For many of us, what goes on within Canada’s prisons is a mystery – out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, earlier this month a report revealed some disturbing trends regarding women in prison. It indicated that the number of women starting federal prison sentences in Canada has increased by more than 50% in the past decade; this is compared to a 15% increase for men.
In Canada, it is women who represent the fastest growing segment of the inmate population.
Incarcerated women share a particular profile. Many, prior to incarceration, were poor or homeless, under-educated, and suffering from addictions & mental health problems. In addition, the Elizabeth Fry Society reports that 82% of women incarcerated in Canadian prisons have a history of sexual or physical abuse. This stat rises to an alarming 91% for Aboriginal women.
While not downplaying the criminal behaviour of female inmates, my intention here is to argue that the dichotomies often invoked within our society in reference to criminals, such as good/evil, victim/offender, right/wrong – are not clear cut. The reality is much more complex.
This report clearly illustrates that in addition to committing crimes, the majority of women behind bars are also victims. They are victims of continued cuts to health and social services which provide the resources, materials and support required to build lives, communities and futures. In addition, unacceptably high numbers of these women are also victims of sexual and physical violence – horrific crimes which can destroy lives.
Aboriginal women make up 33% of Canada’s prison population, but only 3% of the general population. Many of these women’s experiences with racism and the legacy of colonialism are inextricably related to their experiences as offenders. 28% of Aboriginal offenders were raised as wards in the community, and 15% were in residential schools.
And the discrimination continues in prison, with the Native Women’s Association of Canada reporting that Aboriginal women are more likely to be housed in higher security facilities than their assessed risk requires, inhibiting their ability to access programs and services while incarcerated.
The way I see it, Canadians pay when cuts are made to essential services and individuals cannot get the help and support they need to build their lives. Canadians also pay, to incarcerate individuals when they break the law. Finally, no matter how good the rehabilitative efforts may or may not be within prisons, Canadians pay when inmates are released back into the same dismal conditions which led to their incarceration in the first place and as a result re-offend.
I strongly believe that as a society, before we sentence women and men to spend large chunks of their lives in prison – isolated and caged like animals; we have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent individuals from entering lives of crime.
More can be done and a crucial component is restoring and investing in social programs and health based services.