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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Nova Institution for Women


The Canadian background
In 1989, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), in collaboration with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, established a Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women. This resulted in the publication in 1990 of Creating Choices, setting out a different and more progressive model for the imprisonment of women. The report was accepted. Reform was further spurred on by the publication, in 1996, of Justice Arbour’s report into events at the Kingston Prison for Women in 1994.

As a consequence, from 1995, CSC began to set up small institutions for federally-sentenced women, one in each of the five correctional regions; in addition to a Healing Lodge1 . Those institutions were an innovative attempt to put in place the five guiding principles of Creating Choices: empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, a supportive environment and shared responsibility. In 2000, the Kingston Prison for Women was closed.

The units in the new institutions have been designed as far as possible to normalize the experience of women in custody. Within a relatively low secure perimeter fence, women have free movement and small groups share houses in which they can take responsibility for themselves. They offer a radically different environment to that experienced in the majority of men’s prisons, or in women’s prisons elsewhere in Canada and in most other countries.

However, since then, following some security incidents, the model has been amended. External security has been enhanced by raising the perimeter fence. Maximum secure units were built within each facility (except the Healing Lodge) to house women who are deemed too difficult or unsafe to manage in the low secure units. Aboriginal women are over-represented in those units. And, as a positive move, structured living environments (SLEs) were set up to provide multi-disciplinary interventions for particularly needy and mentally disordered women.

Other issues have raised significant concerns within Canada: including the extent to which both security classification and the tools used to assess and provide for women’s offending behaviour needs are sufficiently gender and culturally sensitive; and the support and control role-mix of primary workers (custodial staff).

In March 2001, the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) agreed to undertake a broad review of the treatment of federally sentenced women, following concerns expressed by a number of organisations, particularly about the treatment of incarcerated Aboriginal women and those with cognitive and mental disabilities. The CHRC’s report, published in December 2003, made 19 recommendations for change, including one (Recommendation 19) which called for an independent external redress body for federally sentenced offenders.


The Inspectorate background
The CSC did not accept Recommendation 19 as such; but, as part of its action plan to implement the CHRC’s report, in 2005 it asked the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales to carry out a full inspection of two federal women’s institutions, Nova (in the Atlantic region) and Grand Valley (in Ontario).

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) is an independent statutory body, set up in 1981 to inspect and report on conditions in prisons and the treatment of prisoners. The Chief Inspector is a Crown appointment, and therefore not part of any government department or service; nor can she or he have worked for the Prison Service. Successive Chief Inspectors have established a tradition of robust independence, and a methodology and inspection criteria that rest upon international human rights standards, rather than the current standards or targets of the domestic prison service. They are based upon four tests of a ‘healthy prison’ (a concept first introduced by the World Health Organisation): that prisoners are held in safety, that they are treated with respect for their human dignity, that they are able to engage in purposeful activity, and that they are prepared for resettlement (reintegration). Inspectors assess these areas against detailed criteria, Expectations, which cover all aspects of prison life. Those criteria have been used to inspect prison institutions in other parts of the British Isles and British territories; separate Expectations have been produced for immigration detention facilities and juveniles.

Inspections are carried out by teams of inspectors, appointed by the Chief Inspector, and including specialists in healthcare and substance abuse. Detailed reports are prepared and published, with a list of recommendations for action. While these are not mandatory, the Prison Service in England and Wales must respond with an action plan – and in practice accepts around 95% of recommendations. Inspectors return, without warning, to check whether those recommendations have been implemented; and find that around three-quarters have been implemented, wholly or in part.

The Canadian inspections were carried out by the inspection team that specializes in women’s prisons, assisted by a specialist healthcare inspector. The Chief Inspector, Anne Owers, also took part in the inspections. The team spent a week in each establishment and had access to all documentation, as well as to all staff and inmates. They were also able to have discussions with representatives of the CSC, and with external stakeholders both nationally and locally.

In line with practice in England and Wales, a confidential survey was administered to the women in each institution, seeking their views on all aspects of imprisonment. The results of that survey provided a starting point for inspectors: they also allowed a comparison to be made between the two institutions, and also between them and the extensive survey data available for women imprisoned in England, who are largely held in cellular conditions in closed institutions. Those comparisons are attached and referred to in the reports. They provide lessons for those responsible for women’s imprisonment in England and Wales, as well as Canada2.

There are some important caveats about these inspections. They do not aim to look at the fundamental question of whether, and under what circumstances, women should be incarcerated: in what are inevitably structured and constrained environments, which affect both women and their families. They do not examine the whole area of corrections, including alternatives to custody, or the support that is available to women released from prison: though some aspects of reintegration practice are referred to. Nor do they specifically follow up the CHRC report, which deals in considerable detail with the issues of discrimination and human rights that fall under its remit; in particular these inspections are not a form of external redress, as recommended by the CHRC. They are, simply, independent reports on the treatment and conditions of the women who were in federal custody in those two institutions in September 2005. We are also acutely aware that these inspections do not represent most women offenders’ experience of incarceration in Canada: the great majority are held in provincial institutions.


These reports are a detailed examination of the conditions and treatment for women held in the Nova and Grand Valley Institutions for women in September 2005. We found areas where there was much to commend, and much that could be emulated elsewhere, under each of our four tests of a ‘healthy’ prison – safety, respect, purposeful activity and reintegration. Nevertheless, there were also areas under each test that need to be addressed, in order to support and protect the innovative model that had been developed; and where we make recommendations and put forward action points to secure improvements.

The open setting, and the opportunity for women to take responsibility for important areas of their lives, such as food and clothing, reflected many of the principles of Creating Choices. It is noticeable and laudable that this has, for example, resulted in much lower levels of self-harm and suicide than in the cellular environment of the Kingston Prison for Women, or in prisons in England and Wales. There were over 11,000 incidents of self-harm last year among the 4,500 women in prison in England, and there have been 32 self-inflicted deaths in English women’s prisons over the last three years.

Other aspects of life in the two institutions equally deserve commendation. Women in both institutions were fully occupied, with program work, education or leisure activities. Correctional planning was highly developed and well resourced, and programs tailored to individual need. The structured living environments provided an impressive multi-disciplinary therapeutic environment for a small number of women with particular mental health needs. Women at both Nova and GVI had good individual links with the primary workers who were responsible for reviewing and implementing their plans; as well as with staff from other disciplines. Nearly all the responses in our surveys about activity, program work and sentence planning were significantly higher than those from women’s prisons in England.

These are positive areas, and for many women the inspected institutions provided a relaxed and supportive environment. However, they are nevertheless controlled and closed institutions, holding women, some of whom are poorly socialized, marginalized or mentally disordered. One area which we did not believe had been adequately addressed was the issue of bullying (‘muscling’) or intimidation which could take place on the virtually unsupervised houses. In our surveys, women in both institutions reported significantly higher experience of victimization and assault than in English prisons, and nearly half the women surveyed said that they had felt unsafe at some time. At GVI, a serious assault had taken place just before the inspection, and inspectors were told of other women who had been victimized, for example on racial grounds.

We attributed this to a number of factors. First, there were no effective first night and induction systems for newly-arrived women, to provide initial orientation and support on arrival. Second, violence reduction strategies needed to be strengthened, given the greater opportunity for bullying in an open, as opposed to a cellular, environment. Third, while primary workers engaged with women individually in relation to their correctional plan, there was little or no proactive social engagement with, or support for, women while they were in the living units. There is, of course, a fine balance between supporting women and allowing them to take responsibility. However, Creating Choices envisaged a situation in which staff would

“create an environment where relationships based on role-modelling, support, trust and democratic decision-making can thrive between staff and federally sentenced women.”
This needs to be reinforced, in residential as well as activity settings.

The difficulty of managing challenging, disruptive or high risk women, within an open and relatively unsupervised environment, had also led to the building of maximum secure units. Security classification in the federal Canadian system is a reflection of institutional behaviour, as well as a measure of the seriousness of the offence and the risk of escape. So, the maximum secure units held women who were bullies, who had exhibited problematic behaviour, and some of whom were mentally ill or suicidal. At the time of the inspections, like the federal system overall, they also held a disproportionate number of Aboriginal women3, indeed one in five Aboriginal women in federal custody were held in maximum secure units.

The contrast between these small units and the relaxed and virtually unsupervised houses was extreme. The culture and environment were based on control and constraint, not responsibility. Women were held in cellular accommodation. Though they had a considerable amount of time out of cell, there was limited access to activities and staff; those on the highest security level could only move off the units in leg irons. We were also concerned at the rise in the use of segregation and the extremely restrictive conditions for segregated women, including those in long-term segregation under the national Management Protocol.

We point to some areas for action in relation to some of the practices in the maximum secure units and in segregation. But this does not tackle the fundamental issue of the use of those units and the range of women held there. The CHRC report expresses significant concern as to whether the tools used to assess and reassess security are sufficiently culture and gender sensitive. We are aware that work is continuing to implement those recommendations, and urge that it proceeds swiftly. But we believe that the CSC also needs to develop a greater range of management tools, and culturally appropriate pathways, for dealing with difficult and damaged women in a more appropriate, and less coercive, way.

At the other end of the scale, those women who were classified as minimum security were held in conditions which were little different from those of medium security and, at the time of the inspections, with few opportunities to work outside the institutions or to live in genuinely open conditions.

There are a number of other national issues that arose during these inspections, and which we believe need further attention from CSC, to ensure that other needs, some specific to women, are sufficiently provided for.

First, there is very little formal family support and liaison for federally sentenced women. Though the arrangements for family visits are good, there is no federal financial support to allow those on low, or no, incomes to visit. This is of particular concern at Nova, given the distances and cost involved. Nor are there family support workers to help maintain links between women and their families during imprisonment.

Second, the focus of attention in the federal system has been on assessing and meeting women’s individual criminogenic needs, and developing programs to meet those needs. Much of that work is ground-breaking, and has been copied elsewhere, not least in the UK. Again, however, the CHRC report expressed significant concerns about the diversity and cultural sensitivity of current assessment tools and programs. We are aware that new tools and programs are being evaluated, and we would urge that this is done quickly and in full consultation with experts and stakeholder groups, in the light of the CHRC recommendations. We also note that there had been concerns about the timeliness and quality of parole reports, which were being addressed at the time of the inspections, but which raised questions about the support and training needed for primary workers to carry out this task effectively.

By contrast to the program work, there had been relatively little attention to the employment and skills training needs of women. This has not been a focus of attention within the federal system, and we were told that the requirement that the services provided by Corcan (the main provider of prison work) should be self-financing has had a particularly damaging effect on provision for women, in establishments where the scale of provision is too small to be profitable. Both Nova and GVI had too little provision for women to acquire marketable skills and work experience.

Finally, we were surprised that neither of the individual institutions was able to provide local information about such important issues as parole, composition of the population and, in particular, ethnic monitoring. Detailed statistics were collected, to be passed to national headquarters, but there was no local analysis. Managers therefore lacked the information that they needed to assess and manage the communal environment, as opposed to the correctional plans and needs of individuals.

We also suggest that the CSC consider developing a feedback tool for regularly assessing the experience of women inmates. The Prison Service in England and Wales has developed a qualitative assessment tool, which provides institutions with data on prisoners’ perceptions of various dimensions of prison life. A similar exercise in Canada would, we believe, provide valuable additional information.

This introduction focuses on some of the areas which need particular attention. But this should not obscure the general picture: which is that these institutions represent an innovative and responsive approach to the imprisonment of women, which seeks to minimize damage and maximize responsibility and positive change. It is an approach from which many other countries, notably the United Kingdom, could learn a great deal.

The recommendations and action points in these reports are designed to support and reinforce that model, and to prevent the slippage from responsibility to control which is the default setting for any custodial environment. The recent decision that custodial officers should revert to wearing uniform appears to exemplify this drift. It is also important continually to bear in mind that imprisonment is necessarily coercive and disruptive. The inherent danger of providing a better model for doing it is that it will become a more attractive option for sentencers. That is a paradox that we in the Prisons Inspectorate are continually aware of, and which needs to be guarded against.

As already stated, this inspection process is not, and should not be regarded as, meeting the requirements of the CHRC’s Recommendation 19. Our model of inspection has been developed within England and Wales, though it is based on international standards and criteria. An independent monitoring mechanism for places of detention is mandated in the new UN Protocol on Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Torture, which will come into effect in 2006, and which Canada is likely to sign. We suggest that because of this, and the CHRC recommendation, there should be a thorough examination, with existing bodies and stakeholders, of the monitoring mechanisms that now exist, and the extent to which they need to be supplemented or strengthened to provide regular independent monitoring and inspection.

It is a measure of its transparency, and its desire for continued improvement and best practice, that the CSC was brave enough to expose its institutions to external and independent inspection, with no limitations and with unhindered access to institutions, documents and inmates. We are very grateful to the Wardens and staff of the two institutions inspected, and to the Deputy Commissioner for Women and her staff, for their help and support for our task. We are equally grateful to all the stakeholder groups and organisations who met and talked to us. We are particularly grateful to the women at Nova and GVI, who shared their experiences with us, and whose conditions and treatment are at the heart of these reports.


1. There should be specific first night and orientation support, initially in separate accommodation, so that newly arrived women have access to objective and full information about the institutions and are prepared to move on to the houses.

2. The role of primary workers should be reviewed and reinforced, with a view to ensuring that properly trained staff have sufficient skills and time to carry out both the role of supportive role-models envisaged in Creating Choices, and the task of providing timely and high-quality parole reports.

3. Each institution should have a local anti-muscling policy and strategy to identify and prevent intimidation and assaults. It should include interventions for bullies and support for victims. Staff should receive training in this so that they are vigilant in identifying bullies and actively intervene to challenge them. The policy should be publicized and promoted to women inmates.

4. Implementation of the CHRC recommendations in relation to gender and culturally specific classification and assessment tools and programs should proceed swiftly, informed by expert advice. In particular, tools and interventions that recognize the specific needs of Aboriginal women should be developed as a matter of urgency, and pathways to the Healing Lodge and out of maximum secure accommodation developed.
5. Race and ethnic monitoring of all key areas of prison life within each institution should be established. This should include access to programs and facilities, and all disciplinary measures and classification decisions. Results should be published and any disproportionate patterns investigated.
6. There should be a comprehensive review of the management of difficult or disruptive women, with a view to ensuring that

the number of women in maximum security units is reduced, and the criteria for allocating women to those units reviewed to ensure that they are used only for women whose behaviour poses exceptional risks to others, and when other, less restrictive, interventions have failed;

a multi-disciplinary strategy, including mental health support, is devised to provide individual support and case management of women who require additional supervision and intervention outside maximum security conditions;

an expert Advisory Committee is set up to receive and comment on reports on the use of, and conditions for women in, maximum secure and segregation units, including those held under the Management Protocol.

7. Minimum security women should have the opportunity to have increased access to the community.

8. Leg irons should not be used on women inmates.

9. The Correctional Service of Canada, together with CORCAN, should draw up a strategy for education and skills training and employment for federally sentenced women, with a view to enhancing employability. Such training should form part of correctional plans.

10. More efforts should be made to encourage and support family ties. A social worker should be appointed in each institution to act as a family liaison/link worker to support and promote the maintenance of family ties and help with child custody matters. Financial support should be provided to help families on low incomes visit women in CSC institutions.

11. The CSC should consult with stakeholders to examine the monitoring mechanisms that currently exist, to determine whether and how they need to be strengthened to provide a national preventive mechanism, as set out in the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.