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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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The Foundation of these Principles

The principles for change from which the vision and recommendations of the Task Force grew, are rooted in the wisdom of the past as well as the realities of the present, and have been nourished by the hopes of Task Force members for broader justice and social reform in the future.

These principles echo the voices of federally sentenced women, of Aboriginal women and men concerned with the injustices endured by their People, of others who care about federally sentenced women, of researchers and of those who worked so hard on other task forces and committees to help make our justice system more effective, sensitive and fair.

These principles reflect the core values of the Mission of the Correctional Service of Canada, with its emphasis on individual dignity and rights, the potential for human growth and development, community input and participation, and the sharing of ideas, knowledge, values and experiences.

Toward a Longer-Term Goal

These principles also point to a longer-term goal, outside the mandate of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women. This goal, shared by members of the Task Force, looks toward social change which will reduce inequities in the ways people are treated, and the crimes which stem from these inequities. This goal looks toward a time when harm done to people will be repaired in creative, supportive, non- incarcerative ways. This goal looks toward a future in which all communities will take responsibility for the causes of and responses to inequality and suffering. This goal looks forward to a future in which Aboriginal people will once again have the right to create justice in their own ways.

As the Aboriginal women who conducted the survey of federally sentenced women in the community remind us:

"No amount of tinkering with prisons can heal the before-prison lives of the Aboriginal women who live or have lived within their walls. Prison cannot remedy the problem of the poverty of reserves. It cannot deal with immediate or historical memories of the genocide that Europeans worked upon our people. It cannot remedy violence, alcohol abuse, sexual assault during childhood, rape and other violence Aboriginal women experience at the hands of men. Prison cannot heal the past abuse of foster homes, or the indifference and racism of Canada's justice system in its dealings with Aboriginal people. However, the treatment of Aboriginal women within prisons can begin to recognize that these things ARE the realities of the lives that Aboriginal women prisoners have led. By understanding this, we can begin to make changes that will promote healing instead of rage.119

At the present time, legislative restrictions and societal attitudes prevent us from achieving our ideal. The Task Force members understand that legislative change must occur to allow for a more flexible and humane correctional system and that there will have to be parallel legislative, political and attitudinal changes before the long term goal can become reality.

Immediate Action is AIso Needed

However, there is urgent need for action now to respond to the needs of federally sentenced women. There is urgent need now to create choices which will reflect the experiences and meet the needs of women. There is urgent need now to create choices which will reduce harmful actions in the future. We believe that the five individual principles which follow, and the overall statement of principle which ends this chapter, can provide strong direction for immediate action and can also light the way as we walk further down the path toward our ideal.

In articulating these principles, we recognize that we do not have "the answer". Our report and the principles which drive it are but one step in a process which must continue to evolve. Commitment to encouraging the evolution of this process is essential.



What Do We Mean?

The inequities and reduced life choices encountered by women generally in our society, and experienced even more acutely by many federally sentenced women, have left these women little self esteem and little belief in their power to direct their lives. As a result, they feel dis-empowered, unable to help create or make choices, unable to help create a more rewarding, productive future, even if realistic choices are presented to them. This problem is exacerbated by the racism experienced by Aboriginal women.

Why is this Principle Important?

Research and the words of federally sentenced women have repeatedly stressed the connections between women's involvement in the criminal justice system and the inequities, hardships and suffering experienced by women in our society.

Certainly there is continued evidence of high levels of sexism and racism in our country. Women in Canada working full-time, still earn on average just two thirds of what men earn. The national poverty rate for families headed by women is roughly 39% while the corresponding rate for men is 9% On average, women's income declines 40% upon divorce while men's income rises by 70%.120

High levels of abuse against women in our society reveal the directly violent consequences of sexism. One in four women is sexually assaulted at some point in her life, half before the age of seventeen, and one million women are battered by their husbands or live-in lovers each year.121 Among federally sentenced women, as research cited earlier revealed, the violence is even more prevalent. Sixty-eight per cent of the population of federally sentenced women interviewed last year (1989), said they were physically abused and 54% said they were sexually abused at some time during their lives. 122

The inequities and abuse experienced by Aboriginal women in Canada are even more startling than the realities these general averages portray. For example, female lone-parenthood is almost twice as prevalent among Aboriginal families. And among federally sentenced Aboriginal women, 90% have been physically abused, and 61% sexually abused.123

Aboriginal women experience not only the injustices suffered by women generally in our society. They also suffer from the displacement and inequities which have been endured over many years by Aboriginal men, women and children.

The attitudes, barriers and suffering which are the consequences of sexism and racism erode the self- esteem of women in general. In addition, many women who are federally sentenced are among those women in our society who have suffered most from sexism and racism. Federally sentenced women typically are poorly educated, unemployed and have survived physical and/or sexual abuse. Their life circumstances, along with feelings of guilt, fear, anxiety, alienation and confusion which are often elicited when they are apprehended and sentenced by the justice system, combine to produce a group of women with extraordinarily low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem reduces a woman's ability to cope. It increases self-destructive behaviour, so prevalent among federally sentenced women. It can contribute to violence against others. Low self-esteem reduces a person's ability to plan for the future, to take responsibility for her actions, and to believe that she can make meaningful choices that will help her live with respect and dignity.

Conversely, increased self-esteem augments the ability to accept and express responsibility for actions taken and future choices. Accepting and expressing responsibility for oneself promotes strength and good self-esteem, creating a constructive cycle of empowerment.

Increased self-esteem is interwoven with the ability of Aboriginal women to determine their roles, as Aboriginal people. Through consultations with Elders and other Aboriginal people, the Task Force members learned that to enhance identity and self-esteem among Aboriginal women, programs are needed which will increase access to traditional teachings, as well as access to counselling from Elders that will enable Aboriginal women to express their spirituality.

Increased self-esteem can reduce violence against self and others. Research has shown that violence is often linked to perceived loss of control over another person or over life conditions.124

Women in prison want programs to enhance self-esteem and empowerment. In the review of exemplary programs commissioned by the Task Force, a study of prisoners in Minnesota was summarized which reported that self-confidence/self-esteem training and development was one of the most highly rated needs.125 Similarly, in consultations done for the Task Force, a great deal of importance was placed on the provision of programs designed to build self-esteem.126



What Do We Mean?

In order to have a sense of control over their lives which will raise self-esteem and empowerment, women need meaningful options which allow them to make responsible choices. These choices must relate to their needs and must make sense in terms of their past experiences, their culture, their morality, their spirituality, their abilities or skills and their future realities or possibilities. Meaningful and responsible choices can be provided only within a flexible environment which can accommodate the fluctuating and disparate needs of federally sentenced women.

Why is this Principle Important?

Flowing directly out of a need for empowerment is a need for increasing choices both for federally sentenced women and for those attempting to help and support federally sentenced women towards a more positive future.

The dependence on men, alcohol or drugs, and/or on state financial assistance which is a part of the lives of many federally sentenced women, has robbed them of the opportunity and ability to make choices. To break out of this dependent cycle, these women need to experience the success associated with making sound, responsible choices.

Federally sentenced women have very limited choices. Few training and support programs are available, work options are severely limited, and choices over place of incarceration carry heavy consequences. If a woman chooses to spend the incarcerative part of her sentence in a provincial institution, she may have few or no program, work and training options. But if she chooses to go to the Prison for Women, she may be so far from friends and family that she can anticipate seeing them rarely or never.

Federally sentenced women even have limited choice over diet and health care. Through consultations carried out for this Task Force, women said they want more control over their diet, more access to the outdoors and more choice concerning medical care.127

In the community, there are few options available to most women. More choices involving halfway houses, second-stage housing, programs, services and support are essential if women are to succeed on release.

Through real choices which make sense to them, women will gain control over their lives. Responsible choices are a part of building a life and learning how to survive on release. If the period of incarceration is a time in which to prepare for release, part of this preparation necessarily involves helping women deal with the pressures as well as the power of making choices. If opportunities for meaningful and responsible choices are provided, life inside prison will better mirror life outside, and so will provide a more realistic environment in which to foster self-sufficiency and responsibility.



What Do We Mean?

This principle is based on the assumption that mutuality of respect is needed among prisoners, among staff and between prisoners and staff if women are to gain the self-respect and respect for others necessary to take responsibility for their futures. This principle is also based on the recognition that respect, in accordance with one of the guiding principles of the Mission Statement for the Correctional Service of Canada, "will accommodate, within the boundaries of the law, the cultural and religious needs of individuals and minority groups''.128 Spiritual needs, as well as cultural identity and practices, will be acknowledged as an integral part of the whole person, a part that cannot be ignored in seeking to rehabilitate and aid in the healing process of the body, mind and spirit. And this principle is based on the observation that behaviour among prisoners is strongly influenced by the way they are treated; that if people are treated with respect and dignity they will be more likely to act responsibly. Respect is related to the four principles of the Aboriginal way of life: kindness, honesty, sharing and strength.

Why is this Principle Important?

Correctional institutions in Canada have often been criticized for their tendency to encourage dependent and child-like behaviour among women.129

Women consulted for this report spoke of the seemingly arbitrary prison rules and regulations and how these rules humiliated them and contributed to their sense of powerlessness. Women said they are denied their need for privacy, quiet and dignity. Under these conditions, women reported feeling they have no rights or control. This feeling leads to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and a total lack of motivation.

There is also a strong perception among women that, because there is little or no respect and dignity awarded to federally sentenced women, there is no real attempt to understand or respond appropriately to different racial, cultural and spiritual backgrounds. This is particularly important for Aboriginal women, since treating them with respect for their culture.


What Do We Mean?

Environment can best be understood in terms of a constellation of many types of environments...political, physical, financial, emotional/psychological and spiritual, especially for Aboriginal women. A positive lifestyle which can encourage the self-esteem, empowerment, dignity and respect for self and others so necessary to live a productive, meaningful life, can only be created in an environment in which all aspects of environment are positive and mutually supportive.

Why is this Principle Important?

The quality of an environment can promote physical health, psychological health, and personal development. The environments in which federally sentenced women exist are frequently inadequate physically, psychologically and spiritually. Women in prison have too little access to fresh air, to light, to adequate nutrition, to social interactions based on dignity and respect, to ongoing relationships with those important to them outside the institution and to spiritual and cultural practices and experiences. They are denied the privacy, quiet, dignity and safety which are so integral to an adequate quality of life. In the community, how much or how little assistance, advice and advocacy a woman receives can determine whether she will integrate in a functional or a dysfunctional way with her environment.

This principle builds on work in other areas and disciplines. It reflects the "healthy communities" concept now being promoted by Health and Welfare Canada, and being implemented internationally. This concept of environment stresses the interpersonal nature of environment. It stresses that the will of the people involved is the most important environmental resource. As such, it is closely linked to the previous principles of empowerment, choice, respect and dignity.

This principle stresses, through the interdependent nature of all aspects of environment, that equality of programming, environment, security, cannot be reduced to equality of treatment in the sense of "sameness" of treatment, but must be understood as equality of outcome. In other words, it is not enough to look at identical treatment as ensuring equality. Instead, a sensitivity to needs and experiences which ensures equality in terms of meaningful outcome, taking all aspects of environment into account, becomes the obvious basis for equality.



What Do We Mean?

Governments at all levels, corrections workers, voluntary sector services, businesses, private sector services and community members generally must take responsibility as interrelated parts of society. This is essential in order to foster the independence and self-reliance among federally sentenced women which will allow them to take responsibility for their past, present and future actions. To make these sound choices, women must be supported by a coordinated and comprehensive effort involving all elements in society. This, as Aboriginal teachings instruct us, is a holistic approach.

Why is this Principle Important?

The holistic programming and multifaceted opportunities which support an environment in which women can become empowered, can only be built on a foundation of responsibility among a broad range of community members. Currently, because the Correctional Service of Canada has legal obligations for federally sentenced women, responsibility for federal women is too often narrowly assigned to correctional systems.

However, a narrow view of correctional responsibility encourages a narrow view of programming and residential options. It can blind planners to the many different communities which make up federally sentenced women and the broader society. Within correctional systems, choices are limited, women are not treated in culturally sensitive ways and too often, women are denied the opportunity to exercise the self-determination which will allow them to take responsibility for their lives.

In order to develop the support systems and continuity of service which will enable women to take responsibility for their lives, federally sentenced women must be integrated within their communities. To accomplish this goal, the responsibilities which federally sentenced women have for children and other family members in the community must be recognized and supported. In addition, volunteers and community groups can provide a vital link for women between correctional systems and communities. Further, all levels of government, business, voluntary sector and private sector groups must accept the responsibility to develop and implement, monitor and evaluate correctional options.



It is the belief of the Task Force members that through active commitment to these five principles, the Correctional Service of Canada in cooperation with a broad range of other community members will create the choices needed to help move corrections in Canada closer to a community-based ideal. This is an ideal which recognizes and responds sensitively to the diversity of communities in Canada, and to the unique needs of individual federally sentenced women. To further this ideal, the Task Force proposes the guiding statement of principle which follows.

The Correctional Service of Canada with the support of communities, has the responsibility to create the environment that empowers federally sentenced women to make meaningful and responsible choices in order that they may live with dignity and respect.