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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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"We have often said that the women inside have the understanding to help themselves, that all that is required is the right kind of resources, support and help. The money spent on studies would be much better spent on family visits, on culturally appropriate help, on reducing our powerlessness to heal ourselves. But the reality is that prison conditions grow worse. We cry out for a meaningful healing process that will have real impact on our lives, but the objectives and implementation of this healing process must be premised on our need, the need to heal and walk in balance." (L. Fox and F. Sugar) 3

These words and those of all the other federally sentenced women who spoke to us in person or through their letters, provided Task Force members with a balance and a touchstone. Whenever we were tempted to put our words and ideas before those of the women living through a federal sentence, their voices focused us on the meaning of our actions and the urgent need for caring.

The powerful presence and contributions of Lana Fox and Fran Sugar, two women who have lived through a federal sentence and who agreed to be part of the Task Force Steering Committee, provided a constant reminder of the suffering and strength of women serving federal sentences.

These reminders were amplified in a powerful way by the suicides of two federally sentenced women during the life of the Task Force. The deaths of Sandy Sayer and Pat Bear shocked and deeply affected all of us who want justice, equity and fairness for federally sentenced women.

The experiences and words of the women, their lives and their deaths unified all of us who worked on the Task Force - unified us around the pledge "to speak the truth and to let the truth be heard".4

In gratitude for the wisdom and balance these women gave us, the Task Force members dedicate this report to all federally sentenced women. Their words, their pain, their strength and their hopes have guided our work, our vision and our recommendations. Their words provide the foundation for all the words that follow.


Prison is "trying to survive the pain."

"Prison is frustration and anger so intense that cutting into the arteries of my own arm only alleviates some of the pain." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"Serving long-term time in a provincial institution, though better than being away from my family, was very difficult for me. It was hard on my morale to watch short-term women come and go and to wonder when it would be my turn." (Parolee from the Prairies)

"One of the best programs here is the sexual abuse therapist, but there is a long waiting list. I don't know if my pain can wait." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"If my little brother had died in a big city in Ontario rather than on a reserve in Saskatchewan I know I would have been allowed to go to his funeral." (Aboriginal Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"Prison is being naked emotionally for the first time in your memory, with nowhere to hide... I build walls around my feelings and barricade my heart as best I can. I count my months, my days, until canteen, until lock-up, until release. I feel anxiety and deep depression sometimes when I look at the calender. The world is farther away with every season. My survival here is all I have." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

Prison is "being 2000 miles from home."

"There is nothing harder than facing kids that don't know you. Doing time is easy compared to that." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"We have to pay for calls home or else call collect. My family can't afford it." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"We need a chance to earn the trust of our children. Distance and money are big barriers to achieving that." (Aboriginal Prisoner, Prison for Women)

"I couldn't believe that I was being sent so far away from home. I'd never even been away from (name of Maritime province)* in my life before." (Maritime Parolee)

"I only stayed there (at a provincial institution)* because family ties were important to me. But there were no programs for someone serving a long term. I don't think I should have been forced to choose between a prison life and my life outside." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"When I went to prison I lost everything I ever had, not just the material things, but all the relationships I ever had in my life." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"Closer to home is closer to out." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"Even for me from the south of Saskatchewan, it is too far for my kids to come see me. For women in jail one of the things that keeps us going is that our kids are waiting for us to come home." (Aboriginal Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

"Last year I saw my mother for the first time in six years and I found her old, frail, almost a stranger. It is very wrong, cruel and inhumane that we should be so separated from our families. We desperately need facilities in our home provinces." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

Prison is "having no chance for real work."

"In here I've been a clerk for five years now. It's the lowest job I've ever held in my life. I've lost so many skills in here. I used to work for a Vice-President. We need a lot of things such as updated computers and word processors." (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

"I think I should have a chance to work my way out - only there is no real work here." (Member - Inmate Committee at Prison for Women)

"We need community involvement to stay healthy. I've been a volunteer all my life... Why can't we go out more? It would benefit us and others at the same time." (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

"The current beauty parlour and woodworking courses are proving useless for gaining employment on release. We need programs and cottage industries to help women become self-supporting in here and when we get out." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"There are lots of intelligent women in here but no space to grow... What I mean is, the security and structure of this place works against good programming." (Aboriginal Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"One of the biggest work programs here is the laundry , but you don't even get to operate the machines the program staff do that part." (Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

Prison is "having no identity and no voice."

"If you make a single mistake, your reputation is ruined. If you lose control once, you're finished for the rest of your sentence... It's natural for women serving 25 years to be mad, frustrated. They should be more understanding instead of treating everything like a major offense They only make the situation worse." (Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

"If I left here to go back home (to an institution in my home province) I think I would lose everything - my privacy, my possessions, the right to wear my own clothes and the chance to have close relationships." (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

"You come in here as an adult and you leave as a child." (Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

"I want to know why it is that people such as myself, who in the outside world were perfectly acceptable people, thinking people, had gained respect, and were listened to... why is it that the material I have presented (to prison officials)* is not taken as truth? Why should my words be censored/destroyed?" (Prisoner in a Federal Institution)

"Why have I witnessed over 100 slashings... wiped up pints of blood from floors and walls and carried blood soaked mattresses outside to the garbage... held women in my arms as they bled... and as they cried... why? Why do you still ONLY accept the word of security 'people'?" (Prisoner in a Federal Institution)

"My mother was going to bring my kids to visit me. A couple of days before they arrived they told me I was going to Prison for Women. They never tell you ahead of time if you're going to move, because you might make a fuss." (Aboriginal Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"The grievance procedure here is so backlogged. It takes months to even get a letter telling you about the backlog, let alone an answer to your grievance." (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

Prison is "living with labels and the violence of racism."

"It is racism, past in our memories and present in our surroundings that negates nonnative attempts to reconstruct our lives. Existing programs cannot reach us, cannot surmount the barriers of mistrust that racism has built. Physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists are typically White and male. How can we be healed by those who symbolize the worst experiences of our past?" (Aboriginal Parolee, Member of the Task Force Steering Committee and Member of the Aboriginal Women's Caucus)

"Before trial, after our arrest, we need support. Most of us were raised in residential places like prisons and the judges convict us for that. I believe we are victims being victimized. We get federal sentences for running away from jail and yet that's all we've ever done is run away from institutions." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"The critical difference is racism. We are born to it and spend our lives facing it. Racism lies at the root of our life experiences. The effect is violence, violence against us, and in turn our own violence. The solution is healing: healing through traditional ceremonies, support, understanding and the compassion that will empower Aboriginal women to the betterment of ourselves, our families and our communities." (Aboriginal Parolee, Member of the Task Force Steering Committee and Member of the Aboriginal Women's Caucus)


Listen to us... 'There have to be choices and opportunities if we are going to take responsibility for our lives."

"Why can't there be a day-care centre at Prison for Women?" (Aboriginal Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"We need to provide child care and parenting classes to all mothers in prison. You are virtually crippled on release in terms of caring for your children." (Aboriginal Parolee, Member of Task Force Steering Committee, and Aboriginal Women's Caucus)

"I think I'm seen as bad because I don't want to see the psychiatrist. I resent having my private life dug into... there is no Native help available." (Aboriginal Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

"Because of the Native Sisterhood I finally knew the meaning of spirituality. I learned how to pray in a sweat and with sweetgrass. I learned the meaning of the Eagle feather and colours. With that I was even more proud of who I was in my identity." (Aboriginal Ex Prisoner)

"If your family is coming to visit, you should be allowed to see them no matter what." (Member inmate Committee at Prison for Women)

"After 4 p.m. if we want a snack, there's only loaves of bread and peanut butter. If you sneak food you are charged. Why can't we have healthy food choices?" (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

"Involuntary transfers from provincial institutions to the Prison for Women must stop. Native women are particularly subject to this discriminatory practice." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"Prison offered me nothing! The Sisterhood offered me everything, but the Parole Board didn't understand what the Sisterhood had meant to me." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"We should have the same opportunities as men. Why can't we be nearer to our people and still have the programs we need too?" (Aboriginal Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"If I hadn't been able to come to this halfway house I would have been lost. What about women who don't have anyone or anywhere to come out to? I guess they just don't get out." (Parolee from Maritimes)

"An exercise in frustration and futility... Women (Task Force members) with good hearts and well meaning attitudes came to visit with us this morning. We wanted to talk about improving this institution. They wanted to talk about building more prisons. We should all be talking about the abolition of prisons!" (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

Listen to us... 'We need some support to take responsibility for building a new life."

"Native women must help other Native women. You have not lived the life so you cannot say you understand." (Aboriginal Parolee, Member of Aboriginal Women's Caucus

"I think the best way to help is pre-release planning. We need grants and jobs and housing. We need a gradual taste of what it is like to be back on the street. We need prerelease planning for Natives." (Aboriginal Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"I need a support system badly. I'm not prepared for the streets." (Aboriginal Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

"I never get to see my C.O. (Classification Officer/Case Management Officer)*. She's always too busy. I think the C.O.'s should come to us when we need them, not the other way around." (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

"Survivors of abuse all need understanding, we need love too. I think love makes us responsible. As long as one person believes in us, we have hope. If we are isolated in the prison system from C.O.'s (Classification Officers/Case Management Officers)* which most Indian women are, then for sure we need that community support." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"Couldn't the government pay for children to visit parents in prison? Even once a year would help." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"Family is part of integration. All should be part of counselling. We need to keep the family together. It all comes down to life or death and who do we have... our families. P4W (Prison for Women) and the National Parole Board separates us, stipulations to stay away from husband, sisters, brothers, and then even associates, or what do they call it?... known criminals... Please... my grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, the whole Indian Nation would be known criminals." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"It's pretty good talking about my drug problem to people from the outside. It gives you hope. You think if they can do it, so can I." (Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

Listen to us... "I'm not a threat to society."

"I was terrified when I saw the Prison for Women for the first time. It made me think of prisons I'd seen on television, and I knew I wasn't like that... didn't need that type of place. But there was no choice. I felt so alone." (Parolee from the Maritimes)

"Everyone is treated as a maximum in here - from parcels to programs." (Member - Inmate Committee at Prison for Women)

'They are talking about opening a minimum institution for women in Kingston. There will be eleven spots. But there are so many who qualify to go. How will they decide?" (A Lifer at Prison for Women)

"To be a woman and to be seen as violent is to be especially marked in the eyes of the administration of the prisons where women do time, and in the eyes of the staff who guard them. In a prison with a male population, our crimes would stand out much less. Among women we (Aboriginal women)* do not fit the stereotypes, and we are automatically feared, and labelled as in need of special handling. The label violent begets a self-perpetuating and destructive cycle for Aboriginal women within prisons." (Aboriginal Parolee)

"Women do not need greater bonds of control, they have needed and will continue to need the influence of decency and common sense in their lives... Community settings and the care of positive role models would help mend broken lives rather than deliver crushing blows to already fragile egos and wounded spirits." (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

Listen to us... "It's time for action."

"I've planted trees for a living. We gave back life to the trees. Who is putting anything back into the lifers who are in prison in Canada?" (Aboriginal Parolee)

"I and women like myself, who contribute to this chapter, are the flesh that has fed the need for this Task Force. Our pleas are drawn from our hearts and souls. We are witnesses to the human pain, the tears and the blood spilled within traditional prisons in the name of justice. HELP STOP THE ABUSE. (Prisoner at Prison for Women)

"In some ways I have nothing in common with the women who are serving provincial time here - what is 14 days compared to life? What is feeling a bit lonely for your boyfriend compared to missing out on the chance to be a wife and mother? And yet, I have everything in common with them. We share language, we share histories of abuse and low self esteem, we share the need to regain some control over our lives. Anything that can be done to help me, that I can do for myself, will help them also. It's the same story." (Prisoner in a Provincial Institution)

"I feel frustrated, guilty and powerless as a member of this Task Force Steering Committee. We sit here dealing with bureaucratic issues and long-term plans while the living conditions at the Prison for Women become worse and human suffering continues." (Aboriginal Parolee, Member of the Task Force Steering Committee and Member of the Aboriginal Women's Caucus)

"I am really aware of the effort you (the Task Force) are putting into this. I have a personal sense of hope that we can make some real change for women." (A Lifer at Prison for Women, during the second round of consultations, December, 1989)

"The starting point for action lies not in abstract discussions, but in the experiences of the women themselves." (Aboriginal Parolee)