By VICKY MOCHAMA
To look at the experiences of women in federal prisons is to hold up a mirror and a magnifying glass to the failures of Canada’s social safety net.
Women, especially Indigenous women, have become the fastest growing prison population. Over a 10-year period, the population of women in federal prisons has grown by 37 per cent. There is no evidence that this due to any increased criminality on their part.
Yet the process of incarceration treats women in an inappropriately and additionally punitive way. From a lack of mental health and drug use supports, to a dearth of meaningful opportunities for work, women’s experience of the carceral system is a human rights travesty.
A fact-finding trip by senators last May found, among many issues, that, “The women of Joliette (women’s prison near Montreal) are only given one type of sanitary pad; tampons and even incontinence wear that older prisoners may require must be bought and paid for from their canteen fund.”
These indignities are beyond what the punishment calls for.
Some, though not all, spring from a system of security classifications that does more harm than good.
Speaking before a Senate committee last December, Michael Ferguson, the auditor general of Canada, said they found a flawed mechanism during an audit of the use of security designations by the Correctional Service of Canada: “ ... CSC’s tool to assign women offenders to security levels was designed to assess men, not women. CSC also used this tool to refer women offenders to correctional programs, which is problematic since the tool was not designed for this purpose.”
The security classification scale has been rejigged several times but its effectiveness is suspect. As the auditor general’s report noted, over a three-year period, corrections staff overrode the classifications 31 per cent of the time but those overrides were “more accurate than the scale’s recommendations.” Best practice suggests overrides should not account for more than 20 per cent of reclassifications.
These classifications greatly determine the nature and quality of a woman’s time and space in prison.
I spoke to Dr. Kelly Hannah-Moffat, a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto, who said the security designations have a notable impact on the rehabilitative process.
“If you end up being classified as maximum security, that limits your access to programs and services,” she said, “It makes the experience of punishment more onerous and more punitive than it should be.”
For Indigenous women, being classified as high-risk or maximum security can mean they won’t access culturally appropriate programs, such as healing lodges. Yet, for Indigenous and racialized women, the classification systems do not address the impact of role and gender.
Tools that don’t acknowledge how race and gender plays a part in the lives of prisoners thus fails to successfully prepare them for release and creates harmful conditions during their stay. Says Hannah-Moffat: “It’s an actuarial assessment and not a holistic assessment of the whole person at the time. Using generic tools fails to capture the nuances.”
Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger is unequivocal: the levels system is tantamount to discrimination and likely illegal. Zinger writes: “The level system is a gender-based discriminatory restriction unique to the women’s sites …” Further in the report he concludes: “The level system used to manage maximum security women exists outside the law.”
The legality of these tools is facing a test. Jeffery Ewart, a 53-year-old Métis man, sued and won a case before the Federal court in which he alleged that the tools used to assess his detention were a breach of his Charter rights and of CSC’s own act. The Federal court found in his favour; the case was appealed by Correctional Service of Canada and is now before the Supreme Court.
Yet the CSC — and indeed, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale — need not wait for a Supreme Court ruling to change the use of assessment tools.
There is a pressing need to improve the conditions in federal prisons overall. But for women who are often mothers and primary care providers, these assessment tools prevent them from being part in their families’ lives. For example, many women classified as high-risk opt not to see their children because they don’t want to be seen in shackles. A jail sentence for one becomes punishment for the family.
In a talk at the Schulich School of Law,Senator Kim Pate said: “We’re increasingly relying on prisons to do a job they were never meant to do.” Rather than seeing women prisoners as people needing more punishment, we need a system that provides more humanity and empathy, not less.