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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Report on announced inspection in Canada by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales:
Grand Valley Institution for Women

Section 1: Arrival in custody

First days in custody
Expected outcomes:
Inmates travel in safe, decent conditions to and from court and between prisons. During movement the individual needs of inmates are recognized and given proper attention. Inmates feel safe on their reception into prison and for the first few days. Their individual needs, both during and after custody, are identified and plans developed to provide help. During an inmate's orientation into the prison she is made aware of prison routines, how to access available services and how to cope with imprisonment.

1.1 Women were routinely escorted to the institution wearing handcuffs and leg irons, which was unnecessary and degrading. The majority of women said they had been treated well or very well on admission with survey results significantly better than the English comparator and than Nova Institution for Women. Reception procedures were efficient and respectful but the environment was not welcoming. New arrivals were not offered a meal and some did not receive one on their first night. The staged initial multidisciplinary assessment included a thorough assessment of the risk of self-harm. Those considered at risk were usually placed in segregation due to lack of staff cover on the houses. It was difficult to seek help in confidence on the first night. A peer orientation program was delivering well and women appreciated it.

1.2 Although not under the jurisdiction of the CSC, all women were transported to GVIW in handcuffs and leg irons irrespective of security risk. Such security measures were extreme and unnecessary for most women, for whom there was no individual risk assessment.

1.3 GVIW accepted new arrivals every other Friday, with the majority coming from Vanier provincial prison. Most of the information about new receptions was sent electronically from the provincial prison a few days in advance. We were unable to observe any new arrivals but spoke to a number of women about their experience. The reception area was small and unwelcoming. Although we were told that healthcare staff gave new arrivals snacks such as a granola bar, they were not given a meal or welcomed with a drink. Depending on the numbers, there were not always enough chairs for them.

1.4 The procedures were that the sentence management officer met all new arrivals and checked their warrants. The initial reception formalities were conducted by a dedicated admissions and discharge officer. We were told that the emphasis was on putting women at their ease, despite the fact that they were expected to absorb a great deal of information. They were given a lot of forms explaining areas such as personal property, visits and the personal identification number (PIN) telephone system. They were also given a copy of the inmate handbook and a key to their personal mailbox. In our survey, 79% of women, compared with 56% at Nova and 67% in the English comparator, said they had been treated well or very well on admission.

1.5 Women did not have to strip completely but were strip-searched in two stages: the upper body followed by the lower body. In our survey, 82% of women, against 66% at Nova, said they were searched in a sensitive way.

1.6 New arrivals could not shower in reception and the expectation was that they would be able to do so once they were on their house unit. However, only 70% of respondents to our survey said they had been given the opportunity to shower on the day of their arrival. This was significantly better than the English comparator of 38%, but meant that nearly a third of women had not been able to shower.

1.7 New arrivals were given a hygiene and a bedding pack, and a change of clothing from the prison stores to replace the purple suits of the provincial prison. Women new to GVIW were given new clothing, which was available in a range of sizes, but clothing for women returning because their conditional release had been suspended was often second-hand apart from underwear. While the second-hand stock was in good condition, we could see no reason for this differentiation and it was a source of complaint among the women.

1.8 Women could exchange any poorly fitting clothing the next day. Their personal property boxes were processed over the weekend and they could then access their own clothing on the Monday. Personal property was stored in boxes in a secure area in reception. No outstanding property was waiting to be processed at the time of the inspection and we were told that backlogs rarely occurred.

1.9 A very basic personal history, fingerprints and photographs were taken in reception. The emphasis was on moving the women through the basic routine procedures so that the more important procedures, such as interviews to take a full personal history and complete self-harm assessments, could be conducted separately and in private.

1.10 Following the basic procedures, new arrivals had an initial interview with the officer in charge (OIC). This interview began the first part of the initial assessment. At this stage, the OIC identified immediate needs and answered questions and concerns. The OIC's checklist included questions about incompatibles and history of self-harm. New arrivals were usually located on house 7 but could be located elsewhere if any concerns arose from the initial assessment. Those considered at risk of self-harm were usually placed in the segregation unit. Reasons for any different location were recorded. New arrivals were then given an initial health screening by the nurse before having a more in-depth interview with a psychologist to complete a thorough self-harm assessment.

1.11 The three-stage initial assessment process was designed to identify immediate needs and reassure new arrivals but too little attention was paid to anxieties about children. Neither the admissions checklist nor the psychologist's self-harm assessment contained any prompts about concerns about children although in our survey, 64% said they had children under the age of 18. Eighty-three per cent said they had problems when they first arrived and only 33% said they had received any help or support from staff in dealing with these within the first 24 hours.

1.12 New arrivals were told about the inmate orientation team and peer supporter, and arrangements were always made to meet with the two women who made up the orientation team the same day (see also section on orientation). The only trained peer supporter was not available to new arrivals in reception.

1.13 The reception checklist included the offer of a free 15-minute telephone call. In our survey, 78% of women, compared with 49% in English women's prisons, said they were given the opportunity to make a free telephone call on the day of their arrival. Thereafter, they needed to complete a form to access a PIN and submit for approval the telephone numbers they wished to use.

1.14 New arrivals were offered an immediate loan of $30, repayable at 10% of their weekly earnings after the first week, and were usually able to visit the canteen on their first day. In our survey, 90% of women, against an English comparator of just 17%, said they had access to the shop/canteen within 24 hours of arrival. However, women without private cash or employment did not have enough money to meet their needs during the first few weeks, which meant some got into debt.

  First days in custody
1.15 Anyone assessed as at risk of suicide or self-harm or who was vulnerable for any other reason was usually placed in the segregation unit, the only unit with staff supervision. Otherwise, most new arrivals spent at least their first few days on house 7, the designated reception house. House 7 was not a supportive environment for new arrivals and was also used for women who could not cope on other locations or had been moved because of their behaviour. In our survey, 31% of those who said they felt unsafe identified their house unit as a particular area where this was true.

1.16 New arrivals were escorted to their first night location but there were no routine procedures to ensure that new arrivals were checked by staff on their first night and they were generally left to organize themselves. Only 73% in our survey said they had been offered something to eat on their day of arrival. There was an assumption that house cooks would provide an evening meal for new women but this was not always the case. One house cook told us that it was not always possible to budget to ensure that there was enough food to cater for new arrivals on Fridays.

Two women worked as an inmate orientation team. They always met new arrivals on their first day to welcome them and answer any outstanding questions. One of the women was also a trained peer supporter but anyone in distress could not ask for help from staff or the peer supporter at night in confidence because the internal telephone was located in the lounge area in full view and hearing of other women (see paragraph 2.6). In our survey, only 19% of women, against a significantly higher English comparator of 31%, said they had access to a Listener/Samaritan/peer supporter within the first 24 hours.

1.18 The inmate orientation team was a recent development and we heard some positive feedback about the service offered. The two team members had developed a very comprehensive program and were committed to their new role. They said staff and the warden gave them a great deal of help and held regular meetings with them.

1.19 The orientation program began immediately with a tour of the institution on the first night. Team members outlined what would happen in the first week and explained the application procedures. They made themselves available throughout the weekend if necessary and then continued with their program the following week. Various departments were scheduled to deliver sessions on finance, pay, complaints and grievances, programs, case management, the chapel, the inmate committee and healthcare. All of these sessions were scheduled for Thursday, which meant that new arrivals spent almost a week in detention before receiving any formal orientation from staff on specialist areas. We were also told that staff did not always deliver their sessions at the allotted time for a variety of operational reasons. In our survey, only 53% of women said they had been orientated in the first week. This was significantly worse than the survey response from English prisons but much better than at Nova where the corresponding figure was 30%.

  Action points
1.20 New arrivals should be offered food and drink when they arrive.

1.21 The reception area should have enough seating for new arrivals.

1.22 New arrivals should be offered the opportunity to shower before they are taken to their house unit.

1.23 Interviews with new arrivals should include a discussion about possible concerns about children or other family members.

1.24 New arrivals should be given enough funds to ensure that they can manage during their first few weeks in custody and until their finances are organized.

1.25 New arrivals should be able to call for peer or Samaritan support in confidence.

1.26 Trained peer supporters should be available in reception.

1.27 Orientation sessions led by staff should begin the next working day after the arrival of new receptions and staff responsible for delivering these sessions should attend and do so on time.