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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Voices from the past have been remarkably consistent in both their identification of the problems experienced by federally sentenced women, and their recommendations for change. As early as 1914, the Royal Commission on Penitentiaries (Macdonnell Report) stated that "the interests of all concerned would be best served if these few inmates were transferred [and] arrangements made with the provincial authority for the custody of all female offenders".21

Since 1934, all but one of the nine major government commissions and task forces who have looked at the problems of federally sentenced women have recommended closure of the Prison for Women, and a greater move toward regional and/or community facilities and services. In fact, the first call for the closure of the Prison for Women came only four years after it was opened, from the 1938 Royal Commission on the Penal System (Archambault Commission).

Overall, the findings and recommendations of task forces over the past fifty years have previewed many of the ideas presented to this Task Force. Reports of task forces and royal commissions in Canada concerned with federally sentenced women, as well as briefs addressing women's incarceration have raised many of the problems and ideas for change heard through the voices of women in prison, community workers, academics, corrections officials and policy makers cited in earlier chapters.

In this chapter, the voices from the past which spoke through previous task forces and commissions in Canada will help clarify the scope of the problems faced by federally sentenced women, and will point toward some directions for creative change.


The Prison for Women is Not Adequate

Official reports and briefs prepared since the completion of the Prison for Women in 1934 have uniformly identified the Prison for Women as inadequate. In 1977, the Parliamentary Sub-Committee Report on the Penitentiary System in Canada (MacGuigan Report) said it was "unfit for bears, much less women".22 The authors of this report also noted that:

"One area in which women have equality in Canada - without trying - is in the national system of punishment. The nominal equality translates itself into injustice. But lest the injustice fail to be absolute, the equality ends and reverts to outright discrimination when it comes time to provide constructive positives - recreation, programs, basic facilities and space - for women."23

More recently, the Canadian Bar Association, in a 1988 Report on imprisonment, asserted that:

"In the case of P4W (Prison for Women), we are of the view that the time has now passed when another Royal Commission or another committee report is required to urge its closure. We recommend that legislation be introduced to compel closure of the Prison for Women in a timely way." 24

Prisons for Women are Over-Secure

The Ouimet Report25 in 1969, and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women26 in 1970, expressed concern regarding the maximum security environment used to house all women regardless of their security classifications.

In addition, the MacGuigan report made the following observation:

"Most of the women in this tight security are in reality medium or minimum security inmates in that their character and behaviour conform to the criteria set out for these lesser degrees of custody. Certainly a very small number requires maximum security custody under the formal definition."27

In 1988, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs (Daubney Committee) reviewed sentencing, conditional release and related aspects of corrections in Canada. Its report, Taking Responsibility, stated:

"The Committee is concerned that large numbers of women prisoners across the country are being detained in facilities which provide much higher security than most of them require and than most of them would be subjected to if they were men."28

Programming is poor

Virtually every report since 1934 identified federally sentenced women as "a correctional afterthought"29 in terms of programming variety and quality. Vocational testing and training programs, pre-release and post-release programs were a particular focus for criticism. In addition, over the past decade, concern has grown with the low level of programming to address the abuse and dependency experienced by so many women under federal sentence.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission ruled on a complaint filed in 1981 alleging that the realities of federal incarceration of women amounted to sexual discrimination. "The key finding of the Human Rights Commission was that, because the Prison for Women is the only federal penitentiary for women, female prisoners have less access to training and rehabilitation programs than do male inmates."30

The Commission's ruling resulted in a number of changes at the Prison for Women, including increased educational and vocational opportunities, and increased community interaction with the Prison.

The government has, on numerous occasions, recognized the need to focus on the special program needs of women in corrections. In 1974, the Solicitor General appointed the National Advisory Committee on the Female Offender (NACFO, which produced the Clark Report)31. to make specific recommendations appropriate to women's unique programs and security needs. In 1982, the Permanent National Advisory Committee on Federal Female Offenders (PNACFFO) was established with both government and private sector representation. Its role is to advise the Commissioner on current programs and long-term policy planning related to women in federal corrections. In 1985, the Correctional Service of Canada created the Division of Native and Female Offender Programs.

Women are Isolated from their Families

The isolation of women from their families created by the existence of only one central federal institution for women, was raised in virtually every report submitted since 1934, and declared unacceptable especially for women with young children.

'The Canadian Bar Association's recent call for closure of the Prison is supported primarily by the recognition that the distant geographic separation of federal female offenders from their families and community support not only makes the pain of imprisonment harsher than is reasonable, but also undermines their prospects for successful reintegration."32

The Needs of Francophone Women are not Met

This theme was not raised by past commissions as often as the four themes above. The Ouimet Report33 identified a lack of French-language programs. The Chinnery Report,34 a 1978 committee established to write an action plan for the replacement of the Prison for Women, also considered how best to deal with the problems of Francophone women. Most reports which advised greater provincial responsibility for federally sentenced women, also made mention of these special needs implicitly or explicitly.

The Needs of Aboriginal Women are not Met

It should be noted that past task forces and commissions have given only minimal recognition to the special needs and experiences of Aboriginal women. Their needs have been mentioned in some reports but only as part of the special situation of federally sentenced women generally, and were given particular mention in the Ouimet Report, although primarily in the context of provincial corrections:

"The fact that in many prisons for women, particularly in the Western provinces, the majority of the inmates are Indian or Métis calls for special programs in these institutions designed to meet the particular needs of these Indian or Métis women."35

Others have recognized the additional discrimination experienced by Aboriginal women. So, for example, the Daubney Report states:

"Imprisoned Native women are triply disadvantaged: they suffer the pains of incarceration common to all prisoners; in addition, they experience both the pains Native prisoners feel as a result of their cultural dislocation and those which women prisoners experience as a result of being incarcerated far from home and family."36

The 1988 Solicitor General Task Force on Aboriginal Peoples in Federal Corrections further advised that:

"The Ministry should explore the potential to develop a holistic approach that treats a variety of problems within the context of a single program for Aboriginal female offenders at the Prison for Women."37

Responsibility for federally sentenced women must be broadened

As early as 1938, the Royal Commission on the Penal System recommended that women be returned to their home provinces and be placed under provincial authority. The emphasis on provincial responsibility for federally sentenced women was repeated in the Ouimet Report, and resulted in the negotiation of Exchange of Service Agreements which were signed in 1975.

In 1977, the report of the Task Force on the Role of the Private Sector in Criminal Justice (the Sauvé Report)38, suggested service delivery as the primary role of the voluntary sector. It emphasized a spirit of partnership between government and the voluntary sector, and stated that the voluntary sector had a role to play in mobilizing citizenship participation, assisting government in setting priorities and preventing crime, providing critical analysis of government initiatives and providing public and community education programs. It is generally recognized by correctional systems that they alone cannot successfully accomplish all these things: the participation of the voluntary sector is required if there is to be any chance of success.

More recently, the report Taking Responsibility39 also stressed that the community as well as the women under sentence have responsibilities to help repair the harm done and to encourage creative change which will assist in reducing future crime.

"The Committee has indicated its support for victim-offender reconciliation and in particular its support for offenders accepting/taking responsibility for their criminal conduct by taking steps to repair the harm done. Hand-in-hand with this is the responsibility of the community to offer support to the offender to make constructive changes in her or his life which will reduce the prospects of further conflict with the law." 40

Integrate Women in the Community

This theme surfaced first through a concern to reduce the isolation of women from friends and family. Over time the strength of this theme has increased with the recognition that community integration is an effective way to provide the support, continuity and variety of services needed for women to take responsibility for their lives.

The federal government, as part of its 1979 action plan on the status of women, entitled "Towards Equality for Women", highlighted the responsibility of the Solicitor General to facilitate the reintegration of female offenders into their communities and to ensure that female offenders receive the same advantages as their male counterparts.

Incarceration Does Not Promote Rehabilitation

In the same vein, past reports have agreed that rehabilitation is a positive and possible goal for federally sentenced women, but have not seen incarceration as providing the best setting for rehabilitation programs. For example, the authors of Taking Responsibility wrote:

"Since imprisonment generally offers the public protection from criminal behaviour for only a limited time, rehabilitation of the offender is of great importance. However, prisons have not generally been effective in reforming their inmates, as the high incidence of recidivism among prison populations shows."41


A considerable amount of effort and expertise has been devoted since 1934 to examining the problems of federally sentenced women and to working towards solutions to these problems. The major recommendations which emerged from government commissions and task forces can be highlighted as follows:

Most have recommended that the Prison for Women be closed. In fact, among major commissions, only the Fauteux Committee (1956)42, recommended that it remain open, on the grounds that it was easier to develop good programs in one prison. The differences of opinion expressed through task force and commission reports have been principally over the type of arrangement that should replace the Prison for Women. The proposed alternatives have ranged from the transfer of full responsibility for all sentenced women to the provinces, to the creation of new federal facilities with varying degrees of regionalization, to a variety of federal-provincial joint initiatives.

This central issue of accommodation is interwoven with other issues such as programming and staffing. The wide range of recommendations on these related issues include:

  • the creation of a minimum security annex;
  • the creation of a broader range of security classifications based on the risks and needs of the women themselves, not on the risks and needs of the male population;
  • higher levels of inmate pay through the creation of better work and programming opportunities;
  • more intensive treatment programs;
  • improved staff training and standards;
  • bilingual services and French-language programming;
  • programs designed for and by Aboriginal women;
  • expanded and improved services and programs in the community for women;
  • diversion of women from imprisonment generally;
  • ongoing and improved research and statistics-gathering about women in corrections.



The Needham Report,43 produced by a federal-provincial committee established to deal with the recommendations of the Clark Report,44 said:

"There is no ideal solution to the problem of the female offender. The country is too vast and the number of women too small to permit anything but the compromise solution recommended in this report."45

The voices of the past have rarely agreed on the best "compromise solution" to the central conundrum of accommodation for women in the federal correctional system. However, there has been a powerful consensus concerning the key problems and overall directions which need to be taken.

What is needed now, is to take the wisdom of the past and apply it to the knowledge and goals of the present. As we will see in the following chapters, voices of the past are echoed clearly in our current perspectives and hopes.