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Prisons are the looking-glass of society: The struggle toward dignity for women.

The history of federal women prisoners is riddled with scathing reports and condemnations of their prison conditions and yet, to my knowledge, the situation for women prisoners in Canada has not changed since P4W was first described as "unfit for bears" by the Archambault Royal Commission, four years after the first women were moved there from Kingston Penitentiary (KP) in 1934. By 1990, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced women was the fiftieth federal report to chronicle the inadequacies of prison conditions and programs for women. I became personally aware of the repetitive nature of history in January, this year, when I attended a Canadian Human Rights Commission conference to once again document "cases of discriminatory treatment of" federally sentenced women (FSW) in preparation for a government brief. During this conference, I became aware that the same Commission had condemned the Corections Service of Canada (CSC) for discriminatory treatment of FSW in a government report back in 1981. I ask myself , why does the government continue to waste money on report after report that condemns prison conditions, recommends improvements and then refuses to act upon these recommendations?

I was a federally sentenced prisoner from 1983 until 1990 and will be on parole for the rest of my life. During the latest Human Rights Commission conference, I was asked to testify about my experiences in the prison system. Since I had been out of prison for 12 years, I decided to contact a few women I knew still inside the federal prisons to compare how much prison conditions had changed since I had been released on full parole. I must admit, I wasn't shocked by their testimony, but my cynicism regarding prison reform became even more grounded in reality than ever before.

In 1983, most women serving life sentences were transferred to P4W as maximum-security prisoners to do their time along with medium- and minimum-security prisoners. As maximum-security prisoners, we lived in a population of roughly 100 women who moved about freely from work to their ranges or wings and the yard. There were jobs available for all security levels although they were menial and certainly did not prepare the women for employment on the street, but at that time it was possible to take university courses or upgrade ones education in the prison school. Other than Alcaholics Anonymous, I can't recall any treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction, and there was one psychologist who specialized in sexual-abuse counselling. It might not seem like much, but in the evenings and weekends, we could paint and decorate our cells to reflect our personal identities and could associate in common rooms, play sports in a full-size gym, work out in a weightroom, or jog in a fairly large, open prison yard. Wh en a maximum-security prisoner became a medium-security prisoner, not much changed, but there was the possibility of moving to the wing, an area somewhat like a dorm, with unlocked cell doors and windows in each cell.

By the time a prisoner cascaded to minimum, it was possible to get the odd institutional group pass to go swimming at Artillery Park, or even be transferred to the Isabel McNeil House, a minimum-security house across the road from P4W. At the minimum, women could work in the community, lived in a house without security fencing, could cook their own meals and generally take on the responsibilities of normal life.

Finally a prisoner could apply for day parole at the Elizabeth Fry Detweiler House in Kingston, which also served as a place where women could stay while on passes. Although this may sound idyllic to proponents of capital punishment and the concept of prison as retribution - in reality, prison conditions and programs in the eighties were so inadequate that the overwhelming effect was one of punishment.


P4W's final death knell came in 1994 when a murky black-and-white video that resembled a low-budget pornography film was aired across the country on the evening news showing the male riot squad in full facial masks stripping female prisoners of their clothes with scissors against their will in the segregation cells of P4W. These scenes of degradation had taken place after the prisoners had already been locked in the segregation cells following a confrontation with female guards. Even though most federal women prisoners can recount equally horrific experiences, the public was shocked to learn that these grainy porno scenes were real T.V. taped directly inside Canada's modern prison system. The government responded predictably by setting up another commission, headed by Justice Louise Arbour to investigate and then make recommendations into what was officially described in terms that -could only serve to downplay the crisis: "An Inquiry into Certain Events at P4W"

Two weeks after having their clothes cut off by male prison guards, the six women involved were involuntarily transferred to a segregated range in KP, a prison noted for taking the unwanted sex offenders from the other men's maximum-security penitentiaries. The women were eventually transferred back to P4W after arguing successfully among other things to the Ontario Court that they had histories of being sexually abused by men and did not feel safe in KP. Many months of testimony and thousands of dollars later, to no one's surprise, Justice Arbour's commission recommended that P4W be closed and, once again in i's characteristically understated way, concluded that "'there is, if nothing more, an appearance of oppression in confining women in an institution which will inevitably contain a large number of sexual offenders. This is particularly true of the Regional Treatment Centre [KP]." More troublesome, in my opinion, is the fact that the placement of a small group of women in a male prison effectively preclud es their interaction with the general population of that institution. If transfer inevitably means segregation, the decision to transfer should take into account the limitations on the permissible use of administrative segregation.'


Despite the Ontario Court General Division,. the Arbour Commission and the CS.'s own correctional investigator, here we are in June, 2002, with small groups of women prisoners being confined in virtual segregation within men's maximum-security penitentiaries -- namely Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia, the Regional Reception Centre in Quebec, the Saskatchewan Penitentiray in Prince Albert and the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon. These women's maximum-security units share strikingly common denominators, each unit has a population ranging from one to 12 women who are kept in virtual isolation from the general men's population -- they have either limited or no access to work, recreation, or treatment programs. Life in these women's units bears more of a resemblance to that of special handling units designed for men who have killed guards or other prisoners than it does to that in a general prison population. Theoretically, at least, these women are being held in these units because they are maximum- security prisoners, not for special punishment.

The situation in Saskatchewan Penitentiary is typical of life for a woman as a maximum-security prisoner. You would be placed in an open-barred cell similar to the kind you see in stereotypical Hollywood films, on a small range with three or four other women. No matter how many layers of paint they apply, nothing can erase the haunting thoughts that plague you, knowing that this used to be the men's psychiatric unit, and nothing can stop you from contemplating the fact that you share more in common with Canada's first three female prisoners in 1835 than with any free women in the 21st century.

Every day of your life you wake up to the clanging of the metal doors unlocking, opening up your cell to the same two or three other women with whom you will share a tiny common space for many years. There are five other ranges lust like yours in this unit but you won't get to associate with the two or three women in each of these, nor with the 500 men who live in the rest of the penitentiary around you.

And you pray at night when you hear loud mysterious noises that those 500 men are not in the midst of a riot progressing rapidly towards your unit. Let's face it, can anyone think of a men's maximum-security prison that has not had a major riot? I can't. And I can't think of a men's maximum-security prison that doesn't have some sexual predators either openly or covertly prowling its ranges. Considering that you are one of the 80 per cent of all federal women prisoners who have been sexually abused, you are not always comfortable being escorted through the men's areas to and from the few activities available. But at the same time you feel like you are going to either explode or implode if you have to spend another day in that small space with the same two or three people. Your meals are even delivered onto the tiny range from the men's area and you share a shower with the same two or three women. Inevitably tension builds. And you find small consolation in the words of the correctional investigator condemning your situation as "unacceptable and discriminatory" even for prisoners.

Every time there is a crisis within the prison system, the government diverts the anger of society and its need for a resolution into some government commission, inquiry, or report. They began in P4W, just four years after the prison opened, with the Archambault Royal Commission. Since 1968 no less than 13 government studies and private-sector reports have reaffirmed that P4W should be closed. In 1978, when Solicitor General Jean-Jacques Blais announced that the prison would be closed within a year, instead, he turned around and built a new, 18-foot-high concrete wall. Then again in 1990 a federal task force recommended the closure of P4W, an occasion which Solicitor General Pierrre Cadieux used to pronounce the imminent construction of five new, regional prisons for women at a cost of $50 million. Both the wall and the closure of P4W are good examples of how recommendations by commissions, inquiries and reports are invariably transformed into more prisons, more security and more prisoners.


At the latest Human Rights Commission conference I was surprised to learn that the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, applied to prisoners. I think my surprise was based on the incredible gulf that exists between these rights in theory and their application in reality. If I hadn't experienced first-hand just how vacant the promise of human rights is in prison, I would be the first person to suggest that perhaps all the good-intentioned recommendations of the various government commissions could be implemented through legal pressure to have prisoners' rights upheld. But unfortunately I know all too well how much of a mirage those prisoners' rights really are. Ask the women in Saskatchewan Penitentiary about "freedom of assembly" about which even the CSC states, "inmates are entitled to reasonable opportunities to assemble peacefully and associate with other inmates within the penitentiary, subject to reasonable limits as are prescribed for prote cting the security of the penitentiary or the safety of persons." Ask any prisoner about freedom of speech. Charges stemming from arguing with guards are systemic. Ask prisoners anywhere about freedom of religion. Unless a prisoner is Catholic or Protestant, there are few religious or spiritual "leaders" who have access to prisoners to guide people in their traditional ceremonies. Ask prisoners about freedom of the press. When I was released I was sent a box full of magazines, newspaper articles and books I had never even been notified of being denied. And, of course, federal prisoners can't vote. The list of freedoms and rights that is not applicable to prisoners is too vast to expand upon in this article.


So why should we care about what happened to those women in P4W, anyway? Prison is the looking-glass of society. It reflects what the values and characteristics of our society are. What do we see through the looking-glass? We see women who are the most victimized people in our society. They are the poorest, least educated and most racially discriminated against. They have been physically and sexually abused at the hands of their own fathers and mothers, and then deserted by the fathers of their children. Is this just political rhetoric, you ask? The numbers paint the picture, I answer. Half of FSW have a grade-nine or lower education; 40 per cent are illiterate; the majority were unemployed at the time of their crime; even though Native people make up two per cent of the population, they are 25 per cent of the FSW; two-thirds are single mothers and 80 per cent have histories of sexual or physical abuse. And, even when women do commit violent crimes, 62 per cent are classified as common assault and the majorit y of those convicted of murder have killed a spouse or partner who they reported as having physically or sexually abused them.

No matter how I look at it, the women in prison are the victims of the inequities, injustices and discrimination within our society. Without prisons as a social-control mechanism, the poor would take back what is rightfully theirs; the rebellious would no longer obey laws they know are unjust; and revolutionaries would win the just war. Execution is the only social-control mechanism more effective than prison.

If only I could say the solution was reform and the struggle for prisoners' rights, but unfortunately the contradictions within the capitalist economic system make these solutions illusory. To pursue prisoners' rights is somewhat akin to a heat-weary traveller in the desert trudging endlessly towards a shimmering mirage over sand dune after sand dune. No matter how close the traveller gets to the oasis mirage, just as it seems within reach, it disappears over the next rise. Is this not what has happened with the closure of P4W? The prisoners were promised better prison conditions. Now we see women in tiny units inside men's prisons, and the mediums and minimums are living in small, regional prisons with few treatment or educational programs. The government claims there are too few women prisoners spread out across the country to make programs cost-effective. Yet millions of dollars have been spent on converting ranges in men's prisons into segregated women s units.

Despite the seemingly hopeless task of improving prison conditions, we can't just turn our backs and walk away from the women and men in prison. It's important to try to help them, even if the. gains are few and far between. Certainly even what may seem like a small improvement is a big improvement for someone in prison.

So what is the key to solving this contradiction between working for prisoners' rights and living within a capitalist economy where prisons are an essential social control mechanism? I believe that Claire Culhane, who died in 1996 after devoting the better part of her life to abolishing prisons while fighting for prisoners' rights, had found the key to unlock this puzzle. It is found in the simple words she inscribed on the letterhead of her Prisoners' Rights Group: "We can't change prisons without changing society. We know that this is a long and dangerous struggle. But the more who are involved in it, the less dangerous, and the more possible it will be."

Ann Hansen was convicted in July, 1984, for a number of charges stemming from her involvement in the group Direct Action. She subsequently spent the next seven years in the Prison for Women in Kingston. Her book, Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla, is published by Between the Lines publishers.
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Title Annotation:federal prisons for women
Author:Hansen, Ann
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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