women in prison

Ashley Smith Inquiry Commences: Is Incarceration the Solution to Female Offending?


by Kim Mackenzie

An inquest into the circumstances of how Ashley Smith died in a Canadian federal prison five years ago has finally begun. Hopefully some questions will be answered as to how Ashley managed to commit suicide as prison guards watched from the other side of her cell door. Instead of just looking at why the guards did not intervene, I think it is important to question the entire system. How did the system let Ashley down?

Ashley had originally been incarcerated for throwing crabapples at a mailman, but due to her oppositional and defiant behavior, she was kept in custody for more than three years and most often forced into segregation for periods longer than Corrections Canada technically allows. Her life ended in the Grand Valley Institution for Women- an institution that is supposed to have more gender-responsive programming.

Clearly the biggest problem in this case was the mismanagement of someone dealing with mental illness. Ashley engaged in repeated self-harm. Research suggests that over half of federally-sentenced women engage in self-harm. The truth of the matter is female offenders have different needs compared to male offenders, especially those suffering from mental illness. It is not enough to create a female-centered facility; the gender-specific programming needs to be followed and staff need to be properly trained. Instead of focusing on control and punishment, female offenders dealing with mental illness need to be treated. They need to have access to mental health and community resources. Read more

Posted on by Kim Mackenzie in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics 12 Comments

Women’s Worlds Report: Day 3

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.

-E. Cain

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics Leave a comment

Women Behind Bars

by E. Cain

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.


Posted on by E. Cain in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics Leave a comment