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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Despite the consistency in the findings and recommendations of task forces and commissions in Canada concerned with federally sentenced women, the needs of women serving federal sentences are not adequately or appropriately met, and their experiences of imprisonment are not well understood.

Historically, the problem addressed by task forces and commissions has been narrowly articulated as the problem of federally sentenced women in corrections. Within this focus, the problem has traditionally been defined even more narrowly as the problem of managing federally sentenced women at the Prison for Women.

However, as a review of dilemmas within this approach demonstrates, this narrow definition of the problem ignores the social context of women's reality. Women in Canada, and in other western nations, live with inequalities flowing from traditions and values which emphasize their dependency on men and institutions. As well, the discrimination within discrimination experienced by Aboriginal women in this social reality is also ignored in the past understanding of the problem.

This narrow definition of the problem also mitigates against a holistic understanding of women's experiences and needs an understanding which encompasses physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and material needs, as well as the need for relationships and connectedness to family and others. If needs are not understood in the context of past, present and future life experiences, if a woman is not seen and treated as a "total person", programs and policies designed for federally sentenced women will continue to be inadequate and dehumanizing.

The scope of this Task Force, like earlier task forces, is limited to the situation of federally sentenced women, that is, women serving sentences of two years or more. However, members of this Task Force concluded that while the narrow problem must be clearly defined, it is vital to understand the broader problem and the history of this problem, if we are to effect fundamental change.


Since the first major review of the situation of federally sentenced women in 1938 by The Archambault Commission,90 task force members, policy makers, advocates, researchers and front-line workers have grappled with a number of interrelated dilemmas. How can we reduce geographic dislocation, inferior conditions and limited programming for a small and diverse population composed of even smaller subgroups, whether distinguished by sentence length, type of offense, home community, race or language?

These perennial dilemmas are currently complicated by two factors. First, the facilities housing federally sentenced women are mostly outdated and antiquated. And secondly, federally sentenced women are experiencing significant inequities in service delivery as a result of the ad hoc growth in transfers to provincial facilities for women under the Exchange of Services Agreements.

In fact, when initiatives were implemented to improve conditions and programs for women at the Prison For Women, complementary action was not taken on behalf of women transferred to their home provinces. With the exception of federally sentenced women from Quebec (most of whom have served their sentences in Quebec following the ratification of a female offender agreement with Quebec in 1982), federally sentenced women under transfer were (and are) so few in any given provincial jurisdiction that the Correctional Service of Canada has acted as if they were invisible.

The inadequacy of the facilities and programming inside the prisons has also been carried over into the community, in terms of both level of services available nationally and effective planning for release. In addition, the failure to collect objective data on federally sentenced women under supervision in the community, particularly those women released from provincial facilities, can be said to indicate a lack of understanding by the Correctional Service of Canada of its overall responsibility for federally sentenced women, regardless of location. Nonexistent, not objective or non-segregated data also makes planning for change to address inadequate facilities and inequitable programming even more difficult.


Through the consultation process, Task Force members took a closer look at the various elements of the need for the Correctional Service of Canada to fulfill its responsibility to federally sentenced women in the Prison for Women and in the provinces and territories. The sections that follow reflect the clarification of the problem which emerged from this process.


The Prison For Women was completed in 1934. A multi-level facility, it was constructed on the same design as maximum security facilities for men. Although capital improvements have been made to the Prison,(including two programming facilities, the Activities Building in 1982 and the Private Family Visiting Unit in 1983), the problems associated with the original maximum security design remain.

Numerous studies and reports have concluded that, because of the inflexibility of the design, the majority of women are confined in higher security than they require. The addition, in 1981, of a solid, high perimeter wall at a cost of approximately two million dollars underscores the fortress aspect of the prison. The physical separation from the community imposed by the wall creates a corresponding psychological separation - the women in the Prison are not only separated from, but invisible to, the community.

Inside, the prison environment is noisy, inadequately ventilated, and has insufficient or inappropriate space for community interaction and program delivery. The limited capital improvements in the living environment cited above makes clear that the conclusion of the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada91 can still be supported. Namely, "that the Prison for Women is unfit for bears, much less women".

The needs of Aboriginal women, particularly with respect to dedicated space for ceremonies, ongoing contact with Elders and access to the outdoors, cannot be responded to effectively, both because of the physical limitations of the Prison and its distance from the Aboriginal communities to which these women belong.

Geographic Dislocation

Of the one hundred and thirty women currently at the prison, only sixty are from communities in Ontario. The other women are from communities scattered across the country. These women are in Kingston either because they are not eligible, (due to sentence length, offense type or personality conflict) to remain in their home province under an Exchange of Service Agreement or because they chose the Prison For Women for its broader program profile. These issues of eligibility and choice between location or programming have been present since the Exchange of Service Agreements were first negotiated in 1973. To be compelled to make a choice of this nature, is essentially to be given no choice.

Limited Programs, Particularly for Long-term Offenders

The 1973 agreements were negotiated to give effect to enabling legislation which provides that an offender transferred to another Canadian jurisdiction is subject to all the statutes, regulations and rules applicable in the receiving jurisdiction. In other words, a federal inmate transferred to a provincial jurisdiction becomes a "provincial prisoner".

Thus, the 1973 agreements implicitly accepted provincial standards and levels of service. Transfers in the early years were voluntary, few in number, and generally used for federal inmates serving short sentences or for placement closer to home in the period immediately preceding release. Accordingly, in the early phases of implementation of these agreements, the fact that programs and services in provincial facilities were oriented to short-term offenders was not perceived as a problem. This insensitivity to the needs of longer-term offenders severely penalized federally sentenced women for whom such transfers represented (and still represent) the only alternative to the Prison for Women.

As the level of transfers of federally sentenced women increased during the late seventies, the inequities for women associated with this choice became more evident. The agreements had been built on the assumption that all transferred federal offenders, both male and female, would fit into the provincial structure. As a consequence, the associated federal payments reflected the cost of the provincial operation only. Thus, there was no inherent flexibility in these agreements to reflect the needs of women serving longer sentences.

The agreements also provide for transfer to the federal system of prisoners sentenced to provincial terms (i.e. less than two years). The appropriateness of this mechanism for provincial women has not been addressed, given that provincial women can only be transferred to the Prison for Women, while provincially sentenced men would have a number of transfer choices.

A disproportionate number of these provincially sentenced women have been Aboriginal women. The transfers have often resulted in their dislocation, not only from their home communities but also from their cultures.

In the Provinces, an Increased Emphasis on Security, Not Programming

The first agreement dedicated to federally sentenced women was executed with the Province of Quebec in 1982 (Tanguay Agreement). Although this agreement ensured provincial custody for all federally sentenced Quebecoises, it continued to reflect the original assumption regarding the suitability of the provincial operation. While the Tanguay Agreement did not address program needs, it did address security concerns. A capital contribution of approximately one million dollars was made for renovations required to make the facility more secure.

The program inequities were not considered when the 1973 Agreements were revised during 1984-86. The question of negotiating separate agreements in all provinces for federally sentenced women and men was not even raised during this exercise. Perhaps because the number of women under transfer at any given time remained low, a separate agreement may not have been considered worthwhile.

The Result: Greater Programming Inequities

During the same period that the level of transfers of federally sentenced women increased, programs and services were improved at the Prison For Women, motivated primarily by the 1981 Canadian Human Rights Commission case. Consequently, during the 1980's, the gap between the level of services available at the Prison For Women versus that available at provincial facilities widened.

The level of transfers also stabilized during this time. Most provinces generally refused to accept women serving more than five years (e.g. Saskatchewan, Manitoba) or more than ten years (Alberta, British Columbia), as well as women considered to be difficult to manage. These decisions were taken in recognition that provincial operations were not appropriate for long-term or high need women.

Women Must Choose Between Programs and Locations

Since, with the exception of the Tanguay Agreement, no agreement obligates a jurisdiction to accept a proposed transfer, federally sentenced women must, first, be eligible for transfer and, second, make the choice between serving their sentences in their home provinces or accessing the more extensive programs and services which were developed to reflect longer term needs.

This choice between programs and locations has become more difficult recently. The agreement for federally sentenced women with British Columbia (Burnaby Agreement), which was approved in late 1988, represents the first agreement designed to eliminate the location/program conflict and to ensure continued federal involvement in the management of transferred federally sentenced women. The significant differences between the Burnaby Agreement and, for example, the Tanguay Agreement, is reflective not so much of provincial differences but of change in the federal approach. The Tanguay Agreement was negotiated in 1982 to provide a francophone milieu. Other needs were not explicitly addressed. In particular, Aboriginal cultures and spirituality are not reflected within the Exchange of Service Agreements. The Burnaby Agreement, on the other hand, reflects a holistic approach to program needs as well as formal recognition in the terms of the agreement that program development and delivery is a dynamic process.

The program/location choice imposed by the current Exchange of Services Agreements is also complicated by the fact that location implies not only home province but also a particular facility, since most provincial jurisdictions have only one facility for women. In jurisdictions which have two or more, there is usually one primary facility with the second serving as a minimum security annex. The wide variance in the type of accommodation and level of services available to federally sentenced women in different provinces is itself inequitable.

Few Community-based Alternatives

The inadequacy of the community component of the correctional system for women and the critical need for remedial action was documented in the Daubney Committee Report.92 In addition to the lack of community residential accommodation, there has been little documentation on the experiences and needs of federally sentenced women in the community nor is there evidence of concerted efforts in the past to document the situation and develop an appropriate, effective strategy to address deficiencies. If federally sentenced women in prison are invisible, federally sentenced women in the community are even more invisible.

Women Inherit Programs and Facilities Designed for Men

These practical problems exist within a broader policy problem. Correctional management strategies are developed within a White male context and then applied to both men and women. At best, once a policy or initiative is developed, its differential impact on women is assessed. Therefore, any adjustment, usually nominal, is made at the end. A good example of this philosophical or management perspective, is the Correctional Service of Canada policy on federally sentenced women. This policy states that in addition to general policies, programs and services applicable to all offenders, strategies will be developed to meet the special needs of women. This policy reflects the unconscious perception that the needs of women may only conflict in a supplementary, rather than a fundamental way, with the "normal" correctional approach. However, consultations with federally sentenced women and existing research have led the Task Force to conclude that the correctional practices in both federal and provincial facilities reinforce the dependency of federally sentenced women, and do not support responsible self-efficiency.

The Unique Realities of Aboriginal Women are Not Recognized

Understanding that the realities of women have never been more than an adjunct to the male system, leads easily to the understanding that Aboriginal realities cannot be merely an adjunct to the White system. Access to certain aspects of Aboriginal culture has been provided in both federal and provincial correctional systems, but this access has not been sufficient. For example, Elders and Shamans are not given the same stature or respect by correctional organizations as are chaplains, doctors or psychologists, either as a group or more specifically, as individuals.

Aboriginal women have been subsumed within two worlds...the White and the male. "Culturally, economically and as peoples, we (Aboriginal women and men)* have been oppressed and pushed aside by Whites. We were sent to live on reserves that denied us a livelihood, controlled us with rules that we did not set, and made us dependent on services we could not provide for ourselves."93 Research commissioned for this Task Force starkly revealed the violence and violation most Aboriginal women have experienced at the hands of men. Aboriginal federally sentenced women have been further subsumed within two worlds, that of all federally sentenced women and that of all Aboriginal federally sentenced offenders. This interrelationship and its implications for justice must be fully understood before the unique realities of Aboriginal women can be responded to effectively.

Lack of Community Involvement

A final problem associated with federally sentenced women is community involvement. The Task Force consultations provide evidence that there exist strong and committed communities which cannot be fully and effectively reached by federally sentenced women. At the Prison For Women, for example, the added pressure of volunteer supervision on limited staff resources can work against increased community involvement in the delivery of institutional activities. There are also practical operational problems such as the instability associated with annual rather than multi-year contracts. The grim physical environment and the security orientation are psychological barriers for many potential volunteers. For volunteers who have overcome this barrier, the emphasis on security and punishment continue to act as inhibitors against the development of natural balanced relationships with federally sentenced women. The net result is that the community-based activities are perceived to be an add-on, a gesture rather than an integral component of the system.


The preceding account of the dilemmas which have arisen through the current responses to federally sentenced women, points to the need for fundamental change. The ability of the Correctional Service of Canada to meet its responsibility for federally sentenced women has been eroded by trying to fit a small, diverse, relatively low-risk group of women with multi-faceted needs into a system designed for a large, more homogeneous and higher risk population. In the process, inequality and insensitivity to the needs of federally sentenced women have become unanticipated consequences of our current system.