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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Nova 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 arrived at the institution in handcuffs and leg irons which was unnecessary and degrading. In our survey, only 56% of respondents said they had been treated well or very well on admission. The procedure was process-driven and hurried, and did not pay sufficient attention to reassuring new arrivals and dealing with their practical needs - including providing some food and a drink. Women were required to strip fully for a search. The lack of a dedicated first night location and specific first night care meant that new arrivals were dependent on other women for support, which could not be relied upon. Orientation procedures were inadequate. New arrivals needed a better environment and on-site support by staff to help them settle in and move on to the next stage

1.2 Although not under the jurisdiction of the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) all women, irrespective of their security risk, were transported in handcuffs and leg irons for the duration of their journey to Nova. We observed the arrival of two women who had travelled from St John's. They told us that the journey had taken almost five hours and they had travelled in handcuffs and leg irons throughout. They were offered a toilet stop en route in a public place. Despite wishing to use it, one woman chose not to, rather than endure the humiliation of walking in leg irons to use a public toilet.

1.3 The women disembarked the van wearing their handcuffs and leg irons in full public view, as Nova was in a residential area. The routine use of such extreme security measures, without a risk assessment, when transporting women, was inappropriate.

1.4 The sending provincial prison passed most information about new receptions to Nova electronically a few days before their arrival. This meant that staff at Nova had a comprehensive picture of the new arrival before she arrived, and could highlight and discuss with her as soon as she arrived such issues as incompatibles4 from an informed position.

1.5 On arrival, women were taken into a small interview room where their handcuffs and leg irons were removed. The security intelligence officer (SIO), or the reintegration operations supervisor if the SIO was not on duty, met all new arrivals briefly to check their warrants and carry out an initial drug test, which involved taking a swab reading from clothing. We observed this initial procedure, which was conducted in a friendly and reassuring manner. The women were then seen privately and given a brief outline of the reception procedures that were to follow. They were also invited to ask questions, and in one case incompatibles already identified were discussed and the woman was given reassurance about how she would be protected.

1.6 The women were not offered anything to eat or drink when they arrived, despite having just completed a five-hour journey. The woman who had declined to use the public toilets en route while shackled asked if she could use the toilet urgently. She was told that she would need to be strip-searched before this was allowed, and then waited a further 40 minutes. She was clearly in considerable discomfort.

1.7 An admissions and discharge officer carried out the formal reception procedures in a small office. This was littered with large property boxes that needed to be shifted constantly to allow any movement in the cramped space. Due to staffing shortages this officer was frequently redeployed to other parts of the institution, depriving her of time to deal with property boxes as they arrived.

1.8 At the back of the reception office a small room (also littered with property boxes) with a toilet and a shower was used for strip-searches. This area was not fit for purpose. Women were required to take off all of their clothes at once rather than in stages, which would have enabled them to retain some dignity. In our survey, 66% of respondents said they were searched in a sensitive and understanding way. This was significantly worse than the comparison with Grand Valley Institution for Women ( GVIW) where 82% of respondents said they had been searched sensitively and in an understanding way. At GVIW, women were searched in two separate stages, for the upper and lower parts of their body.

1.9 New arrivals were not permitted to use the shower and the two new arrivals we spoke to had not had time to shower before they had left their previous institution. There was an expectation that new arrivals would be able to shower when they were taken to their house unit. However, in our survey only 66% said that they had the opportunity to have a shower on the day of their arrival. While this was significantly better than the English comparator of 38% (where women often arrived in the evening), it pointed to a need to offer opportunities to shower in reception.

1.10 Following the strip-search, a personal history was taken, along with fingerprints and photographs. Thereafter, there was a considerable amount of documentation to be completed and signed. Some of the documentation was complex and important - such as the conditions and liabilities relating to personal property. But the women were not given time to read the contents before they were asked to sign them, despite being told it was important that they understand it. Neither was it part of the process to check that new arrivals were competent readers of English.

1.11 New arrivals were usually issued with an inmate handbook that set out in great detail everything about the way the institution operated. On the day that we observed the reception procedure the supply of handbooks had run out. Nevertheless, the new arrival was asked to sign that she had received one, and agree to pay a $2 fine should she lose it.

1.12 Personal property was stored in a room that was little more than a large cupboard and not adequate for the amount of property boxes that needed to be stored. Consequently, there was usually an overflow in the office, as described above. New arrivals were given information in reception about the rules relating to personal property parcels. Although the inmate handbook said that property would be distributed within 10 working days of the items being received by the institution, we were told that it was not always possible to operate within these timescales.

1.13 The admissions and discharge officer informed new arrivals about their entitlement to letters, telephone calls and visits, including a free 10-minute telephone call that day. In our survey, 67% said that they had been given the opportunity to make a free telephone call, which was significantly better than the English comparator of 49%. Thereafter they needed to complete a form to access a personal identification number (PIN) and submit the telephone numbers they wished to use for approval (see paragraph 3.52). The new arrival we observed asked the officer if she could make two five-minute telephone calls instead of a 10-minute call because she wanted to speak to her children and also her husband, but she was refused.

1.14 New arrivals were offered an immediate loan of $18 to purchase what they wanted from the canteen, and they were usually given access to the canteen on their first day. However, this was not enough to last for the period it had to cover. (See section on canteen.) In our survey, 84% said that they had access to the canteen within their first 24 hours of arrival, which was significantly better than the comparator of 17% in England.

1.15 The admissions and discharge officer completed a suicide risk assessment and referral as part of the reception procedures. The assessment was based on 10 questions, which needed to be addressed with sensitivity. We observed this assessment being completed poorly. The environment was not conducive and the process was rushed and insensitive.

1.16 If the assessment indicated a risk of suicide the new arrival was required to sign a behaviour contract there and then which stated: 'I agree not to harm myself before talking to a psychologist or, in the absence of a psychologist, to another member of staff.' If she agreed to sign, the compact went on to say: 'the psychologist will see the inmate at his earliest convenience'. If the woman refused to sign and the level of risk was considered high the psychologist was contacted immediately and the new arrival was placed in an observation cell in the segregation unit until she could be seen. If they arrived late on Friday new arrivals at risk of suicide always spent the weekend in the segregation unit.

1.17 Before leaving reception new arrivals were offered sealed packs of clothing in sets of sizes - small, medium, large or extra large - which did not take account of the need for mixed sizes. They were also given hygiene packs with essential items and a bedding pack.

1.18 Following the initial reception process, all new arrivals went straight to healthcare for an initial health screening with the nurse.

1.19 The reception procedure did not reassure new arrivals or attempt to allay their anxieties. In our survey, 84% of respondents said that they had problems when they first arrived. Only 29% said that they received any help or support from staff in dealing with these problems within the first 24 hours. In our survey, 74% of respondents said that they had children under the age of 18, but they were not asked if they had particular anxieties or concerns about their children.

  First night
1.20 On completion of the reception process, including the initial healthcare screening, new arrivals were taken to the house unit to which they had been allocated. The process of allocation was generally carried out by the residential officers' supervisor (ROS) who considered incompatibles and if necessary carried out a threat risk assessment. Any new arrivals who had been assessed as at risk of suicide or self-harm or as vulnerable were usually placed in the segregation unit, as this was the only location with staff supervision. The plan to place new arrivals on what was intended to be the reception house was not always viable because of incompatibles and limitations due to the increase in the population.

1.21 For new arrivals located on house units there was no staff supervision and no routine first night procedures to ensure that they felt safe or had sufficient information to know what would happen to them in the next 24 hours. The inmate handbook did not serve this particular purpose. In our survey, less than half said that they received any information about what was going to happen to them on the day of their arrival.

1.22 Although staff took new arrivals to their first night location, thereafter they generally left them to organize themselves. The previous occupant was expected to leave the room clean and tidy for the next resident, but this was not always the case. Staff told us that new arrivals preferred to clean their own rooms, but the first impressions were not very welcoming.

1.23 Other women were expected to help new arrivals settle in. But there was no organized peer support or buddy scheme, and the support that other women were prepared to offer varied and could not be relied upon. In our survey, only 9% said that they had access to a Listener/Samaritans/peer supporter within their first 24 hours.

1.24 Women on the house unit were also expected to provide a meal for new arrivals but this did not always happen. Only 63% in our survey said they got something to eat on their first day, significantly worse than the English comparator of 90%. We spoke to one of the new arrivals on her second day and she had not had a meal at all on her first day - she was not offered food by other women on her house and had not had time for breakfast before leaving the provincial institution. The first food she had was a chocolate bar, 24 hours after her arrival.

1.25 There were six orientation modules, which were delivered by the primary workers. Key departments, such as finance, healthcare and parole, also gave sessions. The modules were set out in the inmate handbook and new arrivals were told that they should familiarize themselves with them in advance of the orientation sessions with their primary worker. The primary workers had two weeks in which to ensure that all the modules were completed. This often meant that new arrivals were not given any information, other than that in the inmate handbook, during their first few days, and sometimes first week, in custody. In our survey, only 30% of respondents said that they had been on orientation in their first week, which was significantly worse than the English comparator of 67%. One respondent commented: 'Orientation was completed over a month time frame. Not all information was covered in a time frame that allowed me to get my necessary things done.' Many women said that, in the absence of advice from staff, they asked other women what they should be doing.

1.26 The modules had much useful information about the institution, its rules and procedures, including how to make requests and complaints, which offered some reassurance through familiarization. However, there was insufficient emphasis on ensuring that new arrivals were given the practical help and emotional support they needed to cope with their first few days in custody. In our survey, only 25% of respondents said that orientation covered everything they needed to know about the institution, which was significantly worse than the English comparator of 50%.

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

1.28 There should be a proper cubicle for strip-searching, and women should not be asked to remove all of their clothing at one time during searching.

1.29 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.

1.30 Women at risk of self-harm when they arrive should not be held in the segregation unit.

1.31 There should be adequate time for new arrivals to read and understand all documentation they are required to sign.

1.32 Discretion should be used to allow new arrivals to make more than one telephone call to their family.

1.33 A trained person should complete the suicide risk assessment and referral form in a suitable environment and at a pace appropriate for this sensitive work.

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

1.35 Women should be given essential information immediately to help them cope on their first night and the first few days in custody.

1.36 A peer support scheme should be developed.

1.37 Orientation should begin on the first full working day following reception.

  Housekeeping points
1.38 The reception area should be kept clean and tidy at all times

1.39 Property boxes should be stored correctly and dispatched to women within the specified timescales.

1.40 There should be an adequate stock of inmate handbooks at all times.

1.41 Rooms should be prepared so that they are clean and tidy for new arrivals.