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Interview With Joint Effort Member
What are the major issues you see with the federal government in regards to the imprisonment of women?
I think that one of the most critical situations for women in prison at this point is the opening of the new maximum security prisons. After the closing of the Prison for Women in Kingston, five regional prisons were built for women, and originally there was supposed to be input from the women's community into the needs of the women in prison and programs.
After that, there had been a couple of what they call ‘incidents' at Edmonton Institution for Women, a couple of walkaway escapes and then there was one death at the prison. Correctional Services Canada (CSC) immediately took all women who were classified as maximum security and transferred them to isolated units in men's prisons, where the women have been doing basically solitary confinement, segregation, whatever you want to call it in these men's prisons. They haven't had the access to any programs that would help to lessen their classification from maximum security. People have been trying for the last nine years to get these women back into women's prisons.
The response from the Government of Canada and CSC was to build new maximum security prisons at all of the regional prisons. When you look at the models that they've used for the building of the two that are open, they're super-maximum security.
So, once you're in the new women's ‘max,' you have to go through four levels of Security. And for the first level, for the first 6 months, the women is locked totally in her cell. She eats all her meals in her cell, she's not allowed contact with any other prisoners, even in the maximum security unit where she is. If she's going to come out of her cell, and she would only be coming out for therapy, or to see the doctor, or for visits, then she's going to be handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by three guards.
At the same time, all the other women are locked in their cells when she's out of hers. She can work her way down to where, through ‘good behavior,' then she can come out of her cell with only the handcuffs and two guards. If she breaks any rules, even raising her voice or being disrespectful to the guards, she has to begin the process all over again.
This new model of security for women is more harsh than maximum security for men, and completely out of line for women, who for the most part are in prison for non-violent offences. The majority of women in prison are there for crimes of poverty. Also the racist classification system means that over 50% of women classified as maximum security are Aboriginal.
What types of changes to the prison system has the BC Liberal government made that will affect imprisoned women in BC?
Overall, they totally closed all of the minimum and medium security prisons for men in the province and put them all into maximum security. They plan to close the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women (BCCW), which is a provincial prison. Aside from provincial prisoners, the BCCW holds federally-sentenced women through an exchange agreement with the federal government. So when they announced that they would be closing BCCW, the federal government said that they would retake jurisdiction over the federal prisoners and they're going to build a new federal prison in Abbotsford.
With the provincial women, they've just said that any woman who needs a secure environment is going to be held in one of the men's lockups, like at Surrey Pretrial, Prince George, and the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, where they've already poured the cement for a separate women's unit. But, the Surrey Pretrial, they're not building a separate unit, they're just going to take women and lock them into an isolated section of the men's lockup, where there's going to basically be no programs, there's going to be nothing for them, and the women are going to be tripled-bunked there.
This is all coming at a time where the Canadian Human Rights Commission is doing an investigation into systemic discrimination against women in prison based on sex, race, and disability. This is all coming at a time where this original complaint came on behalf of women who are being held in men's prisons. So while the federal government is saying that they are going to stop doing this, the provincial government is going to start doing it.
As a longtime prisoners justice activist, what are the main things you have learned in this work, and what do you see in the future for the struggle of imprisoned women?
I think the most important thing that I've learned is that prison doesn't work. I'm a prison abolitionist, I don't believe that any woman belongs in prison, and I don't believe that men belong in prison either. I don't think we need prisons in this society, I think that prisons are used as a means of social control. They're used as a way to deal with problems in the community that can and should be dealt with within the community.
With all of the cutbacks that we've been seeing in BC, I believe that you're going to definitely see an increase in the number of prisoners, and especially, whenever there's cuts to mental health resources in the community, you see a rise of people with mental health issues ending up inside prison. When there's cuts to social programs and women's programs, you see an increase in the rise of women in prison. With the cuts to programs for youth-at-risk, you see an increase in youth detention.
What does Joint effort have planned in the near future?
Joint Effort participated in the Canadian Human Rights Commission reports. We did that through the group Strength in Sisterhood, which is group of predominantly ex-federal women prisoners who do advocacy, both for women inside and outside of prison. Our plan is to continue to focus on the conditions for women in prison, and do what we can to help shut them down.
How can people concerned with the issues facing women in prison get involved? How can they support the work of Joint Effort and Prisoners Justice Day?
Joint Effort is involved in the Prisoners Justice Day events that are coming up, and this year Prisoners Justice Day is going to be focusing on the situation for women in prison. There's a national campaign going to close down the new ‘max' units for women. I think everybody has to, if nothing else, sign one of our postcards and send it off to the government saying that this has got to stop.