Federally Incarcerated Women
As a result of the 1990 hallmark report entitled Creating Choices: The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women (hereafter after referred to as Creating Choices), multiple changes were implemented to improve women’s imprisonment conditions in Canada, including closing the Prison for Women and replacing it with regional correctional institutions and Indigenous healing lodges. Creating Choices also signaled the importance of viewing women’s criminality as resulting from the effects of trauma, substance use and addiction, and social isolation.Footnote 22
In addition, the 1996 Commission of Inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston by the Honourable Justice L. Arbour highlighted the need for a separate woman-centred correctional system in Canada.Footnote 23 In response, gender-responsive correctional programming was introduced in Canada and includes, for example, the Women Offender Correctional Program (WOCP), which provides a holistic, gender-responsive program model.Footnote 24 It also includes the Aboriginal Women Offender Correctional Program (AWOCP ), which provides culturally relevant programming for federally incarcerated Indigenous women.Footnote 25 Effective programming, along with employment opportunities, can help offenders successfully reintegrate into the community. However, the timing of access to programming is an issue, especially for women serving shorter sentences. They are often unable to complete the programming before they are released from correctional institutions and so are not able to fully benefit from the programs designed for reintegration.Footnote 26
Although women represent a small proportion of incarcerated individuals, they are the fastest growing prisoner population.Footnote 27 In Canada, the rate of women in federal penitentiaries has increased 50% over the past 20 years.Footnote 28
To help the successful reintegration of women offenders, they must be given the opportunity to work on their criminogenic needs, especially within the prison context or through community-based programs.Footnote 29 These needs must be appropriately addressed via trauma and violence-informed, as well as gender-responsive approaches, programming and/or treatment to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.Footnote 30 Criminogenic needs are typically grouped into the following seven domains:
“incarcerated women’s lives reflect those of the most marginalized women in our communities who lack access to housing, physical and sexual safety, employment, and mental health and addictions treatment” (Balfour 2020, 161).
- Employment/education – which assesses the offender’s employment history and education attainment;
- Community functioning – which assesses factors such as housing and poverty;
- Marital/family – which assesses the offender’s family situation;
- Associates – which examines the social entourage of the offender;
- Personal/emotional – assesses the various personality and emotional traits of the offender;
- Attitude – assesses the offender’s pro-social views; and,
- Substance use and addiction – assesses the presence of current or past substance use issues.
In most criminogenic domains, incarcerated women are more likely to have a moderate/high need than incarcerated men. For example, incarcerated women are more likely to have an incomplete high school education and were unemployed at the time of arrest compared to their male counterparts.Footnote 31 In addition, many incarcerated women have children or other dependents at home, which can lead to increased anxieties when separated from them.Footnote 32 Research has also revealed negative effects for both mothers and their children due to this separation.Footnote 33 Although the Correctional Service of Canada offers the Mother-Child Program, the program has a history of low participation rates due to the rigorous screening required to participate to ensure the safety of everyone involved.Footnote 34
Another example of the different needs of incarcerated women is the disproportionately high number of incarcerated women with mental health issues compared to incarcerated men, as well as the general population. In fact, many federally incarcerated women meet the criteria for a mental disorder, have low psychological and social functioning, and some have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons prior to incarceration.Footnote 35 In addition, incidents of self-harming in federal correctional institutions are on the rise and disproportionately common among women.Footnote 36 Most women who engage in self-harm do so as a coping strategy to deal with emotions and histories of trauma.Footnote 37
In 2017, the Auditor General indicated that federal institutions do not have “sufficient capacity to deliver the mental health services that women offenders needed.”Footnote 38 This is of particular concern because illnesses can be exacerbated by prison conditions and, if they lead to disruptive behaviour, self-harm or violence, they can result in even more restrictive and punitive conditions of detention.Footnote 39 Although this highlights the need for appropriate health and mental health care in federal institutions, research has also shown that the prison environment is often not conducive to therapeutic interventions and healing.Footnote 40 Specifically, certain aspects of the prison environment, such as isolation, confinement, and a focus on security, can interfere with best practices for treating the most serious mental health issues. Trauma and violence-informed practices and interventions are an important tool to meet the needs of criminalized women, particularly those who have histories of abuse and who engage in self-injury.