Breaking down the walls

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2010-09-30

The study found that there were very few programmes or services available in the provincial correctional system to address the social and economic issues women face. Health services were lacking in Atlantic provincial jails. Physicians were typically only available onsite once per week, which resulted in lengthy wait lists. According to the women who participated in this study, when women did seek medical attention there was a general lack of respect and confidentiality regarding their medical issues by both medical and correctional staff, the latter being  mandated to be present during medical appointments. Mental health and addiction supports were insufficient to address the needs of women. Mental health and addiction counsellors were usually onsite once per week and it was common for women to only be allowed to see one or the other. Addiction programs such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous were most often co-ed with a larger number of spaces reserved for male prisoners.  In addition, few employment programs were offered through the provincial system and, unlike federal prisons where women get paid for working in the institution, provincially sentenced women were not financially compensated for kitchen, laundry, or cleaning duties. The women in this study rarely received any kind of release support to help them set up necessities such as housing, social assistance, social support, and programming prior to exiting the provincial system. The only program that was offered consistently across the correctional facilities was education and most of the women who participated in this study had education levels that surpassed what was being offered at the jail. In many cases, the lack of programming, services, and supports available to women in provincial jails meant that they often returned to the community in even worse social and economic situations than when they entered the correctional system.

Of the programs, services, and supports that were offered for women at the jails, the vast majority were provided by non-profit community groups, such as the Elizabeth Fry Society and various faith-based organizations. In fact, external organizations played the biggest role in service provision and in addressing the social determinants of health – the factors most often responsible for women’s criminalization and subsequent incarceration. In the jails where such groups were absent, women said they had very little support.

The jail environment itself was described as being harmful to women’s overall well-being. Gender disparities were particularly noticeable given that the majority of women who participated in this study were housed in the same facilities as men. According to these women, female prisoners were housed in smaller units than men and regularly experienced overcrowding. At one of the jails, participants spoke of having to routinely sleep on the library floor because there were not enough beds. Women were also more likely than male prisoners to have their movement restricted, meaning they had less access to public areas in the jail such as the cafeteria and the “yard.” It was common for women to report long periods of time – up to several consecutive weeks – where they had not been let outside for fresh air. These gender inequities were often explained as being a result of the fact that women comprised a smaller proportion of the jail population than men. Whether or not women represent a smaller number, these practices violated their basic human rights. As another example of gender disparities in the provincial system, the women in this study said that when correctional programming was available, men were frequently given priority to attend. For example, male prisoners had more assigned seats in school and in such programs as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. It was unclear whether access to programming was based on the proportion of the female and male population. Regardless, restricting participation meant that many women who wanted to attend were not able to get the programming they wanted.

Unlike the federal system, which has the financial resources available to provide programming, services, and supports, the provincial correctional system lacks the necessary funding to properly support prisoners. The fact that women and men in the provincial system serve less time than those incarcerated in federal prisons also plays a role in service implementation. There is no doubt that a lack of resources and shorter time spans makes it challenging for provincial jails to offer the necessary programs, services, and support to address the underlying issues that lead to criminalization.

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