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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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In the summer of 1988, Ole Ingstrup, then recently appointed Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, made clear a commitment to comprehensively address the needs of federally sentenced women and expressed his desire for a major review of the situation through the establishment of a Task Force. This interest found common ground with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies who had long supported the creation of a task force on women in conflict with the law.


A number of other factors both in the external and internal environment combined to lend support for the decision to take action on the problem.

Feminist Analyses of the Problem have Gained Credibility

In the external environment, one of the indirect influences is the impact of feminism on corrections. The critiques of traditional sociological and psychological interpretations of women's criminality, which began in the 1970's, culminated in the publication nearly a decade later of several studies which argued "that women in prison have more in common with other women than they do with male inmates, and that programs and services should be designed to meet local needs and circumstances, or planned individually, not on the basis of some 'centralized blueprint'.94 These studies demonstrated that while the needs of federally sentenced women may be more dramatic, they are of the same nature as the needs of women in general.

Representatives of women's groups and others who share their beliefs, stress that such issues as poverty, racism, wife battering and sexual abuse are centrally linked to women's crime. They argue that to plan effective programs and policies for women, a fundamental re-assessment of women's inequality in our society, including an analysis of the low level of social support for women and the negative attitudes towards women, is essential.

This broad trend was reflected at the Third National Workshop on Female Offenders which took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in May 1989. The theme, "The Changing Needs of the Female Offender - A Challenge for the Future" was generally interpreted as a call for a fundamental restructuring of corrections for women rather than the patch working evident in so many correctional systems, which works against the objective of responsible self-sufficiency.

Aboriginal People Demand More Control over Justice for Their People

The influence of the Aboriginal struggle for self-determination, is a critical environmental factor for the assessment of Aboriginal federally sentenced women. For example, the recent founding of the Aboriginal Women's Caucus, with its mandate to speak on behalf of Aboriginal women in conflict with the law, can be seen as a structural articulation of the link made by Aboriginal women between self-determination and corrections. The conclusion is inescapable that if women generally are disadvantaged by social stereotypes and economic disparities, Aboriginal women suffer discrimination within discrimination through the addition of racial stereotypes. However, this conclusion has not yet been explicitly incorporated within government thinking.

The beginnings of a perceptual change within the Ministry of the Solicitor General with respect to Aboriginal peoples and corrections can be seen from the establishment in March 1987 of the Task Force on Aboriginal Peoples in Federal Corrections. This task force reported in the fall of 1988. The multi-departmental nature of the task force and its emphasis on consultation recognizes that a broader understanding and acknowledgement of Aboriginal reality is required and should be actively pursued. To that end, the task force concluded that the achievement of equity for Aboriginals in the correctional system is dependent on enhanced Aboriginal participation and increased Aboriginal control over programs and services.95 However, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women was advised, through its Aboriginal representatives that, from an Aboriginal women's perspective, the Task Force on Aboriginal Peoples was deemed to be unsuccessful in forging an equal partnership between government and Aboriginal peoples. Instead, Aboriginal women see it as a government report.

Charter Challenges Signal the Need for Change

Charter challenges, both in the past and currently, under the equality and other provisions of The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, have emphasized the inequalities and injustices experienced by federally sentenced women and have mandated immediate action to reduce these inequities. These cases assert that in certain institutions the rights of federally sentenced women have been breached by the failure of the system to provide equal means for women to serve their sentences within a reasonable distance from their homes; to provide equal parole opportunities; to provide equal programming, and to provide equal quality and standards of facilities both in comparison to men and in comparison to federally sentenced women serving their sentences in another institution.

New Recommendations to Close the Prison for Women

Into this broad environment, came the Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Solicitor General on its review of sentencing, conditional release and related aspects of corrections (The Daubney Report). One of the recommendations of this report was that the Solicitor General convene a task force to review the situation of federally sentenced women and to develop a plan which would result in the closure of the Prison For Women. Although the timing of the Daubney Report was such that there was no requirement for formal government response, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, following the release of the report, independently continued to urge the Solicitor General to establish such a task force. It must be clearly understood however, that the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women is not a government response to the Daubney Report, and is not premised on the closure of the Prison for Women, even though its recommended plan supports this closure.

Mission Statement Points to the Need for Change

After his appointment, one of Commissioner Ingstrup's first actions was to call for a rethinking of the Mission of the Correctional Service of Canada.

One of the objectives of the new Mission is to ensure that the needs of federally sentenced women are met. Achievement of this objective is to be built on the broader statements of principle in the Mission Document, namely:

  • that the obligation of the Correctional Service of Canada to treat offenders humanely goes beyond the legal obligation to ensure their physical needs are met;
  • that it is, therefore, essential that every effort be made to respect the spirit of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms;
  • that the Correctional Service of Canada must recognize its responsibility for providing the best possible correctional services; and
  • that the primary goal of the Correctional Service of Canada is the reintegration of offenders.

These general principles combined with the overall objective to meet the needs of federally sentenced women have contributed to an internal commitment to change, based on the concern of the Correctional Service of Canada that the current programming and accommodation of federally sentenced women are largely inconsistent with these principles. While not all aspects of the Mission Document are fully accepted by community groups involved with corrections, the concern with federally sentenced women is shared.

The Task Force on Community and Institutional Programs Urged Immediate Action

A second Correctional Service of Canada task force, the Task Force on Community and Institutional Programs, which reported in October 1989, also contributed to the realization that the situation of federally sentenced women should be reviewed. The purpose of the Programs Task Force was "to develop and propose improvements to offender programs in order to contribute more effectively to protection of the public...".96 The Report stated unequivocally that "female offenders must not be disadvantaged in any way and a correctional model applicable to their unique needs will be developed during the next year". The authors went on to assert that: "There is a critical need at this time to articulate a clear, comprehensive policy with respect to female offenders."97

The Programs Task Force formulated program principles which built on the core values of the Mission Document. Although the Programs Task Force noted that the needs of federally sentenced women would be separately addressed, it implied that significant changes would be required if the program principles were to have any relevance for this group of offenders. For example, as the description of the current situation of federally sentenced women demonstrates, it is presently not possible for the Correctional Service of Canada to provide an "entire correctional environment... oriented towards changing the offender's criminal behaviour", or to "respond to each offender as an individual". (Principles 3 and 4)

Tragedies in the Prison for Women Call for Urgent Action

A series of deaths and incidents at the Prison For Women itself provided profound evidence of the inadequacy of current management strategies and the failure, on many fronts, to intervene effectively. While it is probable that such tragedies have roots beyond the criminal justice system, inequities, insensitivities and inflexibility within the correctional system must be addressed if there is to be any hope of avoiding such tragedies in the future.

The questions posed around these tragedies leave no doubt about the humaneness of the current system. They also drastically reduce confidence that mere adjustments to that system could ever create a humane environment.


Trends and events within the correctional system and in the broader society strongly support the need for a comprehensive approach to change. As the environmental overview summarized above suggests, there is a groundswell of consensus that fundamental reform is urgently required and that the time to act is now.