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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Pain is often the precursor to change. This was very much the case for the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women, whose vision for change is built primarily on descriptions and experiences of suffering. Task Force members listened as federally sentenced women spoke of their pain outside and within the criminal justice system. We heard about the distress experienced by the families and friends of the women. And we thought often of the harm suffered by the victims of crimes.

Each of us, the women and men who participated on this Task Force, was affected by this pain. We added to it our own frustration at the enormity of the task before us. Our mandate was to examine the correctional management of federally sentenced women from the commencement of sentence to the date of warrant expiry and to develop a plan which will guide and direct the process in a manner that is responsive to the unique and special needs of this group. But we began our work with the daunting knowledge that although the needs and situation of federally sentenced women had been studied on numerous occasions in the past, the problems experienced by these women, their victims and those who have tried to help them remained the same. How could we reduce the pain?

It was federally sentenced women themselves who gave us the energy and determination to create a new vision; a vision based on choices. It was these women, who, despite the pain of their present circumstances, despite their negative experiences with task forces and research, and despite their feelings of powerlessness and distrust, offered their ideas and their hope to the Task Force.

It was also federally sentenced women who gave us the courage to look at their needs in new ways... ways which value cooperation and the wisdom gained through women's experiences. The Task Force was built on a strong commitment to partnership, and centered on the belief that together we could find solutions. It was co-chaired by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Correctional Service of Canada. A wide variety of community and government interests were brought together to form a Steering Committee and Working Group. Aboriginal women, despite their reservations about the mandate and organization of the Task Force, agreed to participate because of a "deep felt concern for the many citizens of our many Nations who suffer daily at the hands of the criminal justice system."1

The Task Force developed a women-centered approach. It encouraged the empowerment of women throughout its work, and gained much insight because it valued the experiences of women. Accordingly, most Task Force members were women. All of the researchers were women. And, interviews and consultations held with most federally sentenced women in prison and with a large number on community release were an essential part of our work.

The process itself was often painful. Throughout the Task Force, we struggled hard to work within a consensus model. This process taught us that only if people are treated with respect, only when they are empowered, can they take responsibility for their actions and make meaningful choices. We carried this insight forward to our work and to our vision for change. In the end, we understood the importance of choices in the lives of federally sentenced women and in the lives of all of us.

The recommended plan contained in this Report must be seen within the context of a long-term goal where incarceration will not be the intervention of choice, where harm done to victims, to federally sentenced women, to communities and to society will be repaired to the highest extent possible, and where Aboriginal people will have self-determination in their pursuit of justice.

The long term goal is preventive. By reducing inequities which limit choice, by preventing violence which breeds violence, our long-term goal will reduce the pain which contributes to behaviour which harms others. By encouraging preventive strategies which create meaningful choices for federally sentenced women, we will help reduce crime and increase choices for all Canadians. In the process, our society will become a safer and more secure place.

Our recommended plan must be seen as only a beginning to a much longer process of change in our justice system, and in society as a whole. This process has begun. Over the past decade, and particularly in the last year, our justice system has undergone careful scrutiny to ensure that it reflects the values and realities of our time. Through a massive review of our Criminal Code, through the Marshall Inquiry, the Manitoba Native Justice Inquiry, through recent efforts by women to access their right to equality through the Charter and the Human Rights Commission, and through demands by Aboriginal people for self-determination, Canadians have challenged the justice system and have often found it lagging behind a strong societal will for equality, fairness and wider social justice.

This mood of reform has been strongly avowed by Ole Ingstrup, Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada. Through his leadership, the entire Mission - the principles on which the Correctional Service of Canada is based - stresses shared responsibility, reintegration into the community, equality, humane treatment, and respect. And one of the objectives of the new Mission is to ensure that the needs of federally sentenced women are met. As the former Solicitor General of Canada, Pierre Blais, asserted, "We must start working right now on long-term solutions to the problems of federally sentenced women".2

It is through our shared commitment to reduce the pain and to provide a full range of choices to federally sentenced women, that the Task Force members present our recommendation to close the Prison for Women once and for an, and to bring federally sentenced women closer to their communities.

We have taken the first step toward an essential process of change. We now invite you to grow through the pain and to join the process to help make our shared vision a reality.