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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Nova Institution for Women

Section 2: Environment and relationship

Residential units
Expected outcomes:
Inmates live in a safe, clean and decent environment within which they are encouraged to take personal responsibility for themselves and their possessions.

2.1 Women lived together in good quality accommodation with good access to the open air, and with responsibility for their day-to-day living. They had unrestricted access to private baths, showers and toilets. Laundry and cleaning facilities were readily available. A reception clothing pack was issued, but the choice of sizes was restricted. A set of clothing was provided for women due to be released.

  Accommodation and facilities
2.2 Most women lived in cottage-style accommodation in an open environment. Four houses designated for medium-security women were sited around a central garden and were the nearest to the main administration building. A row of a further four houses beyond these was originally allocated to minimum-security women but at the time of our inspection one was designated the intensive support unit and another was for medium-security women. The SLE was next to the minimum-security houses.

2.3 Each house held a maximum of seven women, and the SLE could house up to eight. All medium-security houses were of a similar design, with a communal living area, dining room, kitchen, laundry and storage room, two single bedrooms and a bathroom/separate toilet downstairs, and an additional five single bedrooms and bathroom/separate toilet upstairs. The minimum-security houses were also based on a similar design, with a communal living area, dining room, kitchen and laundry and one single bedroom and bathroom/separate toilet downstairs and six single bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Each house also had a decked sitting area at the front. The SLE had full facilities for up to four women on each side of the unit.

2.4 The living accommodation was well designed, well furnished, light and airy. All houses were well maintained and clean, which was a credit to the residents. Each house was generally in a good state of repair, particularly the minimum-security houses and the more recently constructed SLE.

2.5 All the women had keys to their house and their room. They had open access to the kitchen and laundry facilities as well as private use of bathrooms and toilets. Observation panels were covered by shams (curtains) when women needed some privacy to change. There were televisions in the communal areas of each house, and women could also have their own television in their rooms.

2.6 There was a telephone for external calls on each house unit and one on each side of the SLE. Telephones were in communal areas and could be used at all times of the day but it was difficult to make calls in private, particularly in the minimum-security houses. Private telephone calls could be taken in a separate room on each side of the SLE. There was also an internal emergency telephone on each house, with emergency call buttons in each bedroom on the SLE. Only 51% of survey respondents said that emergency calls were responded to within five minutes, and during our visit we were given examples of when emergency response had been slow.

2.7 In our survey, 73% of respondents said that it was normally quiet enough for them to relax and sleep at night. However, the terraced design of the minimum-security houses and their interconnecting doors meant that sound travelled between them.

2.8 Inmate committee meetings were held bi-monthly. Although action points were assigned to individual attendees, previous action points were not always followed up at the next meeting.

  Hygiene, clothing and possessions
2.9 Women had free access to private baths and showers, and cleaning materials.

2.10 Everyone was given a toiletries pack on admission. Hygiene items could be replaced free from stores, generally once a month, though sanitary products were issued as required, and the stores were open four times a week for this purpose. In addition, women received $4 every two weeks, which could be supplemented by personal cash, to buy toiletries from the canteen, and a limited number of items could also be purchased through outside shopping.

2.11 There were good quality mattresses for residents of the SLE and those serving life sentences. Mattresses for others showed signs of staining. All women were given institutional bedding, which they were responsible for laundering. All the houses had blinds.

2.12 Women wore their own clothes, although institution clothing was also available if needed. New clothing could be ordered from outside shops. All women were given an initial clothing pack until their own clothes had been recorded. However, all items of reception clothing, tops and bottoms, were provided in the same size. Although this could be replaced at stores within a couple of days of arrival, some women had to wear inappropriately sized clothing until then.

2.13 Family or friends could send in additional clothing and possessions to the institution within 30 days of arrival. The admissions and discharge officer had the task of processing possessions within 10 days of receipt in the presence of the woman. The woman chose the items she wished to hold in-possession, and all other items had to be stored or sent out of the institution. All women, including lifers, had one storage box held on their behalf in admissions and discharge. The size of the population had outgrown the admissions and discharge facilities.

2.14 Women could exchange clothing only twice a year, in May and October. This did not give them enough opportunity to exchange items throughout the year and did not adhere to standing order 090, which suggested that seasonal exchange of clothing should occur three times a year. Only 32% of survey respondents said they were able to get to their stored property if they wanted to.

2.15 Women could use laundry and ironing facilities on their houses, and laundry powder was provided. Alternatives could be purchased through the canteen. The allocation of laundry detergent had increased from once every three weeks to fortnightly following a request from the inmate committee.

2.16 All women could order a set of clothes for discharge through outside shopping, funded by the institution (see paragraphs 8.8 and 8.16).

  Action points
2.17 Telephones on the minimum-security houses should be in booths or fitted with privacy hoods.

2.18 Managers should ensure that emergency calls are responded to quickly.

2.19 Reception clothing should be provided in appropriate sizes.

2.20 Women should be able to exchange their clothes at least four times a year.

2.21 Mattresses should be regularly checked, cleaned and disposed of where necessary.

  Good practice
2.22 The housing for minimum- and medium-security women and the relatively free movement within the boundaries of the institution provided a relatively normal living environment and allowed women to exercise some control over their day-to-day lives.

2.23 Women due to be discharged were provided with free release clothing, which was particularly beneficial to those with no private savings and/or who had been in the institution for some time. This allowed women to maintain some dignity and relieved them of one financial burden immediately following their release.

Staff-inmate relationships
Expected outcomes:
Inmates are treated respectfully by staff, throughout the duration of their custodial sentence, and are encouraged to take responsibility for their own actions and decisions. Healthy prisons should demonstrate a well-ordered environment in which the requirements of 'security', 'control' and 'justice' are balanced and in which all members of the prison community are safe and treated with fairness.

2.24 Relationships between staff and inmates were generally positive and respectful. There was relatively little informal engagement between staff and women inmates and limited opportunity outside scheduled activity time for staff to model pro-social behaviour. We questioned the recent decision that primary workers should wear uniform and how it fitted with the principles of Creating Choices .

2.25 Relationships between staff and women were generally positive. Nova is a relatively small institution and it was evident that women and staff knew each other well. Some women were concerned that in such a small community everything was known about them.

2.26 There were only a few primary workers on duty each day and their assigned tasks meant that they had little time to spend with women informally. Patrols of houses were conducted quickly in pairs and staff did not take the opportunity to engage with women. Officers always announced themselves on the house as they entered. Interactions were relaxed and respectful but primary workers tended to be reactive rather than active, unless they had a specific task with one of the women they were assigned to. Engagement with women from other staff, such as parole officers and teachers, was also respectful, and it was noticeable that managers were very accessible to all the women and knew them well. No parts of the institution were off-limits to inmates, which helped to engender a culture of mutual respect. The use of first names was standard practice.

2.27 In our survey, 73% of respondents said that most staff treated them with respect, which was similar to women's prisons in England, and 77% said there was a member of staff they could turn to for help if they had a problem. Women told us that some staff were inconsistent in their treatment and, inevitably, some were more helpful and approachable than others. Some believed that officers were not involved enough with them and that there was too much reliance on women 'self-policing' in the houses.

2.28 The principles of Creating Choices - empowerment, choice, respect, dignity, and responsibility - were very much in line with our expectation that women should be supported to take responsibility for their actions and decisions, and that was the philosophy that underpinned relationships at Nova. Creating Choices also envisaged that staff should create an environment where relationships based on role modelling, support, trust and democratic decision making could thrive between staff and federally sentenced women. However, the lack of staff presence in residential areas reduced opportunities for staff to model pro-social behaviour and made it difficult to ensure women's safety in house units.

2.29 Not long before the inspection, and after many years of wearing their own clothes, primary workers had begun to wear uniform. The impact of wearing a militaristic-style uniform on relationships needed to be examined carefully as it was unlikely to be positive. Creating Choices noted that research indicated that women did not react well to the authoritarianism of uniforms, although we were told that current opinion was that the impact of wearing a uniform was neutral. It was difficult to see why a decision had been made that appeared contrary to the Creating Choices model.

  Action points
2.30 Primary workers should be encouraged to take longer on their house patrols and to spend time interacting with women inmates.

2.31 The impact of staff wearing uniforms on relationships between inmates and staff should be evaluated, taking full account of the specific perspective of women and the principles of Creating Choices.

Primary workers
Expected outcomes:
Inmates' relationships with their primary workers are based on mutual respect, high expectations and support.

2.32 Primary workers were able to fulfil most of their responsibilities but there were occasional difficulties of access because of shift work and other commitments. Most women found their primary workers helpful, and reports were completed to a good standard, but there was little involvement with families.

2.33 Primary workers were assigned to each woman, with each primary worker usually responsible for two women. Women were informed in writing of the names of their primary worker and parole officer shortly after their arrival and usually during the admissions process also. The relationship was very important as primary workers were responsible for completing progress reports on the correctional plan, recommendations about pay, and assessments on matters such as parole and temporary absences. They also ensured that the orientation modules were completed within 10 days of arrival.

2.34 Primary workers received the standard 11-week correctional officers' program, as well as two-week parole officer training, 10-day women-centred training, and training in the offender management computer system. The women-centred training aimed to make staff aware of issues such as sexism, racism, disability, sexual orientation, physical and sexual abuse, self-injurious suicidal behaviour, addictions, mental health and Aboriginal traditions and spirituality. It also contained modules on wellness and maintaining boundaries. The parole officer training included completing assessments and reports but it was questionable whether primary workers were fully trained to match the standards that would be required of parole officers in male prisons.

2.35 In our survey, respondents were positive about the role of the primary workers. Forty-six per cent said they had met their primary workers in the first week, against an English comparator of 25% and only 23% at GVIW. Sixty-three per cent said they found their primary worker helpful or very helpful, which was very similar to GVIW but much higher than the 37% response from English women's prisons.

2.36 Because of shift work, leave and other commitments it was sometimes difficult for primary workers to have much face-to-face contact with the women for whom they were responsible. However, their required 30-day structured casework records reporting on progress on the correctional plan, use of time, attitude and other matters were all up to date. Those we sampled were completed thoroughly with good quality contributions that demonstrated good knowledge of their inmates. Although there were references to family issues in some of the records there was little indication that primary workers had direct contact with families. Contributions to other reports were also of a good standard.

  Action point
2.37 Primary workers should make direct contact with families in appropriate cases to encourage the maintenance of family ties to support successful reintegration.