Criminalized for poverty
Abuse survivors, mentally ill in Canada need supports, not prisons.
Dateline: Monday, March 07, 2011
by Elsie Hambrook for the Moncton Times and Transcript
“Prisons are the real crime.” The words leap out from a striking poster by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies .
At a recent forum in Saint John, Kim Pate — advocate, legal scholar and Executive Director of Elizabeth Fry —
linked the increase in the female prison population with erosion of government funding for health,
education and social services over the past two decades.
The shrinking social safety net, coupled with earlier deinstitutionalization of mental health care,
has turned prisons into warehouses for impoverished women scarred by violence, addictions,
mental illness and racial discrimination.
The Elizabeth Fry Societies work with “women in conflict with the law”,
starting from the premise that these women have been criminalized in large part because we — this society —
don’t deal well with poverty and marginalization.
Many of women’s convictions are related to poverty or funding addictions: forging cheques,
shoplifting, robbery, selling drugs or trading sex.
|Women are more likely to be incarcerated for property and drug offences than violent crimes.|
Women are more likely to be incarcerated for property and drug offences than violent crimes.
The majority of women in federal prisons, especially Aboriginal women, are survivors of physical and/or sexual violence.
Pate also pointed to another troubling trend boosting women’s statistical “criminality”: the counter-charging of abused women who use violence in self-defence.
Most women locked up in Canadian prisons are in provincial or territorial jails, serving sentences of less than two years.
Women make up about 11 percent of the incarcerated population, 10 percent in New Brunswick.
That’s nearly 400 women in our province, most of them in the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.
In federal prisons across Canada, about 500 women are serving time for sentences of two years or more, up from about 200 two decades ago.
They account for only about six percent of the federally incarcerated, since women rarely commit the violent offences that carry the longer sentences.
Several inquiries and task forces have highlighted the disadvantaged situation of women inside federal prisons.
In a 1996 report on incidents at the notorious and now defunct Prison for Women in Kingston, Judge Louise Arbour
compared the federal prison system to a “lawless state” that subjected female inmates to “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”
The opening of five new federal regional facilities beginning in 1995 — including the Nova Institution in Truro —
brought hope for a more holistic and empowering women-centered approach.
Female inmates are still waiting for the dawn of that kinder, gentler day.
They continue to suffer indignities in a system built on male norms, behaviours and needs.
Jennifer Bernier recently studied the experiences of Atlantic Canadian women in provincial jails and found that in many cases,
the lack of programming, services and supports meant that women often returned to the community
in even worse condition than when they were sent to jail.
In provincial and territorial jails, where facilities are shared with male inmates,
women compete for scarce programming resources with the much more numerous male population.
Female inmates are often young — in their 20s and early 30s. Many are mothers,
and the sole supports for their children before going to jail.
Being separated from their children is one of the worst hardships they must endure.
Aboriginal women continue to be grossly overrepresented in our prisons and jails.
They currently account for only three percent of the women in Canada,
but about one-third of female inmates in federal prisons, up from 18 percent of federally incarcerated women two decades ago.
Only two percent of New Brunswick women are Aboriginal, but they are 13 percent of female inmates in the province’s jails.
Service providers, community activists and civil servants who attended the recent Saint John forum heard the raw life stories
of a few of the women behind these statistics. Their stories had some common threads.
Physical and sexual abuse often began in childhood, but did not end there.
One young woman told of years bouncing between foster homes run by people with dollar signs in their eyes.
The first man who said “I love you” became her god. Where he went, she would follow.
The Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parentage made another young woman the brunt of prejudice.
Many turn to alcohol or drugs to dull the pain, the depression, the discrimination and the rest.
Now back in the community, they find joy in raising a child, furthering their education, spending time with friends or feeling healthy.
But these women still face huge obstacles.
Try finding a job when you have a criminal record, or rebuilding relationships with children and families left behind.
Women serving time in the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre who participated in recent focus group sessions talked about what they needed on release.
Decent, affordable housing was high on the list. Women said they had slept in laundromats,
abandoned buildings and near ATM machines, sometimes resorting to prostitution to keep warm.
They also called for more gender-specific addictions programming, transportation to addictions services,
and a long-term residential treatment facility for women in New Brunswick, like the male-only Lonewater Farm.
They longed for mentors who had experienced incarceration and for mother-child programs.
Prisons and jails will never be treatment facilities or schools, nor should they be.
Women need access to community-based programs and services while serving time inside.
Women about to be released also need help to line up supports they need to make the transition back to live outside.
Recent federal “tough on crime” initiatives put the focus on the opposite of what seems to be needed.
It’s time to invest in prevention, not confinement.
Elsie Hambrook is the new Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
Her column on women’s issues will appear in the Times & Transcript every Thursday. She may be reached via email at the address below.