minimum group size to reduce waiting times to commence programs.
  • Regular inclusion of representatives from women’s organizations, the research/academic field and other organizations with expertise in the consultation on programs for women offenders.
  • Initiation of an overall program strategy to better meet the needs of Aboriginal women offenders.
  • Implementation of culturally specific programs for Aboriginal women offenders – Spirit of a Warrior and Circles of Change.
  • Development of a Mental Health Strategy for Women Offenders, the goal of which is to develop and maintain a coordinated continuum of care that addresses the varied mental health needs of women offenders in order to maximize well-being and to promote effective reintegration.
  • Development of two intensive treatment environments for maximum security and other women at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (Prairies) and Institut Philippe Pinel de Montréal.
  • Implementation of Structured Living Environment Units at each regional women’s institution.
  • The Mother-Child Program is implemented at all regional institutions. This program enables children to stay with their mothers while incarcerated provided that participation is considered to be in the best interest of the child and is subject to approval by the local ministry of social/children’s services.
  • Successful pilot of employability skills training in women’s institutions with implementation to continue.
  • A “Back to Basics” training session for employment supervisors within correctional institutions is being implemented in 2006-07 to refresh their knowledge and refocus attention on basic safety and security aspects of their role.
  • Completion of National Employment Needs Survey and a draft National Employment Strategy specific to women offenders.
  • Establishment of innovative programs and work release opportunities that foster links between the institution and community.

Challenges and Next Steps

It is critical that women offenders complete required programs in a timely manner in order to prepare them for release at the earliest eligibility dates. With the trend towards the imposition of shorter sentences and the accompanying earlier eligibility for release, there are increased challenges to ensure offenders complete required programs that address need areas. National and site specific program delivery issues are reviewed in order to best resolve delivery issues and facilitate the timely and safe release of women offenders.

All correctional programs for women are designed with a built-in evaluation component to assess at a minimum: recidivism, reintegration of participants, assessment of change against program targets, participant satisfaction, rates of participation and attrition and influence of participant responsivity on outcome. Program evaluations are ongoing to assess and refine the effectiveness of interventions for women offenders and ensure continual improvement.