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A historical record of federal corrections shows that canada's small female prisoner population has always been housed wherever and however best served the administration of the larger male population. For nearly a century, (1835-1934) women prisoners did their time 'temporarily' housed in men's prisons until the space was needed.
In a system that was designed by men to meet the interests of men, the treatment of women in prison has been one of afterthought planning and temporary solutions. In 1934, canada's first and only federal Prison for Women (P4W) was built in Kingston, Ontario. With the opening of this new prison, it now meant that any women doing federal time would be sent there in order to increase the cost effectiveness of its operation.
Within four years of its opening, a royal commission investigating the penal system recommended that P4W be closed and the women returned to their home provinces. After more than 60 years and a dozen inquiries all ending in the recommendation to close P4W and decentralize the prison system for federally sentenced women, five new regional prisons have been built.
Kingston's Prison for Women, P4W, is slated to close in March 1997, and most of the women prisoners will be moved into the new regional prisons for women in Edmonton, Alberta; Kitchener, Ontario; Joliette, Quebec; Truro, Nova Scotia; and a healing lodge for First Nations women in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan.
There are, however, some women (anywhere from 26 to 49 women) that are classified as maximum security prisoners who will be held in segregated conditions in five men's prisons across the country. These women will be housed in isolation for an indefinite amount of time in Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Ste-Anne-des-Plaines in Quebec, Springhill Instituion in Nova Scotia and Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, all because Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has decided that they do not fit the new system.
While these five new prisons for women only serve to legitimize the extension of a billion dollar criminal justice system that will strive to keep these prisons full and therefore cost effective, we must work to ensure these women are not forced to serve out their sentences in men's prisons.
Women have unique conerns and needs in prison - one of which is their safety. The women who are transferred to the various male prisons will not be safe. Given the extreme repressiveness of all prisons, and given the fact that men are socially encouraged to aggresssively defend themselves against indignities, male prisons are by their very nature explosive environments.
Women imprisoned with men may be harassed not only by prisoners but are extremely vulnerable to abuse from guards. Prison activist Karlene Faith asserts that this is a case where male guards "are assigned to female living untis, or carry security duties such as 'frisking' the women for contraband, supervising showers or 'escorting' resistant women to segregation or other isolated sections of the institution."(1)
The issue of abuse by male staff on female prisoners was clearly the concern in the recent Arbour Inquiry.(2) This inquiry came as a response to investigate the degrading and inhumane treatment of the women who were strip searched at P4W by a male riot squad. While the Arbour Commission's recommendations focus of concern was with the staffing of male guards in the new women's prisons, there is an even understandably greater concern about women being housed in men's prisons.The Arbour report notes that the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women recommended against hiring men as the primary workers in these new regional facilities. The report asserts that women prisoners are wary of male guards because of their personal histories of abuse. One woman's comments on this issue reflect this concern:
I do not want to sit down and discuss my personal issues, my intimate issues, my sexual background , my rapes or anything, face-to-face with men. I don't care if he's a male doctor, a male psychiatrist or a male psychologist, I do not want to speak to a man about what has happened to me by men in my background...(3)