Women’s prisons: The truth behind Canada’s utopia

11 Mins read

Looking in from the outside, it’s easy to fall hook, line and sinker for the social justice rhetoric spouted by the political upper echelons of Canadian society, especially when comparing Canada to its southern neighbour.

However, scratch beneath the polite national exterior and the gleaming smile of Justin Trudeau, and you’ll find a glaringly contrasting picture, smeared with historical injustice.

Women struggling with substance abuse in Canada are facing unnecessarily long periods of incarceration in federal penitentiaries because of the lack of rehabilitation services in provincial institutions. Lack of harm reduction, racism, generational trauma and politics are all feeding into a problem perpetuated by inaction.

“My whole life was just drugs, alcohol, abuse and bad relationships,” Heather, a mother, women’s rights activist, former federal and provincial inmate and fentanyl addiction survivor tells us.

Being born into a household plagued with the presence of an alcoholic father kick-started Heather’s journey to incarceration. The consequences of this all too common magic paternal disappearance were exasperated by the arrival of her new step father, and his opioid addiction.

She could only watch as he gave her mother the pills that sank her into the quicksand of addiction.

“He used to beat her when (my mother) was pregnant with my youngest sister, he was also a predator to a lot of children, he was an adoptive parent with CAS (Canadian Adoption Services) so he had children in and out of his care. Some of the children he had in his care went onto sexually assault children themselves,” she said.

“I remember begging her as a child to leave my stepdad because he used to beat me, then my mom got a job that took her out of the house at night, which left him with me and my sister, so she blamed herself and ended up turning to drugs.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Three of us are now in a 6×7 foot cell with a girl who is shitting, puking, sweating, screaming and kicking for what seemed like forever.“[/pullquote]

“She would be kinda absent, not around, slow, so she wouldn’t know what he was really doing,” said Heather. “Every single guy that was in the house after that was very abusive, and all of them were on drugs.”

Unfortunately, Heather’s story of physical, sexual and mental abuse is not uncommon.

According to a paper published by the Canadian Nurses Association, the majority of women in Canada’s prisons have experienced sexual and physical abuse and have a higher prevalence of substance abuse than men.

Three quarters of incarcerated women also have a mental health condition, according to the annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

At 16, Heather decided the only viable option was to run away from home. Seeking solace in more unhealthy physically, mentally and financially abusive relationships.

“I guess with all the issues I had when I was younger I was essentially looking for someone that could be my father, I guess I had daddy issues, because of my dad leaving me and not protecting me, I never felt protected in my life. I always had to fend for myself, I always had to take care of other people so I looked for the older guys, the bad guys, the guys who have just got out of jail but can protect me because nobody will fuck with him.”

After dealing drugs in Sarnia, Ontario for 10 years in order to get by, eventually the law caught up with Heather and she ended up spending time in federal prison after a stint on remand in the local provincial jail.

During her time in these institutions, the cracks in the services offered for women struggling with substance abuse and those going through withdrawals started to show.

As per Canadian law, people who are given a custodial sentence over two years long are sent to a facility run by the federal government, rather than one under the jurisdiction of the province, creating a natural separation between people convicted of major and minor crimes. Provincial jails are also used to house those awaiting trial. 

From the start, it was obvious that Sarnia jail had problems with overcrowding, the jail had four cells each containing two beds. Heather and two others were put in one of these cells.

Overcrowding, short staffing and lack of harm reduction further exacerbate the lack of support for inmates struggling with substance abuse, forcing them to take more risks when taking drugs. The most common being the sharing of one needle between many, increasing the risks of spreading diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

According to Heather, provincial jails “do not have the oversight (from the federal government) so they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

In Ontario, defendants can wait up to 18 months before sentencing, in some cases people have waited up to 30 months, a phenomenon exacerbated by Covid-19. An inordinate amount of time to wait for someone in need of treatment.

“You’re lucky if you get one AA (alcoholics anonymous) meeting a month, they didn’t have a withdrawal program, so if you went in and you were coming off drugs they still put you in a cell,” said Heather.

“Three of us are now in a 6×7 foot cell with a girl who is shitting, puking, sweating, screaming and kicking for what seemed like forever. One of us had to sleep with her waist to her toes under the bed, and from her waist up, beside the toilet.”

Sarnia Jail were approached for comment, but refused to provide one.

Jessyca Greenwood, a criminal defence lawyer from Ontario with over a decade’s experience working with criminalised women says that overcrowding is a common problem in women’s remand centres.

“When women are in custody for extended periods of time and do not have access to treatment, it is setting them up to fail to be released with no supports. Further, if they are placed on conditions like, abstain from the use of drugs, this puts them in an impossible situation,” she told us.

“It does not reflect the nature of drug addiction: that recovery is a process and requires supports, treatment, counselling, and may involve relapse. These breach type of offences can also adversely affect women and lead to further criminal convictions resulting from relapse.”

The separation of responsibility between provinces means issues from institution to institution can vary. Amna Qureshi, staff lawyer with Legal Aid Alberta and their team lead for Mental Health Court, says that these issues are also a problem in that state.

small cell in a canadian prison

Cell in a Canadian prison similar to the one Heather was kept in during her time in Sarnia Jail [Canadian Service of Corrections]

“Reports indicate that overcrowding in provincial remand centres has long been noted as an adverse issue. Overcrowding leads to other issues such as lockdowns or difficulty making phone calls. While there are many great organisations in Alberta that endeavour to assist women, access to these programs can be thwarted by limited staffing, funding and are dependent on how long women are in custody,” Amna said.

The separation between federal and provincial institutions also creates problems with the communication of inmate needs. Depending on the jail, inmates may be able to visit a doctor who can prescribe medication that can help with their withdrawals.

However, if an inmate is then sentenced to a stint in a federal institution, according to Heather, the rules differ from institution to institution. Leaving the inmate not only going through withdrawals, but lacking the medication that made their withdrawals bearable.

“When I was being transferred to the pen (federal prison), they started implementing a little bit of a program for withdrawal. So they would let you see the doctor and they might prescribe you a sleeping aid. But it’s all dependent on the jail you’re at. So in Sarnia jail they won’t, Windsor jail they will. But then when you go to federal, they won’t prescribe half the things that the provincial jail has prescribed you.”

Canadian Senator Kim Pate has been working with incarcerated women for most of her professional life. Before being appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2016, Pate was Executive director of the Canadian association of Elizabeth Fry societies, a federation of local societies which provides support to criminalised women, first nations women, women with mental health issues and other disabling conditions, young women, visible minority and immigrant women, poor women and women deprived of other sources of support.

“If I get a prisoner or detainee who comes to me and argues that they want to get a longer sentence in order to access programs I will do my level best to dissuade them, because if that’s the argument then the argument should be no, they should be in the community accessing services,” Pate said.

“We know the least effective place to do any kind of programming is in a prison context, the place they have to return to is the community, so the best place for them to access services is the community.”

Due to the lack of rehabilitation services in provincially-run institutions, many women are sentenced to terms of two years and one day, or more, so they can access the programs available for substance abuse in federal institutions.

But according to Pate, the number of programs available in practice compared to those that are available on paper is very low, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Resulting in judges and lawyers arguing for longer sentences, which often results in no further benefit for the convicted individual.

[pullquote align=”right”]The residential schools were so full of abuse, and sexual abuse, so I can understand why people do what they do[/pullquote]”Where you eviscerate programs in the community, which I would argue is a pretext to providing them in the prisons, then you inadvertently result in the well intentioned lawyers, community members and judges giving people longer prison sentences instead of the kind of supports they need and that are vital in the community,” Pate told us.

“So you see people go in and usually they do not receive the services that exist on paper. The services that exist on paper are generally 1 in 20 of the services that exist in reality.”

In response to these allegations the Canadian Service of Corrections (CSC) gave us the following statement:

“CSC offers a suite of harm reduction measures for inmates to address problematic substance use. Problematic substance use is a global phenomenon and Canada is experiencing an opioid crisis, which has had devastating effects on families and communities across the country. Correctional environments are not immune to this. Among offenders, 66% of men and 76% of women report having a lifetime history of problematic substance use. Intake health screening is offered to all inmates at intake and would include identifying any immediate needs requiring medical attention.”

As the CSC are not responsible for the running of provincial jails, they cannot be held responsible for the conditions Heather spoke about in Sarnia Jail. However, they did accept responsibility for the over-crowding described in some of their federal facilities, saying that:

“CSC recognises existing population pressures at women’s institutions due to an increased women offender population.  As a result, CSC’s Accommodation Plan for 2020-2025, when approved, will recommend the development of additional residential capacity where required and an increase in accommodations for women with mental and physical disabilities.”

Despite suffering through years of abuse, Heather has been strong enough to forgive those who hurt her, understanding that despite the trauma they put her through, many of the men she encountered were dealing with past trauma themselves.

One of these men was her step-father, a member of the First Nations community, who had suffered abuse in Canada’s residential school system designed to ‘integrate’ indigenous Canadians into Anglo-Canadian society.

“The residential schools were so full of abuse and sexual abuse, so I can understand why people do what they do. I can understand why (my step-father) did what he did, same with his adopted kids, his brother and his dad, I understand why all those generations did what they did, they did the one thing that they knew.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that the former Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, gave an official apology to First Nations peoples in Canada for forced use of residential schools, 177 years after their creation and 12 years after the Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, the last federally-funded residential school in Canada, closed its doors.

The effect of Canada’s residential schools and the ‘Sixties Scoop’ are still being felt to this day, especially in women’s corrections. Despite representing just 4% of Canada’s female population, First Nations women make up 42% of women incarcerated in federal prisons, most of which, have extensive histories of physical abuse, sexual abuse and addiction.

According to a report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada: “It is estimated that some 40% of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in prisons today are residential school survivors. Many others are inter-generational survivors, and/or have survived the child welfare system, including the 60s scoop, and other government legacies of colonization.”

Senator Pate, along with activists all over Canada are fighting for what they see as the possible solution to Canada’s drug abuse problems. Safe injection sites, needle exchange programs and other forms of harm reduction they say would alleviate the pressure on the prison system, and give women all over Canada struggling with substance abuse the services they need, relinquishing the need for an institutional sentence.

However, many barriers exist between harm reduction activists and the decriminalised drug usage and support services they are campaigning for.

“There are a lot of people that are still very ignorant about harm reduction, either that, or they just don’t give a shit about addicts. They fight us every step of the way. We’ve started getting needle exchange program’s in the prisons but people are in uproar about it,” Heather said.

The easy access to services in the community which activists like Senator Pate and Heather are fighting for are crucial to assisting women trying to escape from abusive relationships.

After being released from prison, Heather was reliant on a man she was dating for financial support and money to buy drugs.

“I never had to buy my own drugs, so if he was mad at me or anything like that, he would withhold it. So I was always walking on eggshells to make sure he was okay, even though we didn’t get along, and I was scared of him. But I was scared that if I left him, I wouldn’t be able to get the help,” Heather told us.

After suffering through more abuse, Heather decided she needed to escape that life after falling pregnant with her son. She decided to start a methadone program to curb her reliance on drugs, but was faced with three month waiting lists at her local methadone clinic.

“So I had to call the clinic in Chatham-Kent, which is a 45 minute drive away so I could get an appointment there to start methadone. So I used to have to drive to Chatham twice a week, but for most addicts that isn’t an option.

“We need [services] that are in places where women tend to spend the most time, grocery stores and baby stores etc. because a lot of the time the abusive man is not likely to be grocery shopping or in the baby aisle at Toys ‘R’ Us. He’s going to be at home drinking or getting high waiting for her to get home so that he can beat her.”

Luckily, having access to a car allowed Heather to get the treatment she needed to get away from her son’s abusive father, but driving 45 minutes to an hour, twice a week, is not an option for most people struggling with addiction, leaving them stuck with their abusive partners.

Provincial legislatures play a pivotal role in the administration of harm reduction services within Canada’s provinces, especially due to the rise of the right-wing populist Reform Party and the 10 years of Conservative Party majority in the Canadian parliament.

The consensus on harm reduction policy swung towards criminalising addiction rather than dealing with it as a public health issue. During this time Federal support for harm reduction effectively disappeared and the onus for implementing harm reduction services fell totally on the provinces.

In a study analysing the quality of harm reduction policy in each province and territory published in The Harm Reduction Journal, researchers concluded that the disparity in quality of services offered differed greatly depending on the province.

Provincial harm reduction statistics

Quality of harm reduction policy by province [Harm Reduction Journal]

British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia were found to have the highest quality of harm reduction policies, while the North West Territories, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador performed the worst overall.

Notably, Ontario, the most populated province in Canada and home to just under 40% of Canada’s population, was ranked among the bottom five despite having the greatest need for coherent approach to harm reduction.

Although more action has been taken by the federal government in the Trudeau era, harm reduction services remain patchy at best. With Trudeau’s Liberal Party lacking a majority and preoccupied by Covid-19, the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Through sheer determination and power of will, Heather was lucky to escape the life her family, the rehabilitation and penal systems had predetermined for her. She now lives happily with her son in Toronto, advocating for the rights of women in the Canadian prison system.

Despite Heather’s relatively ‘happy’ ending many women all over Canada are not as fortunate to have escaped the cycle of addiction and criminalisation that exists in Canadian society, resulting in many sadly paying the ultimate price.

And for now, it remains an egregious but removable mark on Canada’s ‘nice’ reputation.




Featured image by Wendy Avleraz via Unsplash.
Edited by Tom Tyers and Susu Hagos

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