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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Ten-Year Status Report on Women’s Corrections


Community Transition

The Arbour Report recommended that the first priority for the Deputy Commissioner for Women be the release and reintegration of women in custody. Some of the primary concerns raised in other reviews of the past decade regarding the community transition of women offenders included the need for CSC to develop alternative accommodation for women, to ensure plans are funded appropriately and to expand links to the community in order to facilitate the safe and timely reintegration of women in keeping with their individualized needs.

Offenders’ success in starting afresh depends partly on their own efforts and partly on the opportunities the community at large provides.

Research has shown that a gradual supervised release supported by the community is the safest correctional strategy for public safety. The case management process involves continuous assessment of individual needs and risk, consideration of gains and adjustments to the Correctional Plan as necessary to prepare a timely safe release in each case. This process, aimed at a smooth transition experience, requires communication between institutional and community case managers, and results in an individualized Community Strategy prepared by the community receiving the individual.

CSC is aware that a number of factors impact on the successful community reintegration of women. Women’s needs are different in the extent, aetiology, manifestation and types of interventions required to address them. Women require gender-responsive strategies which take into account the realities of their lives.

The context within which these gender-responsive strategies are to be implemented are shaped by factors such as the relatively small number of women and their geographic dispersion upon release. Women offenders constitute only 4% of the entire federal offender population resulting in very few numbers in many community locations upon release. Under these circumstances, ensuring a continuum of services across the release threshold presents a challenge. There is a need to work closely with a network of local service providers for needed services in areas important to women’s realities, including safe and affordable housing, child care, medical services, addiction services, mental health, financial and social support and employment.

Key areas that present challenges include residential services, mental health services and program delivery.

Structured and supportive community residential services are critical to the gradual release process for women and an integral component of early release on Day Parole. Alternative residential models such as private home placements (PHP’s) have been useful on a small scale in communities where demand for services is low.

With reference to mental health, one out of four women offenders admitted to federal custody in 2004 was identified as having a current mental health diagnosis compared to one in ten for men. This is a trend that is steadily increasing for the women offender population currently or soon to be released. Reintegration efforts must attend to this area of special need for a significant and growing proportion of women. CSC continues to work with community partners to increase the capacity to accommodate women with special needs and expand the opportunities for more women to be safely released.

Substance abuse is an area of persistent concern with women offenders, and has been identified as a significant factor in revocations without offence. As a response to this need area, the Women Offender Substance Abuse Program (WOSAP), introduced nationally in FY 2004-05, is offered to women in the community on a continuous entry basis (no delay) and with a capacity to be delivered one-to-one where groups are not possible.

There has been a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal women in the population over the past eight years. Upon return to the community, Aboriginal women share many of the challenges of non-Aboriginal women, only their needs are even more pronounced and require attention within a cultural context.

While women offenders are incarcerated, there is a capacity to address their needs through group programming and other services, and to create an environment of support with other women. Upon release, the capacity to maintain services for individual women on a continuum that matches the pre-release context is difficult in practical terms. This transition experience can result in feelings of isolation and a sense of reduced support at a critical period of community re-entry which itself brings increased challenges.

Within these parameters, meeting the community reintegration needs of women requires strong pre-release preparation in terms of targeted programs and interventions, a highly integrated planning process with destination communities prior to release, and initiative to work collaboratively with resources within communities to ensure access to a wide range of services responsive to women’s needs.

A national strategic approach to the reintegration of women offenders is important to ensure that this relatively small population dispersed across many communities is not marginalized and that their special needs are consistently addressed; however, flexibility and initiative at the local level must be accommodated to work within an inter-jurisdictional context involving both governmental and non-governmental partners in various locations.

Research dedicated to gaining a better understanding of women’s needs and effective interventions is important to the development of effective policies, programs and practices.

Key Accomplishments

  • In recognition of the unique types of challenges involved, a national Community Strategy for Women was developed and finalized in 2002. It serves as a framework for approaches to be taken with respect to women offenders on release in the community in areas such as residential services, programs, mental health needs and others. Each region has identified a representative to work in support of a national strategy to maintain a viable network of residential services for women in each region. This monitoring, planning and sharing of good practices is ongoing.
  • Progress has been made in strengthening a residential service network for women including the creation of facilities exclusively for women in the Atlantic Region, an exemplary model of Private Home Placements in the Edmonton area and the expansion of specialized beds in the Pacific Region including residential services for Aboriginal women.
  • • A new national funding framework for community residential services was introduced in FY 2002-03 that is designed to address the vulnerability of smaller traditional halfway houses (typically those for women) in periods of inconsistent referrals and to thereby assist in their sustainability.
  • CSC has consulted with community-based organizations and committed to providing staff of these facilities with mental health training during FY 2006-07. This is aimed at increasing their capacity to accommodate women with special needs and expand the opportunities for more women to safely be released. Additionally, creative measures have been developed to enhance the capacity to accommodate women with special needs through additional funding for enhanced measures (e.g., temporary staff increases).
  • Considerable research has been conducted which has served to inform CSC in the development of programs and practices. Also, a series of national and regional consultations have occurred with community stakeholders about women’s needs for successful reintegration.
  • The formation of specialized supervision units in major cities, (e.g., Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver) in the past ten years has proven a good means of concentrating knowledge of community-based services and establishing inter-jurisdictional relationships within the community to better serve the needs of women.

Challenges and Next Steps

There are many components and challenges with regard to supporting an effective transition process for women offenders. These include a stable base of transitional housing to support a gradual release process, interventions targeting key areas such as substance abuse and mental health concerns and access to a range of community services that support the special needs of women in becoming self-sufficient and crime-free upon re-entry. While progress has been made in many of these areas as noted above, a sustained effort is needed in certain areas of persistent concern and several new initiatives are planned.

A new pre-release program, Social Integration Program, is currently under development with staff training planned for 2006. It will be delivered to women who are close to being released and concentrate on very practical aspects of community re-entry, encouraging realistic expectations as well as the application of personal skills to use in the transition experience. It will engage community resources in the delivery process.

Further research through CSC’s Research Branch is planned for FY 2006-07 to gain an increased understanding of factors contributing to revocation of release for women, particularly in the area of substance abuse relapse and to identify factors that enhance the chances of success.

A national employment strategy for women offenders is being developed this year based on research results and in partnership with various sectors of CSC. This will provide direction on employment issues which is one area that impacts on women’s chances of success upon return to the community.

The increase in the number of Aboriginal women admitted to the federal correctional system is an area of significant concern. Reintegration strategies require a highly integrated collaborative approach with other governmental and non-governmental partners and the engagement of Aboriginal communities. Measures designed specifically to support the needs of Aboriginal women are discussed under the section on Aboriginal Women Offenders. It is expected, however, that the successful reintegration of this population will represent a significant challenge for CSC and partners engaged in reintegration strategies for the foreseeable future.