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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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The Purpose of Research Completed For the Task Force

The voices of the women and the voices of those who care were the authoritative sources for the Task Force. Consultations with women who are or have been federally sentenced, with community workers, with government officials, and with others who work for and with these women provided the primary expertise and wisdom for this report.

However, Task Force members also believed that their knowledge base should be as multidimensional as possible. Accordingly, to help amplify the voices, and to expand the breadth of the consultation process, five research projects were commissioned by the Task Force, in three cases through the Ministry Secretariat of the Solicitor General.

The Projects Commissioned for the Task Force

The first project, coordinated by Margaret Shaw,46 involved individual interviews with federally sentenced women in prison and on parole or mandatory supervision in the community. The purpose of this project was to gather information from as many women as possible, on their experiences of imprisonment, parole and mandatory supervision, their needs for programs and services, and their views on where and under what conditions they would like to serve their sentences.

The study also provided the Task Force with a better understanding of the backgrounds of women who are currently serving federal sentences. Task Force members learned, through interviews conducted with 84% of all federally sentenced women in prison, and through fifty-seven interviews with women on parole or mandatory supervision, how many women have experienced sexual and/or physical abuse, the number of women with children, the women's education and employment histories, and a variety of other types of information which helped increase the sensitivity of Task Force members to the women's realities.

Subsequent to this project, a similar survey was conducted with federally sentenced Aboriginal women in the community.47 This project was initiated when Aboriginal women on the Steering Committee to the Task Force voiced their concern that the Task Force had not adequately heard the views of Aboriginal women in the community.

This survey was a unique attempt to gather information about federally sentenced Aboriginal women which could only be understood within the context of being female, Aboriginal and imprisoned. Interviews with 39 Aboriginal women were conducted by Aboriginal women who had also been through the Canadian prison system. The researchers came to the women they interviewed as sisters, as people who shared a history with them. The researchers asked the women to whom they talked to tell their life stories, and made an effort to be as non-directive as possible, so that the stories would speak for themselves. Through this research, for the first time in a Canadian Task Force, the voices of Aboriginal women who have been federally sentenced can be heard.

The third report, completed by Margaret Shaw offers an historical overview of the imprisonment of women, particularly in Canada, although experiences in other countries are also discussed.48 This study also provides a current account of the issues surrounding the imprisonment of women in Canada, as well as a comparison of responses to such issues in various countries.

The fourth study, by Lee Axon,49 was commissioned to gain an up to date report and analysis of exemplary programs, services and opportunities, which are designed to address the special needs of women serving long sentences throughout the United States. Her report summarizes the findings of a literature survey, telephone interviews and on-site visits to a number of facilities in that country. This work provides a more current supplement to an international review of programs completed by Lee Axon in 1987.50

The third and fourth reports provide a broad context and thorough review of past and present efforts to improve responses to federally sentenced women within Canada. These studies also give insights into initiatives undertaken in other countries which address the challenges that faced this Task Force.

The fifth report commissioned by the Task Forces51 provided an inventory of institutional programs available to federally sentenced women, throughout provincial/territorial and federal institutions. The report includes information about the range and types of programs provided, as well as the distinctions and gaps in programming among various institutions. The data for this report was collected by Price Waterhouse as part of a "Survey of Provincial/Territorial Correctional Institutions for Adult Offenders" commissioned by the Correctional Service of Canada for the Federal/Provincial Policy Review. Maureen Evans, a Working Group member, prepared the analysis for the Task Force Report.52

Other Research Used

In addition, the Task Force benefited from other research reports produced before the Task Force began its work, and also from two projects which were completed or underway during the life of the Task Force. One study looked at self-injurious behaviour at the Kingston Prison for Women. In this study, 45 federally sentenced women at the prison, 41 members of the security staff, as well as staff from nearby health and treatment services were interviewed to learn more about the nature and causes of self- injury.53

Another study, on the mental health of federally sentenced women at the Prison for Women, was conducted by the Research Branch of the Correctional Service of Canada, as part of a nationwide study of the incidence of mental and behavioural disorders among federally sentenced offenders.54

The Research Perspective

Task Force members, in consultation with the researchers, made every attempt to ensure that the research approach took into account the interests and priorities of the Task Force. A strong emphasis was placed on women-centered research, and particularly on research which included interviews with federally sentenced women. The research was based on the conviction that to create realistic and meaningful solutions for federally sentenced women in Canada, Task Force members, policy makers, advocates and front line workers need a clear recognition of the unique features of the Canadian situation, an understanding of women's criminal histories, and good information about the women's experiences of imprisonment, their feelings, their concerns and their needs. Within this framework, the research, and particularly the survey of federally sentenced women in prison or on community release and the survey of Aboriginal women on community release, is considered by the Task Force members to provide additional expressions of the voices of the women, which help convey the views and experiences of the majority of federally sentenced women.

Findings of the research will be reflected and cited throughout the report. However, in this chapter, the major insights gained by the researchers will be captured, so that their voices will also be heard.


Interviews with Women in Prison

One hundred and seventy women were interviewed, out of a total of two hundred and three women serving federal sentences in prison at the time of the study.55 Thirty-nine of the women interviewed were Aboriginal, thirty-three were French-Canadian and sixty-eight were serving their sentences in provincial institutions. The women ranged in age from 19-75, many have lived with one or more common-law partners. Some have been married several times, some have never married or lived with common-law partners.

The information collected through these interviews presents a picture of a diverse group of women with a wide range of multifaceted needs. Data also shows that these women tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that federally sentenced Aboriginal women are more disadvantaged as a group than the general population of non-Aboriginal women serving federal sentences.

These interviews also show that many federally sentenced women have committed very serious crimes. Thirty-nine percent of the population were serving sentences for murder or manslaughter, 27% for robbery and other more minor violent offenses and 33% for nonviolent offenses at the time of the interviews.

At the same time, the data show that almost half of federally sentenced women are not repeat offenders. Forty-one per cent of the women are first offenders with no previous convictions, and 50% have never been in prison before.56 Despite the fact that half had never been in prison before, more than 50% of the women were serving sentences over 5 years, 22% between 5 and 9 years, and 29% ten years or more, twenty per cent were serving life sentences.57

This brief introduction to the rich information gathered through these interviews points to the difficulty of "categorizing" federally sentenced women. For within their small numbers there is a broad range of personal histories, and experiences with the justice system. The seriousness of their crimes and the patterns of their criminal behaviour can only be constructively understood in the context of the multifaceted needs outlined in the following discussion.

Control Over Their Physical and Mental Health

Women in prison feel they have lost control over their own bodies and the kinds of advice and medication which would normally be available to them. They express a strong need for better access to physical and mental health services, for the choice to seek second opinions, for the chance to select a doctor or alternate health practitioner. The women said too many medical staff treated them like offenders, not like patients. Thirty out of the thirty-eight Aboriginal women who spoke to this issue, said that Aboriginal health care and related staff were needed.58 Federally sentenced women want greater emphasis on preventive health care, better nutrition and more opportunities for physical exercise. Only one third of all the women interviewed felt that health care in prison was adequate.

Jan Heney's study on self-injurious behaviour stressed the strong need for proactive mental health services. She found that 59% of the 44 women interviewed engage or have engaged in self-injurious behaviour, and that self-injurious behaviour is often a symptom of distress resulting from childhood sexual abuse. She emphasized that self-injurious behaviour is a mental health issue, not a security issue, and that psychological and health care services should be mobilized at the first sign of emotional distress.59

The findings of the Mental Health Survey commissioned by the Correctional Service of Canada also indicated that the types and incidence of mental health disorders are different for men and women and that a number of mental health problems experienced by federally sentenced women can be linked directly to past experiences of early and/or continued sexual abuse, physical abuse and sexual assault. The research underscores that there is an urgent need to provide appropriate mental health services oriented to the specific needs of federally sentenced women.60

Contact with Children and Families

For most women, contact with their children is of crucial importance to them regardless of the ages of their children. Two thirds of the women interviewed have children. About one half have at least one child sixteen years of age or younger, and about one quarter have at least one child under five.61

Those without children felt equally the need for greater contact with their families.

Women in the Prison for Women want visits with their families. Because the distances between the Prison for Women and many of the women's families are so great, women are often restricted to other means of contact. Women in the provinces, who have more frequent contact, want longer visits with their children, access to some free long-distance telephone calls, as well as financial and other types of assistance to facilitate visits with their children when they live a long way from the prison. Women who had lost custody of or even access to their children, often as a result of their imprisonment, also expressed the need for legal advice and advocacy to help them regain custody or access.

The importance of contact for the women and their children is punctuated by the finding that 69 of the 108 women with children who had been interviewed had been single parents for part or all of their children's lives. In some of these cases the woman may have been the only significant person in her children's lives.62

Counselling and Support Groups for Physical and Sexual Abuse Survivors

Physical and/or sexual abuse is part of the history of many federally sentenced women, and is particularly high among Aboriginal women. In the entire population, 80% of those women interviewed said they had been abused, 68% said they had been physically abused and 54% spoke of being sexually abused in some way during their lives, by parents, other relatives, foster parents or institutional staff and by boyfriends, husbands and common-law partners. A history of abuse was higher among women in Prison for Women than among women in provincial institutions. Eighty-two per cent of the women in Prison for Women had been either physically or sexually abused, and 72% of women in the provincial institutions.63

Among the Aboriginal women, abuse was even more prevalent. Ninety per cent of the Aboriginal women said they had been physically abused during their lives, usually regularly over long periods, compared to 61% of the non-Aboriginal women. Sixty-one per cent of Aboriginal women talked of being sexually abused, compared to 50% of the non-Aboriginal women.64

Approximately two thirds of the women who had experienced abuse, expressed a desire for individual counselling to deal with these experiences, but stressed that counselling should never be made a condition of parole. Women also noted that there are very few services for survivors of physical and/or sexual abuse available in the provincial prisons. The "Survey of Institutional Programs Available to Federally Sentenced Women" found that only two prisons provided programs for sexual abuse/incest survivors.65 Aboriginal women want Aboriginal programs and the involvement of Elders to help them become true survivors of abuse.

Effective Programs for Drug and Alcohol Abuse

The majority of women interviewed, (69%), said that substance abuse had played a major part in their offense or their offending history. Some talked of being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of their offense, some spoke of offending to support a drug habit, and some women were in prison for trafficking or possession. Among the 39 Aboriginal women interviewed, involvement in substance abuse was even higher than the general population, and Aboriginal women tended to be heavily addicted over periods of 10 to 25 years.

While many of the women acknowledged that they had been involved in treatment programs for substance abuse (most institutions provide treatment programs), they felt that these programs did not reflect their experiences. Many of these programs were too basic or superficial to give them the kind of help they needed. The need for Aboriginal programs was clearly identified. Women also want longer group or residential programs to deal with substance abuse.

The availability of drugs in prisons and the high drug use mentioned by the women interviewed makes the need for these programs urgent.66

Reducing Language and Cultural Barriers

For those federally sentenced women who have little or no opportunity to express themselves through their own language and culture at the prison in which they are serving their sentence, communication barriers, frustration, loneliness and alienation are common experiences. Federally sentenced women come from many different cultures and language backgrounds. Almost one quarter of the federally sentenced women interviewed were of Aboriginal origin and almost another quarter were French speaking. About 40% of the French speaking women are incarcerated outside Quebec.67 These women said they found it difficult discussing problems or mental health symptoms in English and wanted a French speaking psychologist. Within Quebec, there are seven English-speaking women who also live with language barriers. In addition, there were ten women from outside Canada who were interviewed, including five whose mother tongue was not English and who experienced considerable communication difficulties as a result. "Women from other countries or from minority ethnic groups are often very isolated, having neither family nor friends to visit, nor language in common with those around them. A number of them said they would like to have visits from community or religious leaders from communities like their own in Canada."68

Virtually no federally sentenced women appear to experience difficulties communicating on a practical level, since only a small number speak neither French nor English. However, lack of opportunity to communicate in their language of origin with someone who shares their culture can increase anxiety and feelings of alienation and loneliness in the women. Aboriginal women said many times that they did not feel comfortable with non-Aboriginal people. They expressed the need to be able to communicate with people from their own culture and background in every area of their life in the prison.

Meaningful Work and Training

Training and educational programs are of major importance to most women. Two-thirds of women either hadn't completed high school or did not have any training or educational qualifications beyond high school. Aboriginal women are at an even greater disadvantage. Some had never attended school and a number had dropped out in grade school.69 Many women said they wanted access to post-secondary school and university courses. Very few women (usually older women and those at the end of their sentence), said they did not want to take any work-related courses. For the rest, there was a very clear demand for: marketable training skills such as office skills, word processing and laboratory technician skills; advanced skills in areas such as computing, printing, photography, carpentry; and skilled trades such as industrial sewing, heavy machinery operation, and kitchen trades. In addition, almost a third of the women wanted to study social work, sociology, child development, native court work, addictions and/or counselling, to enable them to work with ex-offenders, with troubled young or Aboriginal people, substance abusers, elderly people or children. The women stressed that they want truly marketable skills with identifiable qualifications and certificates.

Most said they had worked in low paying, unskilled jobs in shops and offices, bars and restaurants, as nurses aides, child-care workers or at unskilled manual work. Fifteen percent had never had a legal paying job.70 These women want to leave prison better prepared for the job market, and they want to have the qualifications necessary for economic self-sufficiency in the community on release. Those women at the Prison for Women felt that the courses currently available to them are very limited and out of date, with the exception of those taken in the men's prisons. For women in the provinces, very little is available beyond basic education skills training.

The "Survey of Institutional Programs Available to Federally Sentenced Women" found that only seven institutions offered any vocational training and four of those offered only one program. Just five institutions had occupational development, and a number of these were concerned with the housekeeping needs of the institution.71

Aboriginal Programs

Although there are some Aboriginal spirituality and cultural programs in Prison for Women, Aboriginal women want these programs to be more widely available. They also want greater access to Elders and more Aboriginal programs for substance abuse, as well as for physical and sexual abuse. Some provincial prisons do have occasional visits from Elders, and the Prison for Women has introduced some Aboriginal programs. Nonetheless, many Aboriginal women feel uncomfortable dealing with non-Aboriginal people who do not understand their culture and experiences, particularly in programs dealing with physical or sexual abuse and substance abuse. Aboriginal women would like to have the choice to interact with Aboriginal people in every facet of their life under federal sentence.

Freedom from Racism

The importance of Aboriginal programs which reflect the cultures, spirituality and experiences of federally sentenced women, can only be understood in the context of their need for freedom from racism.

The Aboriginal federally sentenced women in particular have suffered from the erosion of their culture, from their separation from families imposed by White Canadians. Many were taken from their homes and families at an early age and put in foster homes or residential homes. Many left these homes at 14 or 15 years of age and lived on the streets.

They have not found the criminal justice system sympathetic to their suffering and needs. Women reported being insulted, being offered no support and being unfairly characterized by lawyers and judges.

In prison, a number felt they were the target of racism and discrimination and some reported that there were very few staff who had any real understanding or acceptance of their cultural backgrounds and practices.

Aboriginal women look to culturally appropriate programs to gain the self-esteem and empowerment which will allow them to deal with and heal from their experiences with racism.

Federally sentenced women from other minority groups have no doubt also suffered the effects of racism. However, such information was not collected in the research studies commissioned by the Task Force.

Other Programs Needed

The most widely requested programs in addition to those mentioned above were work release and pre- release programs, legal advice and assistance, programs on money and budgeting, programs for those serving long-term sentences, and programs concerning children. Programming needs are particularly high for women in provincial prisons where few programs are available.

The Needs of Women Serving Long-Term Sentences

Long term sentences are a reality for over one third of federally sentenced women interviewed. Thirty-seven per cent of the women interviewed are serving sentences over ten years. Twenty per cent of the women, or 37 federally sentenced women, are serving sentences, 8 of them with a minimum of twenty-five years before parole eligibility.72 Apart from specific programs dealing with the difficulties of coping with long sentences, the women stated that long term prisoners do not have very different types of needs from women serving shorter sentences. All women want better work and recreation, better health care, more frequent and personal contact with their families and more support to deal with abuse. Long term prisoners share these needs but feel the need for such programs more keenly.

The Needs of Women Serving Their Sentences in Provincial Prisons

At the time the research was completed, of the 203 women serving federal sentences in prison, 78 were in the provinces under Exchange of Service agreements.73

Women in the provinces have, on the whole, much better access to their families and children. They do not report as many major problems in terms of their relationships with staff and other women in the prison, as do those women serving their sentence at Prison for Women. However, women in the provinces have little information on their rights, little knowledge of programs that might be available to them, and generally very limited program choices.

Preferred Environment

When the women were asked to choose from a range of accommodation options, only 19 out of 170 said they preferred to remain at the Prison for Women. By far the most common choice was a small community residence for women close to their home, although a fairly large proportion of the women chose a regional prison as their preferred option.

This preference reflects the fact that, of the total population of 287 federally sentenced women on register (i.e. in prison, on day parole or unlawfully at large), only a small number are serving their sentences close to their home communities. While 5.8% of the federally sentenced women are from the Maritime provinces, none are serving their sentences in the Atlantic region. Twenty-three per cent of the women come from Quebec, but only 17.8% are in prisons in that province. Despite the fact that 21.8% of the women are from the prairies, only 12.5% are in prisons on the prairies, and while 16.7% of the women are from British Columbia, only 12.5% are in institutions in B.C. Conversely, only 22.9% of federally sentenced women are from Ontario, even though well over half of the total population of federally sentenced women are in the Prison for Women. Even for the women from Ontario serving their time in Kingston, their home communities may be a significant distance from the prison, given the size of Ontario.74

About half the women would like the choice to serve their time in a co-correctional environment so that they would be in a more normal atmosphere and with access to more programs. These individuals usually qualified their interest by expressing a desire for separate living areas. However, others felt equally strongly that a co-correctional facility would not be appropriate particularly for women who had suffered abuse by men. Evidence from the survey of institutional programs,75 suggests that women in women-only institutions appear to have access to more programs than do women in co-correctional facilities.

When the women were asked what the most important factors were for them in terms of their environment, most responded that being as near home as possible was the most crucial condition for them, with access to programs being second in priority.

Underlying all these views and comments, the women spoke of their desire to be treated with dignity and respect. They also spoke of their need for support, not security, and their need to have choices in their lives. Many women wanted the choice to take or not to take programming, particularly in relation to addiction and mental health care, and to have some control over their involvement within programs.

Interviews with non-Aboriginal, Federally Sentenced Women in the Community

In this component of the study, fifty-seven non-Aboriginal, federally sentenced women in the community were interviewed. Almost half of these women were on day parole and almost another half were on full parole. Only a few women on mandatory supervision were interviewed. Overall, since the expressed needs of federally sentenced women on day parole did not differ from the expressed needs of women on full parole or on mandatory supervision, no distinction among these sub-groups will be made in the summary that follows. It is important to note that the data from this part of the survey has not yet been fully analyzed. Therefore, the summary that follows reflects only preliminary results and impressions of the researchers.

Planning for Release

Most women felt they needed far more help with release planning than they currently receive. The women said that many Case Management Officers offered little help in their preparations for release. The women see these officers as their life-line to the outside, but feel they have to harass them to get information about half-way houses or services outside. Paper work is often slow. Women also told the researchers that, apart from their own efforts, most help tended to come from Elizabeth Fry workers, parole officers and occasionally from lawyers.

Getting Parole

For women in the community from provincial prisons, there was considerable confusion over the benefits of waiving federal parole rights in favour of provincial parole. A number of women had chosen to go to the Prison for Women to obtain an earlier release. Some experienced difficulties getting parole from a provincial board when their offense had been given a high public profile. Women with long addiction or offending histories said they had particular difficulties getting parole over the years, and had needed far more support in release planning.

Making Ends Meet

Lack of money to pay basic living expenses is a major problem for those women who do not find a reasonably paying job at the start of their parole, or who have no real work history. Women living in half-way houses who have not yet found work, may find they are not eligible to receive welfare benefits such as clothing vouchers, because they are still under sentence and are having their basic living needs met by a government agency. Others, fulfilling parole conditions involving costly drug maintenance programs, find it hard to meet those costs on top of accommodation and daily living expenses. Those without a job may find they are unable to put down a deposit on an apartment in preparation for release on full parole.

Half-Way Houses

The length of time spent in half-way accommodation varies across the provinces. In some instances, women are released to a half-way house at one-sixth of their sentence, and can expect to stay until their full parole date. In other instances, women will be released to a half-way house within a short time of their full-parole date. In the former cases, because it is the policy of the National Parole Board not to grant day parole without a residency requirement prior to parole eligibility dates, this can mean up to a year spent in the half-way house "doing time", regardless of how well their alternative plans may have been formulated. One or two women interviewed have spent considerably longer in halfway houses.

Given the length of time many federally sentenced women spend in half-way houses and/or community homes, it is significant that, not only are there not enough half-way houses in Canada, but in addition, where they do exist, women report considerable problems with the conditions imposed on the residents.

In locations where half-way houses do not exist, many of the women have stayed in local community houses with a mix of residents. These community houses are unsatisfactory for many women who find the staff unaccustomed to dealing with women from prison, at times too "middle class", and without the knowledge and time to give them the kind of support or help they feel they need. When there are only one or two beds allocated to women offenders in a men's hostel, women feel uncomfortable. Other community houses provide only bed and board with no counselling or support services. In some of these houses, women said that the staff "police" bedrooms at night, shining a light in every hour. To avoid the problems which affect so many community houses, some women from provinces without half-way houses stay at half-way houses in Ontario. But the majority of these women would much prefer to be in their own provinces.

The location of half-way houses was criticized by a number of women. Half-way houses are often situated in cities which offer too many street temptations. Women said this made it difficult for some women to avoid getting into trouble again.

Although one or two half-way houses received much praise from the women, the disparity between having to be responsible citizens during the day and having to obey house rules like children at night, is difficult for women to cope with. Women who have a home or apartment of their own find the condition of residence at these houses pointless. A number of these women spend their days in their own home, and return to the half-way or community house every evening.

Women also reported that some houses have a lot of petty rules for which women can be grounded or punished; some inspect bank accounts, check breath to see if the women have been drinking, vet prospective boy or girl friends, and generally closely watch the women's movements and behaviour. Some have restrictions on the age of children allowed to visit. Despite the unrealistic and often demeaning nature of these rules, women must live with the threat that if they do not live up to these conditions, they can be returned to prison.

The extent of the problems women experience with half-way houses and community houses can perhaps best be summarized by the fact that some women with bad experiences of half-way houses preferred to stay in prison until their full parole date.

Long-Term Housing

The lack of low-income housing is especially acute in some areas, and some women stressed the need for co-op housing projects for ax-offenders who do not already have a home. A number of women moving out of half-way houses or released on full parole or mandatory supervision said this would be of great help. In particular, such housing would assist women, who, for reasons of age, addiction or past offending history, find it impossible to get a job. One woman had moved five times in the six months since her release on mandatory supervision.

Getting a Job

In general, women who had good, well-paying jobs prior to their imprisonment, have found successful employment on release. But women without good job experience and/or who have been living on the street, find it more difficult to cope on release. Jobs offered often tend to be poorly paid. Some women refuse to take these jobs if they have been used to better jobs.

There are also many women who are not employable in terms of the job market and for whom specific job training is particularly important. Sometimes, as part of their release plans, unpaid volunteer work is found for these women, but this course of action does not provide a solution to their financial problems. None of the women interviewed had any job training on release from prison, although some were working on apprenticeships. Some have experienced discrimination from employers who often fire them on discovering they have a record. In more than one case, this information was disclosed to the woman's employer by a parole officer.

Parole Conditions

Women feel that some parole conditions are unnecessarily restrictive. Those women who have been on full parole for some time feel they should be able to phone in to their parole office or to the police rather than having to report in person on a regular basis. Some women felt their conditions of attendance for addiction problems or other counselling was unnecessary because they no longer had problems. And as outlined above, many women on day parole who have homes of their own would prefer to live there rather than in a halfway house.

Those women with addiction problems find themselves doubly handicapped. On the whole they have not found in-prison programs for addiction intense enough. They are often denied day parole because of their addiction, and are given no help finding accommodation or a job in preparation for full parole. Without accommodation already waiting for them, they are denied full parole. Some women have spent years revolving from release on mandatory supervision back into prison and out on mandatory supervision again. Similarly, those with long term addictions find it difficult to find a job which pays enough to support their daily living costs. In addition, for those women who want to overcome their addictions, parole conditions which stipulate that they attend methadone maintenance programs work at cross purposes to their goals.


The importance of having a good, positive relationship with parole officers was very clear. Some women said they did not get on well with their officers, that they did not trust them and that their officers did not help in the ways they needed. In cases where they had found an officer with whom they got on well, they got tremendous support and encouragement. Much of this seems to relate to the "mix" of personalities, as well as the approaches which both sides take. The support of good Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous counsellors, and the support of good psychiatrists was also considered important by the women in raising the quality of supervision relationships.

Support not Control

Most women said very strongly that they want support, not control.

Women feel the control exercised by half-way houses, by parole officers and by parole boards is often unrelated to "where the women are at". They feel the level of control exercised relates to the time milestones of their release, not to their needs or circumstances. Some women had wanted time "on their own" at the start of day parole or full parole, but felt pressured into getting jobs, or attending school. When women had been allowed to work things out at their own pace, they valued this experience highly.

Overall Findings of These Interviews

Through these interviews, the women's expressed needs for respect, for support and for the chance to take responsibility for their lives were paramount. A strong need for community residences which were sensitive to the particular needs of women and which protected the women's dignity and need to live near or in their home communities was also highlighted.

Interviews with Aboriginal Federally Sentenced Women in the Community

This survey report was prepared by two Aboriginal women who have been through the Canadian prison system. They gathered information for the study through interviews with 39 federally sentenced Aboriginal women in the community.

The women spoke of violence, of racism, and of the meaning of being female, Aboriginal and imprisoned. They spoke of systematic violence throughout their lives by those they lived with, those they depended on and those they loved and trusted. Twenty-seven of the 39 women interviewed described experiences of childhood violence, rape, regular sexual abuse, the witnessing of a murder, watching their mothers repeatedly beaten, and beatings in juvenile detention centres at the hands of staff and other children.

For many of the women, this childhood violence became an ongoing feature of life, and continued through adolescence into adulthood. Twenty-one had been raped or sexually assaulted either as children or as adults. Twenty-seven of the 39 women had experienced violence during adolescence. However, to these experiences were added the violence of tricks, rape and assaults on the streets. In addition, 34 of 39 had been the victims of violence, some at the hands of abusive spouses (25), some from tricks who had beaten and/or raped them (12 of 39 had shared this experience and 9 had been violent toward tricks), some from police or prison guards. The violence experienced by these women is typically at the hands of men.76

The women also spoke of living with racism. Racism and oppression are the preconditions of the violence these women experience throughout their lives.

These experiences of violence have also left Aboriginal women with the burden of memories, which they try to obliterate with self-destructive behaviour. Suicide attempts are common. Thirty-one of the 39 had abused alcohol, 10 of these women considered their abuse serious. Twenty-seven considered themselves severely addicted to narcotics, and many were addicted to prescription drugs. Twenty-three tell of addiction in institutions to prescription drugs provided by institutional psychiatrists or physicians. Ten of the 39 described slashing themselves, not as a suicide attempt, but in an effort to bring relief from the tension and anger inside them.77

The women also spoke of living with racism. They spoke of overt experiences of racism... being called "dirty Indians" in school, in foster homes, and by police or guards. They described being treated differently and knowing that this was no accident.

Most of the women interviewed have histories that had lead them to mistrust White authority. Twenty of the 39 described negative relationships with police. Many of these descriptions portray this distrust as "inherent", a consequence of the role the police play in the lives of Aboriginal people. Other White authority figures are commonly the source of negative experiences and are seen as abusive, racist or non-supportive. Of 14 women with experiences in foster homes, 12 described negative relationships with foster parents and only two had positive relationships. Thirty-two of the 39 women reported experiencing racism at some time in their lives. Twenty-three had felt discriminated against in school, 15 in halfway houses, 6 in detox centres. These experiences extend to those who are supposed to provide helping services: case officers (13 reported this relationship as negative), parole officers (20), and social workers (9). Relationships with prison guards are also reported in extremely negative terms: physical beatings, rape, sexual harassment, and verbal intimidation.78

Beyond this overt racism, the women also spoke of living lives where they were systematically oppressed and pushed aside by White people. They spoke of learning that the rules imposed by an authority they did not respect, exist to be broken. Faced with institutional neglect and overt racism, their feelings about White authority, even before they encountered the criminal justice system, mixed passive distrust and active hatred.

In many cases, attitudes to White authority formed an important background to the way in which the women received federal sentences. There are several reports in the interviews by women who had neither believed that the court system would treat them justly, nor trusted the lawyer who was supposed to act on their behalf Since they felt powerless and had no trust in or understanding of the process, some acquiesced. They accepted an unfavorable plea bargain, or remained silent, refusing to offer evidence that either exonerated them or implicated others in the more serious features of the crimes with which they had been charged. They endured being sent to prison in the same silence with which they had greeted past victimization.

For Aboriginal women, prison is an extension of life on the outside, and because of this they find it impossible to heal in prison. They asserted that for them, prison rules have the same illegitimacy as the oppressive rules under which they grew up. In ways that are different from the world outside, but are nevertheless continuous with it, prisons offer more White authority that is sexist, racist and violent. Those few "helping" services in prison that are intended to heal are delivered in ways that are culturally inappropriate to them as women and as Aboriginal people. Physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists are typically White and male. They therefore symbolize the worst experiences of the Aboriginal women. As a result, Aboriginal women express anger at these caregivers, refuse to become involved, and then are further punished because they fail to seek treatment.

The women spoke of the loss of links to the outside world which could help them heal. The women told of being located far from their families who could not afford to visit them. Twenty-six of the women in the study are mothers, and all of them reported negative impacts on their relationships with their children. Such an impact is not surprising, but it is made worse by distance, the impossibility of seeing their children, and by the orientations of prison officials who are widely seen as insensitive to mother-child relationships. Their children were placed in foster care, juvenile detention centres, or were moved between family members. Twenty-five of the twenty-six women who are mothers had difficulty being mothers on resuming their relationships with their children after release, and only 17 were reunited with their Children.79

Almost all the healing experiences that the Aboriginal women who have been in prison reported, lie outside the conventional prison order. They come through the bonds formed with other women in prison, through the support of people on the outside, and from the activities of Native Sisterhood. There are occasional reports of positive relationships with caseworkers, but these stand out as exceptions to the prevailing pattern. The refusal of Aboriginal women to trust the "helping" services of prison becomes one more strike against them. Many of those interviewed share the experience of being seen as uncooperative! They were kept at high security classifications and denied passes. Aboriginal women spoke of having their parole applications turned down because they refused treatment or were uncooperative.

The women believe that they have the understanding to help themselves. Despite the pain and violence of their past and present, they express hope, that with the right kind of resources, support and help they can create the programs they need.


Time of Change

Many people believe that we are currently in a period of creative change in the ways policy makers and service providers see the justice system and its interaction with federally sentenced women. However, the researchers observed that to date, political will and action have rarely reflected this shift. So, for example, Lee Axon suggests that:

"Overall, program development in female correctional institutions appears to be in a period of innovative flux. It has been observed that some of the innovations in female corrections will benefit male inmates as well, if they are reproduced. There appears to be no shortage of ideas...merely the limitations of funding and political will."80

Lee Axon and Margaret Shaw, who prepared the historical and comparative studies, identified a number of changes emerging over the past few years in the approaches taken to sentenced women in other western countries and to some extent in Canada.

A Recognition of the Need for More Holistic Approaches

"One of the most significant aspects of present-day female correctional programs is their grounding in a holistic approach. Female offenders ....need to be addressed from the point of view of assisting the whole person."81 Much of the impetus for the emerging emphasis on holistic approaches came from Aboriginal women and men. Aboriginal philosophies are holistic. The Aboriginal way of life is holistic. And programs initiated by Aboriginal people incorporate holistic principles.

A Change in Focus Toward Shared Responsibility

"While in the past, rehabilitation has been seen as a kind of 'doing to' offenders, what appears to be happening at the present time is an orientation which emphasizes the inmate's responsibility for her own rehabilitation. The institution does not rehabilitate the offender, the woman makes choices to create a more responsible, self-sufficient future (and thereby)* rehabilitates herself. Seen in this way, the responsibility of the institution is to offer and expose the inmate to those programs which will assist her in this process"82

A Concern with Women's Dependency

"Throughout all of the (innovative)* programs in female corrections, is an overriding concern with issue about which there is still relatively little knowledge, but which appears to affect so much of female offenders' lives."83 This concern includes, but goes beyond a focus on alcohol or drug dependency to include dependency on other people and on institutions and the low self esteem that often accompanies dependency. Dependency is a particularly relevant issue for Aboriginal women who have been historically streamed into dependence on non-Aboriginal institutions. Research indicates that culturally relevant programs are essential to help Aboriginal women work through their dependency since the sources of the problem and the cultural meaning of responses to the problem are often very different for these women compared to non-Aboriginal women under federal sentence.

A Loss of Faith in Imprisonment

The widespread use of imprisonment "has been severely challenged by a loss of faith in its ability to rehabilitate offenders. It has also been challenged by observations of the grave disadvantages it creates for (women) given that they would appear to have fewer resources at their disposal than many men and present fewer risks to society".84 The loss of faith has led to a conviction that we must have more options and choices in the ways we deal with harm done to people through criminal acts and through society's current response to these acts.

"It is apparent that in a number of jurisdictions, solutions to the increasing imprisonment of women are being sought, not in expanded prison facilities, but in trying to stem the flow of women into the criminal justice system and through the provision of a range of alternatives in the community which take account of the many problems which women offenders face."85

A Growing Concern with the Implications of Imprisonment for Women and Their Children

Since 1985, in Canada, four studies have been commissioned by the government which have all "considered aspects of the problem including the impact of separation on both women and their families, the likely long term consequences, programs for contact and care, parenting skills and institutional nurseries, as well as the social costs of incarcerating mothers."86 Noteworthy is the extensive research being completed by Karen Lee Cannings for the Ministry of the Solicitor General. The issues have been studied and continue to receive attention, however this concern has not been translated into action.

A Trend to see Women's Imprisonment Within their situation in Society as a Whole

Those adhering to this vision, constantly question "the applicability of the traditional correctional approach which has been developed on the basis of the imprisonment of men", ...and which "fails to consider the need to use incarceration in the first place, or the destructive effects which imprisonment has on people whose tenuous ability to survive in the community is to a large extent the cause of their incarceration".87

Program Directions Which Work

While the researchers were careful not to assume that programs which appear to be successful in other countries will work in Canada, or that programs from one jurisdiction in Canada can be transported to another, they did identify some programming and policy directions which may help overcome some of the problems listed above.

Building self-awareness and self-esteem through programs which help women deal with other needs was seen by the researchers as essential to help women become responsible citizens. Lee Axon cites numerous programs in the U.S. (including programs to address substance abuse, vocational training, physical or sexual abuse), which include components that help women to get to know themselves, to gain self-awareness and to build self-confidence.

Providing a continuum of support including follow-up programs once the woman is released was also identified as important.

Similarly, doing everything possible to increase community support and the woman's integration in the community was a planning component given high priority in the successful programs researched. Program initiatives reviewed which incorporate this principle include a wide range of options such as: vocational training which prepares a woman for self-sufficiency in the community, the use of community-based services to address the needs of federally sentenced women instead of in-house, institutional services, and the broader use of community alternatives in sentencing.

The researchers also emphasized the need for inter-agency coordination to bolster real community support. One initiative highlighted in the research was the creation of a Community Advisory Council in Michigan, which is mandated to: assist in the development and staffing of institutional programs provided by community agencies and social service departments; and to provide after-care linkages and networks for released inmates.88 The consultations undertaken by the Task Force gave strong support to the importance of programs and services working together to create a healthy environment which promotes healing and personal growth.

The importance of treating women with respect and dignity was also identified as a crucial principle on which programming should be based.

And finally the demonstration of political will was seen as a central factor in program success. 'Those jurisdictions in which improvement has been most noticeable have had the political and financial support of legislatures and have also created a senior management position within their departments of corrections responsible for coordinating and overseeing female corrections."89


The insights of the researchers reflect the voices of the women, the voices of those who care and the voices of the past. The importance of choice, dignity, responsibility, community involvement, courage and innovation are reiterated throughout the many voices.

The different voices stress the importance of generating the political and administrative will, and the courage to build on the growing consensus that change is needed, and to build on the increasing body of knowledge of how to effect change in a way that will help create meaningful choices for federally sentenced women.

And perhaps most importantly, the combined voices all remind us that creating choices is a human endeavour, and an endeavour in which we must never forget to respect the dignity, the rights, the needs and the hopes of the women.