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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Nova Institution for Women

Healthy prison summary

  HP1 All inspection reports carry a summary of the conditions and treatment of inmates, based on the four tests of a healthy prison that were first introduced in this inspectorate's thematic review Suicide is everyone's concern , published in 1999.
The criteria are:

Safety inmates, even the most vulnerable, are held safely

Respect inmates are treated with respect for their human dignity

Purposeful activity inmates are able, and expected, to engage in activity that is likely to benefit them

Reintegration inmates are prepared for their release into the community and helped to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

  HP2 Throughout the report, the results from the survey completed by the women at Nova Institution are compared with the aggregated responses from prisoner surveys carried out in 12 English women's prisons since April 2003, which we call the comparator. References are also made to results from Grand Valley Institution for Women in Ontario which we also inspected. The full survey results are at Appendix 3.

HP3 The open living arrangements at Nova had created a positive environment that allowed women to exercise some choices in their lives. This appeared to have led to low levels of self-harm. Admissions procedures were inadequate. Our survey identified some feelings of lack of safety and victimization, and there was no structured help for women before they moved to live in unstaffed houses. Conditions in the segregation unit were very restrictive. The maximum secure unit was over-controlled and in stark contrast to the good, relaxed conditions in the rest of the institution.     

  HP4 Although not under the jurisdiction of the Correctional Service Canada (CSC), women on long journeys to Nova wore leg irons irrespective of security risk. Some were offered toilet stops in inappropriate public places.

  HP5 New arrivals received a good initial welcome from the security intelligence officer. Although women were generally satisfied with their treatment on arrival, the admissions procedure was very rushed with insufficient time to reassure new arrivals or discuss particular worries or concerns.

  HP6 There were no routine first night procedures and too little information was given about what would happen in the first 24 hours. There was heavy reliance on other women but there were no formal peer support arrangements. In our survey, only 63% of respondents said that they had something to eat on the day of their arrival, which was significantly worse than the aggregated figure of 90% from women's prisons in England. All new arrivals received an initial, free 10-minute telephone call. The primary workers delivered orientation through modules. This provided useful information that helped reassure new arrivals but it was sometimes delivered too late and staff did not always check how women were coping with their first few days in custody.

  HP7 In almost all areas of our survey, respondents indicated that they felt significantly less safe than women in prisons in England and Wales. Women said that responses to emergency bells were sometimes slow. Forty-nine per cent said they had been victimized by another inmate, compared to an English comparator of 24%. There had been no internal survey of the extent and nature of bullying, or 'muscling' as it was referred to in the CSC , and there was no clear, central monitoring of the extent of the problem. Most women said they generally felt safe, but we were concerned about how some of the more vulnerable women fared. Harassment policies dealt mainly with staff employment matters and there was no clear process to help staff deal with suspicions of muscling. There was little structured support for victims or programs to deal with bullies.

  HP8 The incidence of self-harm was very low, no doubt helped by the open and non-restrictive environment. Concerns about women who might be at risk were picked up well, particularly in the structured living environment (SLE), and there was good involvement by psychologists in assessing and supporting women. Some women who were at risk of self-harm were placed in a cell with a camera in the segregation unit. There was no clear record of how often this was done, so it was not possible to judge its appropriateness, but it was routine for new arrivals regarded as a risk if they did not sign a disclaimer. Refresher training in suicide prevention was needed.

  HP9 Physical security for most of the prison was minimal, with the emphasis on dynamic security. Much security information was received. This was well managed and recorded in each case but there was no monitoring of trends. With no staff presence on the houses there was relatively little interaction with women and there was a reliance on good staff knowledge of individual women rather than social and communal activity.

  HP10 Twenty-four women had been held in the segregation unit between April and August 2005, with a total of 57 in the previous financial year. The average time spent in segregation was eight days for involuntary and two for voluntary. Segregation was properly authorized and supervised. Women were involved in reviews, but few specific targets were set. Facilities and activities in the segregation unit were limited so there was little opportunity for women to demonstrate change. There was little positive interaction with staff and meals were served through door hatches.

  HP11 The restrictive conditions in the maximum secure unit contrasted greatly with the open environment and culture of the rest of the institution and appeared to sit uneasily with the principles of Creating Choices . In accordance with the CSC classification tool, some women were reclassified as a response to poor institutional behaviour rather than risk of escape or risk to the public. Although women on the secure unit spent most of their time during the day out of their cells, only limited activities were available and this created a punitive feel. Most of the women were unsure about how long they were likely to remain there or how decisions about them were made.

  HP12 Disciplinary hearings were generally held in a relaxed but hurried manner, with women given little opportunity to give an explanation in defence or mitigation. However, punishments were not severe. There was no regular monitoring for quality or consistency of handling. The audio records were technically poor, and there were some procedural weaknesses in the conduct of the hearings.

  HP13 There was very little use of force, either planned or spontaneous. There was good use of video taping of instances of use of force to safeguard staff and women. Planned use of force was well organized, briefed and executed. The use of leg irons within the institution was inappropriate and it was difficult to envisage any circumstances in which their use would be justified.

  HP14 The institution drug-tested 5% of the population by urinalysis, with 10% positive results in the year to date. Supply reduction security measures were satisfactory. Methadone maintenance was not available until a community placement had been agreed after release.

HP15 The open living arrangements at Nova had created a positive environment that allowed women to exercise some choices in their lives. This appeared to have led to low levels of self-harm. Admissions procedures were inadequate. Our survey identified some feelings of lack of safety and victimization, and there was no structured help for women before they moved to live in unstaffed houses. Conditions in the segregation unit were very restrictive. The maximum secure unit was over-controlled and in stark contrast to the good, relaxed conditions in the rest of the institution.     

  HP16 Women were usually positive about the treatment and help they received from staff. Interactions with primary workers (custodial officers) were relaxed but often reactive. In our survey, 73% said that they were treated with respect, similar to the English comparator.

  HP17 Nearly half of survey respondents said they met their primary worker in their first week - about double the English comparator of 25% - and 63% said they found their primary worker helpful or very helpful, again much higher than the English figures. Primary workers completed good quality structured casework reports for each woman every 30 days. There was no routine staff presence on houses so there was relatively little informal interaction and opportunities for positive role modelling. Uniforms for custodial officer staff had been introduced recently and it was unclear what impact this would have on relationships.

  HP18 Most of the women had good living conditions in housing that was equivalent to community standards. None of the usual institutional problems of access to showers, cleaning materials and laundry were apparent, although rooms for new arrivals were not always well prepared and not all mattresses were in good condition. There was little opportunity to make a telephone call in private. Not all new arrivals were issued with appropriate sized clothing.

  HP19 All the women, except those in the secure and segregation units, catered for themselves. In our survey, 67%, against a comparator of 34% from English women's prisons, said the quality of the food was good or very good. The food available met 'Food for Canada' guidelines. Some new arrivals did not get a meal on their first day. In some houses food was a source of dispute. There had been little recent training for women in how to cater for themselves.

  HP20 The canteen (prison shop) worked well. In our survey, 84% said they had access to the canteen within 24 hours of their arrival, compared to 17% in the English surveys.

  HP21 Women could get requests and complaints forms easily, and most had good confidential access to the warden. However, almost a third of survey respondents said that they had been made to or encouraged to withdraw a complaint. This appeared to relate to informal resolution, but required further examination. Answers to complaints, while generally within CSC timescales, took too long. Although there was plenty of data about individual complaints there was no local analysis for management information and quality assurance, and too much reliance on monitoring at regional and national level.

  HP22 Spiritual needs were met by the equivalent of one full-time Christian minister, with active volunteer participation and an Aboriginal elder. Although sufficient for most services the spirituality facilities were cramped, as they had been built for a much smaller population. Aboriginal women did not feel they had sufficient access to the spirituality room.
  HP23 There were 11 Aboriginal and five black women. The rest were classed as Caucasian. Although these numbers were small, there was no monitoring of access to facilities or services by race or cultural identity, except for Aboriginal access to programs. Complaints about race were not identified and monitored separately, and we were told there had been none in the current fiscal year. An Aboriginal sisterhood had been formed, helped by a liaison worker. This was a good development to meet the needs of this growing group.

  HP24 Primary healthcare was delivered mainly by well-qualified nurses, but there was no identified healthcare lead. There was insufficient service from the doctor. Mental health services were led by psychologists and linked to healthcare only if the patient was seen by a psychiatrist. Healthcare space was very cramped as it had been designed for a much smaller population. Much of the healthcare was delivered in the community but there were restrictions on the number of escorts that could be arranged and some women had to wait some time, particularly for physiotherapy appointments.

  Purposeful activity
HP25 Women had good free movement throughout the site, except those with a maximum security classification. About half were involved in education. Most were fully occupied, including in correctional programs, but there was scope for developing some better quality work. A few women had opportunities to acquire good skills to help gain employment in areas such as horticulture, workplace signing and traffic control and the dog program but there were too few of these opportunities.

  HP26 Except for the small number in the secure unit, no women were locked up at any time and they had good free access to the grounds during the day. Those in the secure unit were able to spend most of the day out of their cells. There were regular periods of leisure time each day for everyone. Many of the women used this time well, participating in structured activity often run by volunteers. Access to leisure activities for those living in the secure unit was too restricted. Opportunities for interaction with staff during leisure time were limited.

  HP27 Education was delivered as a contracted service, with 2.5 teachers meeting a range of needs. Educational planning was completed at the intake interview, and there were good links with previous learning. Many women were required to attend school because of previous education deficits, and about half were involved in education. However, few of the women were at Nova long enough to complete adult basic education, and procedures to help them complete it in the community were not yet in place. Portfolio development was being introduced.

  HP28 With 39 part-time jobs and occasional extra projects there was just sufficient work for the current population. But most of the jobs were in cleaning and general maintenance. There was a flexible approach to managing work, which allowed women to participate in education and programs. Jobs were advertised and open to all to apply, and there were good links with correctional plans to recognize skills achieved in work. A reasonable range of vocational qualifications was offered in horticulture, the canine program and workplace signing and traffic control but there was a need to develop more opportunities to acquire marketable skills. Although there had been no needs analysis to check that work available was applicable to the population, the vocational skills offered were geared to the job market. In our survey, 62% said the skills they acquired through their jobs would help them on release.

  HP29 The library was staffed by one inmate. In our survey, just under half of respondents said they had used it at least once a week. There was a good range of legal text books and human rights materials, as well as access to commissioner's directives. Specialist needs were catered for and there was good access to computers in the library.

  HP30 In our survey, 54% of women said that they went to the gym at least twice each week, significantly above the 25% English comparator. There was a sports hall and cardiovascular equipment, but there was no proper induction and women had to rely on others for guidance on using the equipment. There were few organized team games and no real links between the gym and health promotion.


HP31 Reintegration planning was based on a provincial strategy but not all elements were fully integrated at local level. Comprehensive correctional planning led to good involvement in high quality correctional programs, which were suitably prioritized. There was a need to ensure that programs were appropriate for Aboriginal women. There was a good woman-centred drug program, which matched the need of many inmates. There was also good support through the survivors of abuse and trauma program, which involved a high proportion of the women. Virtually all women left the institution with accommodation. Very few family and friends visited and there was little to encourage and promote better contact.    

  HP32 Reintegration planning was based on the Nova Scotia district strategy for conditionally released inmates. However, there was no process to monitor or draw together the various local committees that delivered reintegration services. There was no local performance monitoring or data analysis to improve practice and ensure parole reports were prepared on time. A wide range of local community partnerships offered reintegration programs, including accommodation. No women left without accommodation but assistance with employment, welfare and education was left to the local parole officer and community resources. Few escorted temporary absences were for family contact or employment purposes.

  HP33 It was difficult to get data on parole and discharge arrangements. Twenty-nine women were past their full parole date but there was no clear breakdown or analysis, and it was possible that some program scheduling led to delays. In our survey, 70% said that they had done something or something had happened to them during their time in Nova that would make them less likely to reoffend on release, which was significantly better than the English comparator of 43%.

  HP34 The correctional planning system was comprehensive with input from the community parole officer and significant others. Allocation to programs started as soon as women arrived to help them to complete these before their earliest release date. Women who returned after a revocation resumed their existing but updated correctional plan. Waiting lists for programs were monitored nationally. In our survey, 53% of respondents, compared to an English comparator of 26%, said that they were involved or very involved in the development of their correctional plan.

  HP35 There was a comprehensive intake assessment of women's offending behaviour needs. The appropriateness of some tools for women and Aboriginal women were being reviewed. The programs were prioritized to meet the needs of the population. In our survey, 67% of the respondents felt that their correctional programs would help them on release. The SLE delivered some impressive program work, including outreach and maintenance for the general population with a multidisciplinary approach not available elsewhere in the institution The survivors of abuse and trauma program provided support to 33 women.

  HP36 Classification was decided in line with the CSC classification tool, which, as noted, took as much account of women's behaviour in the institution as well as their security risk. A new Security Reclassification Scale for Women (SRSW) had been introduced recently but it was too early to determine its effect. At Nova there was little differentiation between medium and minimum security levels, and few opportunities for women to experience full open conditions.

  HP37 Only six women at Nova were serving a life sentence. There was little recognition of their special needs, although the cases we sampled showed that the correctional planning had been done thoroughly. Some would spend years at Nova, but there was insufficient meaningful employment to help them acquire and develop skills over that time. A LifeLine worker visited once a month to support lifers. While this was a good initiative the institution had little involvement in it. Until recently women lifers were held in maximum security for the first two years of their sentence unless it was agreed nationally that exceptional circumstances applied.   Figures supplied by the CSC suggested that in some cases this had happened within the two year period.   Responsibility for this decision had just been devolved to wardens.

  HP38 Entitlement to visits was generous, with appropriate visiting times and a flexible approach to accommodating visitors, and there was a pleasant visiting area. There had been no closed visits in 2005 to date. Unfortunately, few women received visits. Those who were able to have them were frustrated by delays in security clearances. There was no financial assistance for families who could not visit because of cost, and no specific family support work to encourage and facilitate family contact. The need to maintain family ties was not fully recognized in correctional plans. The family visiting program was an excellent facility but again was underused. We were pleased to see that family days were arranged twice a year.

  HP39 With few visits, contact by mail and telephone was important. In our survey, 53% said there were problems with the mail, which was significantly worse than the English comparator of 33%. The arrangements for processing post were too dependent on one individual. A blanket restriction on phoning mobile telephone numbers prevented some women from contacting their families and friends, and in some cases there were delays of weeks in checking PIN (personal identification) numbers.

  HP40 There was a good woman-focused drugs program, which met the needs of many at Nova. In our survey, 69% thought that the substance misuse program would help them on release, compared to 31% in the English surveys. There was a voluntary evening relapse prevention program, which was highly regarded by the women and well attended.