In support of prisoners and prison justice activism in Canada

Eddie Nalon sat in a solitary confinement cell at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison near Kingston, Ontario. On August 10th, 1974, he was expecting to be given the news that he was to be released from solitary confinement. The guards neglected to tell him of his pending release. Out of frustration or despair, he cut the vein in his inner elbow. The cells were equipped with call buttons that could be used to summon the guards in an emergency. He pushed the button in his cell, other prisoners pushed their buttons, nobody responded, and he bled to death. An inquest into his death found that the guards had deactivated the call buttons in the unit. There were a number of recommendations made by the coroner's jury, including the immediate repair of the emergency call system.

In May 1976, another prisoner, Bobby Landers died of a heart attack in the same unit. He tried to summon help but the call buttons had still not been repaired. Medical testimony at the inquest into his death established that he should have been in intensive care, not solitary confinement.

Prisoners at Millhaven put out a call for August 10th to be a national day of protest against an apathetic prison system that did not seem to care if people in prison lived or died. On this day, prisoners across the country fast, refuse to work, and remain in their cells to honour the memory of all the people who die unnecessarily in prison from suicide, murder and medical neglect. Supporters on the outside organise community events to draw public attention to conditions inside Canadian prisons.

A Special Investigation
August 10th, 2003 will be the 27th anniversary of Prison Justice Day in Canada. This year, the Prisoners' Justice Day Committee will focus on the conditions for women in prison, to coincide with the current Canadian Human Rights Commission Special Investigation into Systemic Discrimination Against Women in Prison based on Sex, Race and Disability.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Native Women's Association of Canada made the original complaint to the Commission on behalf of women who were being held in Saskatchewan Maximum Security Penitentiary for Men. This complaint is also supported by the Aboriginal Women's Action Network, Assembly of First Nations, National Association of Friendship Centres, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Strength in Sisterhood, Disabled Women's Network Canada, National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canadian Bar Association and Amnesty International.

It alleges that the Canadian government has breached its fiduciary duties to federally sentenced women in Canada and has disregarded the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and certain international human rights obligations, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which, in 1975, Canada agreed to uphold. Information on the full submissions made to the Canadian Human Rights Commission can be viewed on line at Women in Prison

“Most importantly, the risks that they [women] pose to the public, as a group, is minimal, and at that, considerably different from the security risk posed by men” (Arbour, 1996: 228).   Women represent a small portion of Canada's prison population and their particular needs are overlooked, especially in the areas of meaningful treatment and life-skills programs. Women's crimes are predominantly non-violent and reflect the social and economic standing of women in society. 75 per cent of women serving time do so for minor offences such as shoplifting, fraud, or drug and alcohol offences. The needs of women in prison reflect the same needs of as those in the community at large. 35 per cent of provincially and 48 per cent of federally sentenced women have a grade nine education or lower, and 40 per cent have been classified as illiterate. Most of the women serving time were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Consider first that 70 per cent of the world's poor are women, and that single mothers with children under the age of 18 have a poverty rate of 57 per cent: Two-thirds of federally sentenced women are single mothers, many of whom lose their children to social services and must contend with regaining custody upon their release. Seventy-two per cent of provincially and 82 per cent of federally sentenced women have histories of physical and/or sexual abuse. In terms of violent offences committed by women, 62 per cent of these charges are for ‘low-level’ or ‘common’ assault. Most women serving time for violent offences committed their crime against a spouse or partner, and they are likely to report having been physically or sexually abused, often by the person they assaulted. There are only 64 women serving life sentences for murder in Canada.

Discriminatory Correctional Laws and Policies
Correctional laws and policies discriminate against all women. Of particular concern is the over-classification of federally sentenced women as ‘maximum security.’ Approximately 42 per cent of federally sentenced women are classified as minimum security, yet are imprisoned in facilities that provide much higher security than most of them require. Federally sentenced women do not have the same access as men to lower security institutions and halfway houses, programming, education, or family contact.

Other examples of discrimination are the utter lack of adequate programs and services for federally sentenced women at all security levels; women-centred programs, programs for addiction and health, education and employment training such as vocational training, computer maintenance and upgrading education and programs linked to upgrading in the community.

Of particular concern for women in prison is the lack of healthcare services. Women in prison have as much need for specialized care (e.g. gynaecology and maternity that are specific to women) as do women outside of prison.  Additional considerations for the proper medical care of women versus men includes dental care services such as prenatal and postnatal care in particular.

Further, treatment services focused on overcoming histories of drug and/or alcohol dependency, as reasons for dependencies are different for women than for men.  Psychological, psychiatric and counselling services for overcoming difficulties including but not limited to abuse issues, which should be provided by women healthcare professionals.  Finally, because women more often than men are responsible for the care taking needs of their parents and elders, parenting services such as childcare and elder care are also needed.

Since the year 2000 closing the Prison for Women (P4W) in Kingston, Ontario, maximum-security women have been transferred en masse to isolated sections of men's prisons. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in suicide attempts and other self-destructive acts. As one female prisoner explains: “women try to find a way out of these inhumane conditions, even through death.”

Canada is in the process of ignoring every recommendation made on the treatment of women in prison and is in the process of building five new ‘super’ maximum-security prisons for women. Other concerns for imprisoned women are the virtual absence of minimum-security conditions for women, the labelling of women with mental health problems as dangerous, and the continued use of male guards on the front lines of women's prisons.

More recently, in 2003, women formerly housed in men’s prisons are being transferred into the newly constructed, special maximum security ‘pods’ located in each regional prison for federally sentenced women despite the fact that much research (i.e. the Correctional Services of Canada’s 1992 Regional Facilities for Federally Sentenced Women Operation Plan) indicates that federally sentenced women are not generally a danger to others and do not require maximum-security accommodation.  Rather, this research shows that less than five percent of the women warranted a maximum-security classification while the large majority being either minimum or low medium.

These special maximum-security ‘pods’ mean that women must endure more egregious conditions.  For example, in the men’s prisons, these women were held to conditions governing federally sentenced men, albeit with considerably fewer programs, movement and benefits.  However, after their transfer out of the men’s prisons, these women, while wanting to be closer to families, communities and ‘sister’ prisoners must contend with poorer quality and quantity of recreation and food while suffering more extreme custodial sanctions in facilities for federally sentence women.

One formerly federally sentenced woman comments on the special maximum-security ‘pods’

Imagine your reactions if you were just one Aboriginal woman, incarcerated since 1978 when - after suffering these assaults by uniformed men, in 1994 you are transferred to a men’s penitentiary in Saskatchewan.  Termed “therapy.” You manage to ‘survive’ another more than eight years under segregated conditions until transferred in March, 2003 to one of the “new” maximum security units for women.  Here you are denied all rehabilitation-relevant programs including your own rights under s.15 of the 1985 Charter enactment and the 1992 CCRA, which includes the right to full participation in all Aboriginal spirituality.  You must complete the mandatory correctional “programming;” you must agree to be handcuffed and shackled and while accompanied by two officers, be degraded and be used to instil fear and from that fear - compliance throughout the rest of the population - all in order to gain a few hours in the gym while the other women are barred from the same gym and locked down during this movement!  You are expected to show respect to your keepers throughout this ordeal.
Female Aboriginal Prisoners
Aboriginal peoples are over-represented in Canadian prisons.  In 1999, the incarceration rate for Aboriginal people was 735 per 100,000 of the Canadian population, compared to a national average incarceration rate of 151 per 100,000.  “Discrimination against Aboriginal women is rampant in Canada's federal prisons”, says the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). Aboriginal women represent 27 per cent of all women serving federal time, yet account for less than two per cent of Canada's population. Moreover, 50 per cent of women classified as ‘maximum security’ prisoners are Aboriginal women.

Aboriginal women in prison often go into federal facilities on lesser charges, and commit infractions in prison that lead to longer sentences. Those federally sentenced women classified as ‘maximum security’ have no access to core programs and services designed for women under federal law, and are denied specific programs designed for Aboriginal prisoners. Many of these female Aboriginal prisoners have been serving time involuntarily in men’s prisons and psychiatric wards. Serving time in a men’s prison not only puts these women at risk to male violence, but also denies them equal access to the programs and services that the men receive.

Kim Pate, the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, draws attention to the fact that Aboriginal women and women with disabilities are particularly discriminated against: “Being Aboriginal means you are seen as higher risk; being poor means you are seen as higher risk; and being disabled means you are seen as higher risk. All of this results in women receiving a higher security classification, so if you are a poor, Aboriginal woman with a disability, they literally throw away the key.”

Women Prisoners with Mental and Developmental Disabilities
The Disabled Women's Network Canada states that federally sentenced women with mental and developmental disabilities are being discriminated against under Section 17 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulation, which equates mental disability with a security risk. This legislation applies higher security classifications to these women, and perpetuates negative stereotypes and assumptions, which characterise mental disability as dangerous.  Because of their higher security classifications based on disability, women who are suicidal or have mental or cognitive disabilities, are often isolated, deprived of clothing, and placed in stripped or barren cells.   Prisons have become a substitute for community-based mental health services. With the increased cutbacks to healthcare and social programs, the law is increasingly coming into conflict with women's lives, as they are relegated into prisons instead of receiving appropriate services within the community.

Vancouver Prison Justice Day Events
This year the Prisoners' Justice Day Committee is participating in a cross-country campaign to examine the situation of women in prison. It has joined with women's groups and prisoner rights organisations across the country in order to raise public awareness. We are demanding that the Government of Canada and the Correctional Service of Canada end its discriminatory treatment of women in prison and close the new maximum-security prisons for women.   The Vancouver Committee has organised several community events, and encourages you to listen, watch, educate yourself, and get active. For more info about Prison Justice Day and the committee's work, you can check our website at

July 13, 2003
Kirsten, Joint Effort