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.

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.

What this study shows is a system that is already unable to support those under its care. It is unlikely that building more jails will be the answer. Instead, we need to invest in alternatives that better meet the needs of criminalized women. Few women entangled in the correctional system present a danger to the community. The vast majority commit minor property offences, such as theft – attesting to the fact that women are increasingly being criminalized for their social, political, economic, and cultural marginalization. Instead of building more correctional facilities, we need to focus on community-based programming, services, support, treatment options, and early interventions for prevention. This study found that the bulk of programming in the provincial system is already being provided by community-based non-profit organizations. By investing in these organizations instead of constructing more jails, women would be able to receive more support on the inside that addressed the underlying issues that led to their criminalization and worked to impede reintegration. But it is not just about addressing issues in the current system, we also need to work towards building an alternative infrastructure where criminalized populations receive all necessary programming, services, support, and treatment in the community – not in jails.

Jennifer Bernier recently graduated with a PhD in Community Psychology from Wilfrid Laurier University.  This article is based on her doctoral research which examined the incarceration and reintegration experiences of provincially sentenced women in Atlantic Canada. Jennifer is currently the Gender-based Analysis Coordinator at the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health.

Physical Health Needs of Criminalized Women and Men in the Provincial Correctional System:

The Atlantic Centre of Excellence is currently conducting a project that builds on one of the findings from the study that this article is based, which showed that provincially sentenced women suffer from a host of physical ailments and have little access to health services while in custody. The current study will survey incarcerated women and men and interview them in a group setting to learn more about the physical health status and needs of women and men in provincial jails, as well as sex and gender differences in their access to and use of health services.


For more information, visit:
Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health

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