On day three I attended a double session focusing on incarcerated women. This is an important issue for me because I’ve always found it disturbing that as a society we put women in cages. And that the institutions where these cages are located – prisons – aren’t transparent, making them the perfect setting for all kinds of abuses.
The session was hosted by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a feminist, prison abolitionist organization. Their main concern centers on human rights abuses against women in Canadian prisons. And let me tell you, these abuses are rampant.
In the session we had the opportunity to hear from a young woman who was sentenced to several years prison as a young offender. Recently released and working for CAEFS, she recounted her experiences as a youth in prison, she dealt with: multiple people being shoved into cells meant for one; security over-classification which led to her illegally being transferred to an adult maximum security prison; lack of access to health care and counselling; withdrawal for days on end of access to basic necessities such as showers, clean laundry.
But what was most striking about her story was that she went into prison having no knowledge of her rights. They were not explained to her. Further, when she did stand up for herself and file grievances against wrongdoings she became known as a trouble maker –not a good thing when your release is dependent on how others assess your behaviour.
This is a rampant problem and CAEFS has been doing some great work in collaboration with women prisoners to ensure that women know their rights. Together, they have put together a handbook called Human Rights in Action they available for women both in the federal prison system, as well as provincial. Regrettably, they are not easily accessible to prisoners as they are considered contraband.
In the session we also learned about a similar Australian organization called Sisters Inside (SIS). The presenter, SIS founder Debbie Kilroy, has a remarkable life story which includes incarceration and being witness to Queensland’s only murder in a women’s prison. In addition, for her work with SIS she has received the Order of Australia.
SIS is currently running a campaign on strip searching as sexual assault. This is based on the argument that strip searching is a brutalizing and degrading practice which is often committed against women who have histories of abuse, particularly sexual assault and/or incest. They argue that strip searches have also failed to prevent illicit drugs and contraband from entering institutions.
In first year Political Science I learned the quote “rights are rights are rights are rights”. And there are serious violations of human rights going on in prisons daily. As Canadians we need to be aware that these problems are only going to get worse as the federal government has plans to force through an omnibus crime bill in the fall featuring a slew of tough-on-crime policies.
Interesting tidbit of information: all Members of Parliament can tour federal prisons, so I encourage you to write to your MP and encourage them to go look at the conditions within prisons and speak to the prisoners. In addition, the organization Canadians for Fiscal and Social Responsibility is running a postcard campaign encouraging MPs to vote against this legislation, you can print the template here.