Women behind bars

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      “Hell. Unabashed hell.” Seated in the dining area of her sunny Vancouver apartment, Betty Krawczyk is sharing her impression of Surrey Pretrial Services Centre, the provincial prison where she spent three days last summer for protesting what she calls the destruction of Eagleridge Bluffs. The 78-year-old has an easy laugh, twinkling eyes, and a disarming Louisiana lilt. Having spent more than two-and-a-half years incarcerated in three British Columbia prisons for environmental activism, this great-grandmother and writer on environmental issues and women’s rights is also something of an authority on life in this province’s prisons for women.

      “You’re locked down for most of the time. There’s no natural light. You’re only allowed out for an hour a day, and that’s onto a cement court. You never touch grass or touch anything green growing,” Krawczyk says of the centre. “You’re served rotten food in a sick environment. The women come in there from off the street and they’re suffering different stages of withdrawal. The ones who are too sick to hold their heads up are dependent upon others who are coming along in the withdrawal because there really isn’t enough staff.”

      Krawczyk believes that “there is something inherently barbaric at one human being having to guard another or having to lock another human being into a cell.” She observes that the routine of imprisoning someone can become so familiar that nobody questions it. “But it should be questioned,” she says emphatically. “It should be questioned every time a woman is locked into a cell. What has society done to this woman that makes her so reprehensible that she has to be locked into a cell?”

      Krawczyk is not the only one asking this question. She’s backed by groups and individuals across the country who believe that women do not belong behind bars. That the majority of women in prison do not pose high security risks is a point reiterated in government reports and acknowledged by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). The fact that an estimated 80 percent of crimes committed by women are poverty-driven is corroborated by statistics: 80 percent of women in federal prisons were unemployed at the time of their arrest (compared to 54 percent of men), about 50 percent have a Grade 9 education, and a disproportionate number (31 percent in federal prisons) are aboriginal. Given all this, abolitionists ask, why are Canadians choosing to pay tens of millions of dollars a year to incarcerate some of our most disadvantaged citizens?

      THE DIVIDE BETWEEN women in the prison system and the outer world is not complete. Every so often, a situation occurs within the women’s prison system in Canada that results in a ripple effect that can be felt beyond the walls. Eleven years ago, an event at Kingston’s now- defunct Prison for Women (P4W) caught the public eye. The strip-searching and shackling of eight female prisoners by male guards in an operation sanctioned by prison officials was aired in a video by CBC’s The Fifth Estate. The subsequent public outrage resulted in an inquiry into practices in women’s prisons by Justice Louise Arbour and, subsequently, dozens of recommendations toward reform. At the 10-year anniversary of the Arbour Report, and in light of subsequent recommendations by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, equality-seeking groups have been asking if anything has changed for the better.

      A short version of the controversy over women’s prisons in Canada subsequent to the Arbour report goes like this: P4W is closed after 66 years, and five new regional prisons are built. Against the protestations of human-rights groups, women classified as maximum-security are incarcerated within various men’s prisons across the country. The CSC then builds maximum-security prisons within the perimeter of all the regional prisons except the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. But controversy flies over the use of these units.

      Last spring—10 years after the release of the Arbour report and dissatisfied with the progress made by the CSC—the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), and Strength in Sisterhood (SIS) called on the ministers of justice and public safety to implement recommendations made by Justice Arbour, the CHRC, and the United Nations.

      In an October 2005 report, the UN “expressed serious concern about Canada’s treatment of women prisoners”, according to Kim Pate, executive director of CAEFS. UN directives included instruction to implement the CHRC recommendations and report back in one year; to remove male staff from direct contact with women prisoners; to limit the use of segregation; and to establish an independent external redress and adjudication body for federally sentenced women.

      Here in British Columbia, provincially sentenced women (women sentenced to less than two years) are incarcerated in the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre, the Alouette Correctional Centre, and the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre. Federally sentenced women (women sentenced to two years or more) are incarcerated at the Fraser Valley Institution (FVI). Until it closed in 2004, under what is referred to as an “exchange of service agreement”, both provincially and federally sentenced women served their time at the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women (BCCW). As of October 2006, about 230 women were being held in provincial prisons in B.C., and 59 women were incarcerated federally in this province.

      Interviewed at her Vancouver home, Phyllis Iverson of Joint Effort, a prisoner-support group, shares Krawczyk’s concern about the situation for women at Surrey Pretrial. She says the fact that women are held there is one of the primary issues for provincially sentenced women in B.C. “There, the women”¦are totally isolated,” Iverson says. She explains that Surrey is primarily a men’s prison, and women incarcerated there spend most of their time in lock down because they don’t have free movement throughout the facility.

      Both Krawczyk and Iverson speak of the dearth of programming available to women at the provincial level. “When the federal women and the provincial women were split, the provincially sentenced women lost a lot of the programs they had access to at BCCW because that was being paid for by the feds,” Iverson says. Krawczyk, who has also spent time incarcerated at BCCW, concurs. “Any kind of rehabilitation is not taken seriously by this government for the women in the provincial prisons,” she notes.

      For federally sentenced women, Iverson says, one of the biggest issues is the Fraser Valley Institution’s maximum-security unit. She says the unit isolates women who are classified as maximum-security by separating them from the rest of the prison population. The CSC assigns a security classification of minimum, medium, or maximum to each prisoner, according to specific criteria.

      “At men’s maximum-security prisons, the men have movement within that prison setting,” Iverson explains. She says that even the CSC recognizes that women prisoners pose very little threat to the community.

      “When you look at these new maximum- security prisons that have been built for women, you have to wonder why they’ve built them,” Iverson says. “These are the same maximum-security-classified women who were part of the general population at P4W, the same women who were part of the general population at BCCW. What has changed after all these years of being in the general prison population? What has changed that women now have to be totally isolated?”

      “Another issue for federally sentenced women [at FVI] is that there’s no true minimum-security there,” Iverson continues. She explains that with minimum- and medium-classified women living in the same houses, minimum-security women don’t get to enjoy some of the privileges they might in a different situation. And razor wire and motion detectors around the perimeter of the prison create a higher- security environment.

      Such criticisms are shared by the CAEFS’s Pate. On the phone from her Ottawa office, she says that although FVI is described by CSC as a multilevel institution (i.e., one that incarcerates women at minimum through maximum levels), “It’s at best medium security. And the women who are in max are in a more secure setting than men’s [maximum security] and [have] less services.” Pate says she would like to see CSC “get out of the max units” for women. She says it takes millions of dollars to build these units, each of which holds 10 to 15 women. This is a huge drain on resources and the money could be better spent, she says. According to Maria Dalziel, an FVI spokesperson, that facility’s max and segregation unit cost $3,100,00. It has the capacity to hold 10 women.

      Lori MacDonald is the director general for women offenders at the CSC’s national headquarters. On the phone from Ottawa, MacDonald acknowledges that the majority of women prisoners in Canada present a low risk to the community. She says that of the 935 women with federal sentences in Canada in June 2006, only 10 to 11 percent were classified as maximum-security. She says that when assigning a woman to a secure unit, the concerns might be management challenges around her behaviour, her own safety, or the safety of the staff and other women she’s living with.

      “Certainly there’s a cost to having a more secure environment, but we weigh that against the safety of women and offenders,” MacDonald says. Rather than being about locking women up and walking away from them, she explains, the secure units provide an intensive intervention environment in which staff work with prisoners to “reduce your security classification and get you out”.

      FVI warden Nancy Wrenshall, interviewed at the prison, emphasizes what she calls the rehabilitative aspect of the programs offered at FVI and the therapeutic benefits of the secure unit. “I think there has to be. Otherwise you’re just running a holding unit. If that’s the case, you have to question what you’re doing, period, with your whole site.” She says prisoners in the unit are attended to by behavioural counsellors with backgrounds in social work and psychology.

      But Iverson says that in their efforts to develop a therapeutic model, CSC’s focus is on personal motivation behind a crime rather than taking into account the role of the socioeconomic environment. “It’s [about] what led you to commit this crime and it’s up to you to fix that yourself,” she says. She adds that the concept of group therapy in a penal setting creates contradictions for women. “It’s hard to open up”¦in a group when you’re going to be talking about your deepest psyche, and your problems, your childhood, your life experience, in a setting that is not confidential.”

      A local abolitionist maintains that the institution of incarceration itself is incapable of being a humane place. Karlene Faith is a prolific author, a long-time community activist, and a Simon Fraser University professor emerita with the school of criminology. “Within a prison environment, the power differential between the staff and the prisoner is so total that the prisoner’s needs and rights will rarely be even articulated, much less responded to in any kind of constructive way,” she says.

      Iverson raises the question of why women are incarcerated in high- security units in the first place. She says that “given the tensions that can arise in that kind of [prison] setting, I think prisoner-on-prisoner violence is relatively low. But also it is a system that creates itself because the majority of these women don’t have violent histories.”

      The majority of women aren’t high security risks, Pate says, and are more likely to be seen as a risk to themselves than to anyone else. She says that many women end up in max due to mental-health issues because it’s easier to monitor them there. She adds that the current system for classification and assessment of women prisoners is “significantly flawed” due to discrimination based on sex, disability, sexual orientation, and class.

      “A factor you can do nothing about determines your [assessed] risk,” Pate says. “If you’ve never had a bank account, finished high school, had a job—[the system is] skewed against so many women.”

      The CSC’s MacDonald says that although there are women in the max units with mental-health issues, there are other options available for women with mental-health issues at the minimum- and medium-security levels. With regard to classifications, she says that “in response to a number of concerns that have been raised”, the CSC decided to contract out the development of a new classification and assessment system specialized for both aboriginal women and women in general. The new model for assessment will be field-tested in the near future, says MacDonald, who describes it as “a big, big deal” and “a multiyear project”. She says that the custody rating scale is designed to assess public safety, escape risk, and institutional adjustment.

      Some opponents note that the concept of institutional adjustment can be problematic for women who don’t fit the good-prisoner mould. “Being adjusted means that you are compliant, it means that you are passive or that you are acquiescent,” Faith says. “So a lot of women go in there because they have a bad attitude. The bottom line is that they protest the things that are happening to them.”

      Krawczyk says that a sense of deserving is lacking in many incarcerated women, who have been mistreated from their earliest memory. “They don’t have any connection to the world except through cruelty and exploitation,” she says.

      FVI warden Wrenshall says that one of the biggest challenges to any institution that incarcerates women is to empower them. “I think it’s something we do reasonably well here. You keep it right at the front of your mind”¦it doesn’t mean we’re perfect”¦for the most part, we do really good work, and the motivation of the people [staff] who are here is [for] the right reason.”

      But some critics maintain that no change to the system can correct the inherent fact that prisons for women should be abolished. Faith calls transformative justice “a long-range goal” but one that needs to happen. “We have to transform, first of all, the way we respond to people who are troubled. We need to transform the economy so that poverty cannot be so widespread amongst political-minority groups that we end up incarcerating people around a code of colour and class.”

      This is very apparent in the provincial prisons, Krawczyk says. And she says the health issues for women in these institutions are exacerbated by the fact that many of them are “dope sick”, diet is poor, and nutritional supplements are hard to access. “There’s a definite vitamin deficiency in prison,” says Krawczyk, who adds that she was denied the right to purchase her regular vitamin supplements from outside the prison. She notes that there is a sore lack of nutritional know-how amongst incarcerated women. “They will try to trade me their salad for my desserts, and I will say, ”˜Just take the dessert. You eat your salad. You need that salad.’?”

      Health care is another area under review, MacDonald says, and the results “will significantly impact on the health care delivered in our sites”. She says that 80 percent of the women coming into federal institutions have substance-abuse problems and that each women’s facility has a special nurse for infectious diseases and methadone maintenance. Substance abuse is also addressed in the federal institutions through programming.

      With regard to the success of the CSC in following recommendations made to it over the past decade, MacDonald says: “We have very detailed action plans and have received very positive feedback from the CHRC as well”¦We are very committed in the work we do for women”¦When we look at recommendations, we look at: is it consistent with our mandate? Is it respectful of our priorities in the service [CSC]? Does it contribute to public safety?”¦It’s one thing to make a recommendation, but it has to link to where we’re going in our process and where we’re required to be at the end of the day.”

      She says that if one looks at where the CSC is today versus 10 years ago, “it’s incredible”. In 1995 there was limited programming, no services for aboriginal women, and one prison for all federally sentenced women. Today there is gender-influenced programming, the Saskatchewan healing lodge, a francophone institution in Joliette, Quebec, and mental-health treatment units. “You can always have an audit, a review, and do better.”

      Everyone seems to agree that further community support is necessary. When asked what would need to occur before prisons could be abolished, warden Wrenshall says: “I don’t see the social supports in place. They need to be in place”¦when women are dealing with self-esteem issues.” Of her FVI, she notes: “We’re at the end of [the events leading up to] the problem here.

      “The solutions are knocking us down with the insistence that we pay attention,” Krawczyk says. “It’s only by deliberately choosing to thrive on the crippling of citizens that this is allowed to continue.”

      Faith says what is needed is support for children and parents at risk. “We need support that has been, in recent years, largely withdrawn,” she says. “These are the crimes. The crimes are when you starve people into circumstances that make them desperate.”

      What is needed, Faith says, is not an alternative to incarceration—it is an entirely different approach to the social issues that underlie imprisonment. “We don’t need alternatives to prisons; we just need to close prisons, and then we approach every social problem for its own sake,” Faith says. “Whenever you’re talking about an alternative to prison, you’re still talking about the ideology of punishment”¦we need to move away from an ideology of punishment.”

      Meanwhile, for Krawczyk, the possibility of more prison time looms. Her case has rested on the argument that she be permitted to base her defence on the reason she was protesting rather than be tried for breaking a court injunction brought to the court by Peter Kiewit Sons Co. to forbid public protest at the construction site. Although the former charge yields punishment as potentially lenient as a fine, Krawczyk says, the latter could theoretically land her in prison for years. Krawczyk says corporations regularly use injunctions to prevent public protest. Once a company has won an injunction, rather than being tried for protesting a clear-cut, protesters are tried for breaking an injunction, which leads to a charge of contempt of court. In a recent ruling, Madame Justice Brenda Brown refused to hear arguments that being arrested under an injunction was an abuse of the court’s process. Krawczyk says those concerned can write to the Attorney General. Her trial, which is scheduled to last one week, resumes on January 29, 2007. She’ll be representing herself, and she invites citizens to come to court and support her with their presence.