Breaking down the walls

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2010-09-30

Building a case for community-based alternatives to incarceration that better meet the needs of criminalized women

Why use the term “criminalized” as opposed to “criminal” or “offender?”

Many feminist scholars and advocates no longer use the terms “criminal” or “offender,” because such labels individualize and pathologize those who become entangled within the criminal justice system. Instead, the term “criminalized” is being used to bring attention to the social, political, economic, cultural, and psychological processes that influence crime and criminality. It implies that there are things about women’s and men’s lives that effect how they are treated by society and the criminal justice system. These factors, which include gender, race, education, employment, income, housing, and other social determinants of health, contribute to the reasons why women and men commit crime and influence how acts become defined as crimes.

In the current socio-political climate in Canada, we are seeing government campaigns to increase spending on incarceration. Instead of building more jails and prisons, what we need to do is examine the underpinnings of those already in existence and create alternatives that better meet the needs of those who become entangled within the correctional system. In Canada, a dual correctional system divides responsibility between the federal and provincial governments. Individuals sentenced to two or more years fall under federal jurisdiction while those who receive a sentence of less than two years fall under provincial or territorial jurisdictions. This divide has resulted in relatively consistent services at the federal level and non-standardized policies, procedures, practices, and programming at the provincial level. Having a single governing body at the federal level has also made it easier to identify and address issues related to federal prisons, including the experiences of federally sentenced women and men. In contrast, little is known about the provincial correctional system.

Despite the fact that the provincial correctional system incarcerates the largest number of individuals in Canada, the individual and collective experiences of those incarcerated within provincial jails have been largely overlooked, especially in regard to women. Unlike the federal system, which has correctional facilities specifically for women, provincially sentenced women are routinely incarcerated in jails constructed for and largely inhabited by men. There is little information that describes what it is like for women to be housed in provincial facilities or their experiences of returning to the community. This lack of knowledge is problematic given that women have the fastest rising rates of imprisonment in the world, far exceeding rates for men. As more and more women are incarcerated, more will return to the community. Gaining a greater appreciation for the factors that influence experiences of incarceration, as well as facilitate or impede reintegration is paramount for providing women with the support they need.

To begin to address this gap in knowledge I conducted a qualitative study, speaking with 32 women across Atlantic Canada who were either incarcerated at the time or had previously been incarcerated in a provincial correctional facility. These women spoke candidly about their incarceration and reintegration experiences. They discussed the jail environment and how detrimental it was to their healing and rehabilitation. Participants argued that few supports were available in Atlantic jails and communities to help women address the underlying issues that led to their criminalization. These women described what supports women needed in jail and as they made the difficult transition from incarceration to the community. It is evident from the women’s stories that, in its current form, the provincial correctional system is failing to adequately meet the needs of the women.

We know that criminalized women are amongst the most marginalized groups in society. They often come from vulnerable social and economic situations. The women who participated in this study, like many other women in jail, were either unemployed or working in unstable jobs, surviving on low incomes prior to and following incarceration. The majority were lone mothers. Most of the women I spoke with had experienced histories of trauma and/or violence that typically started in their childhood and continued into their adult lives. Substance abuse and mental illness were also pervasive. A disproportionate number were Aboriginal people who had experienced historical, cultural, and personal oppression. Unlike findings from previous studies, however, which have identified criminalized women as being under-educated, most of the women I spoke with had finished high school and a large percentage had attended college or university. This finding suggested that for the women in this study, education did not translate into economic security and often forced them into precarious living situations.

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