The Clothesline Project

Kate RexeKate Rexe is a mother, a writer, an advocate, and a seeker of social justice. She has worked for national non-profit organizations in research and policy development for the last decade and would one day like to change the world.

Clothesline project

 

On Sunday, May 27, I attended Ottawa’s Clothesline Project, a project aimed to break the silence about domestic violence in our communities. It was a gorgeous day to be outside, made even more beautiful by the public display of art, compassion, support, and strength of women and girls.

I saw many women and girls who were courageously displaying their own experiences. There were conversations about who we are as women, our vulnerabilities, but also our strengths. There were stories filled with pride and accomplishment, because we as women, sisters, mothers and daughters are often much stronger than we give ourselves and each other credit for. There were memories shared of loved ones who have been lost to violence, and optimism that tomorrow will be a better day.

I attended in part to support the many women I have worked with and grown to love and admire, but also to share my own story. This was this only the second time I’ve shared my experiences of violence in a public way. The first time was at a workshop sponsored by the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres called Kanawayhitowin, or “taking care of each other’s spirit”.

The workshop was for facilitators and those who work with Aboriginal women affected by violence. At the time I was the director of ‘Sisters In Spirit’, a research, education and policy initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) which worked to raise awareness and give strength to the families of nearly 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. As the director, I spoke to a lot of families, worked with communities, and tried to be the best leader and advocate I could. I was humbled by the stories I heard and the courage I saw each time a family member came forward to speak about their experiences. At this workshop I realized that I didn’t need to hide my own experiences in order to be a strong advocate; in fact it is my experiences that make me who I am today and help me understand those who are struggling to escape violent experiences of their past. This is the lesson I will always carry with me, and yesterday I had the chance to share my experiences with the world, without fear of judgment, shame or weakness.

It was wonderful to see representatives from Families of Sisters In Spirit, also attending this event. Families of Sisters In Spirit is a grassroots organization that started up because the government of Canada decided they would no longer fund ‘Sisters In Spirit’. The families and women involved are amazing, not only because of all they have overcome, but because they have helped to create a movement for social change. Bridget Tolley and Sue Martin have lost loved ones to tragedy, but they continue to make a difference for other families who have lost a daughter, mother, sister, cousin, or friend. They are passionate advocates and they spend each day fighting for what they believe in and trying to make a difference for other families who have lost someone they love.

In 2010, NWAC released the last statistics related to missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada (the only source of this data was collected through ‘Sisters In Spirit’) and found that violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls is not limited to domestic violence; in fact, of the data collected, Aboriginal women and girls were as likely to be killed by a stranger or an acquaintance as they were by an intimate partner. Statistics Canada also reports Aboriginal women’s experience of violence are unlike other women in Canada – Aboriginal women are three times more likely to experience violent victimization, both related to domestic violence, as well as by a stranger or an acquaintance.

Some people saw The Clothesline Project as a sad commentary of the way our society is blind to the violence, which is pervasive and runs deep. While I agree it is shameful that so many women, men, children and families are impacted by violence, I was proud to be there. I saw the caring spirit of community coming forward to say “you are not alone”. Too often I’ve felt alone in my experiences of violence. I felt like a victim. Today I am strong. I am a survivor and I will not hide who I am out of fear or shame. And for those who have not yet reached a place where they can speak out, I hope they will be encouraged by those who did yesterday and that they will know that they are not alone.

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Private Member’s Bills

The many changes to the Canadian Criminal Code legislated by C-10 have not satisfied this government’s hunger for more bills to get ‘tough on crime’,  restrict the rights of offenders, and curtail judicial discretion.

Since the beginning of this current Parliamentary session, 221 private member’s bills  have been introduced in the House.  While these bills cover a wide spectrum of public policy (such as setting standards for cancer screening and increasing public awareness of epilepsy), many of them are focused on crime.

For example, Bill C-394 will create a new criminal offence for recruiting young people into gangs. Another will levy $5,000 fines or jail terms of up to 10 years for wearing a mask or face paint at a riot.  Another will give federal prison officials more authority to dismiss inmate grievances by deeming them “vexatious” or “frivolous”.

Another private member’s bill, loudly applauded by the Conservative benches, will repeal Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act and prevent rights claims based on hate speech from being brought before human rights commissions.

Former executive director of the John Howard Society, Graham Stewart, explains that rules prevent MPs from tabling bills which deal with economic policies. “So crime bills are one of the few areas that private members can propose legislation that will attract national attention. Now that mandatory minimum penalties are accepted by the government and the opposition as an acceptable solution to just about everything, they have become a simple way to respond to sensational incidents where an MP wants to be seen to be doing something in response to an incident in his/her riding.”

For example, Bill C-299, presented by Conservative MP David Wilks, would require mandatory five-year jail terms for kidnappers of minors. David Wilks is a former RCMP officer and mayor of the B.C. town where Kienan Hebert went missing last fall. The issue of kidnapping of minors has also been flooding the news with the recent trial of Michael Rafferty, who was found guilty of first-degree murder, abduction and sexual assault of 8-year-old Tori Stafford.

In response to Bill C-299, retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice John Major urged the Commons justice committee to refrain from further tying judges’ hands. He also warned the the Criminal Code is becoming too complicated as legislation is “patched” together with ad hoc amendments.

Nonetheless, private member’s bills such as C-299 are easy to draft and are almost a sure to gain public support, especially when Rafferty’s case is still so fresh in our minds.

Stewart fears that this type of reactionary legislation is precisely what led to rampant increases in sentences through mandatory minimum sentences in the US. “Someone would champion a new get tough penalty in the face of a sensational event and label anyone who objects as soft on crime,” he says. “Each would leapfrog the former to prove that they were tougher – apparently thought to be a good thing.”

“There are no brakes on this system of vengeance,” Stewart warns. “Private member’s bills are a very serious problem as punishment is turned into the currency of cheap political tricks.”

Mother’s Day

Prison mom

Cali Farmer, 4, hugs her mother Netta Farmer at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere, but especially to mothers living in poverty, trying to choose between food and rent, and to mothers in shelters, seeking safety for themselves and their children.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers behind bars, cut off from their families and children, to the mothers of inmates, living with the stigma and fall-out of their children’s crimes, and to the mothers of victims of crime, too often left with wounds but no voices.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers coping with mental illness, sickness and disability, and those raising children in hospitals and treatment centres.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of missing women, of children on the street, of the lost and the wounded.

The brave, the broken and the battered mothers, the strong, the sick and the scared ones, may we all find strength and love today.

Costs for inmates increase

Canadian inmates will have to pay more for room and board, despite losing the opportunity to receive ‘incentive pay’ in prison job skills programs.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced on Wednesday that Canadian inmates will pay more for room and board, will be charged for the use of telephones, and will not have the same access to purchasing goods.

Rick Osborne, a former inmate who spent 25 years in 13 prisons, likened the changes to slavery. “When you have a guy where he’s working all week and doesn’t have any disposable income at the end, that’s called slavery,” he told CBC news. He added that this will limit the amount of money inmates can send back to their families while increasing opportunities for the black market within prisons.

Toews argues that changes will increase offender accountability and save taxpayers more than $10 million per year.

“The accountability for wrongdoing is the sentence that’s imposed by the courts,” said Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada, to the Globe and Mail. “It concerns me that the minister thinks he should be adding to the measure.”

Inmates who work in the corrections job skills program – CORCAN – receive a salary ranging from 50 cents – $2.30 per hour. These low wages will be further reduced as a ‘cost-saving measure’. The opportunity to work over-time to meet production quotas (incentive pay) will be eliminated.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), told the Globe and Mail that taking away more pay will be especially difficult for female prisoners, 80% of whom are mothers. “They’re mostly sole support for their children before they go to prison, a lot of them,” she said. “Any extra money they do make … they send out to their children in the form of gifts or to provide support for them.”

Reducing the ability of inmates to contribute to and maintain ties with their families will make reintegration more difficult as strong family ties can greatly ease inmates integration back into their communities.

These and other recent trends are indicative of correctional policies that focus almost exclusively on punishment, while losing site of rehabilitation and reintegration. Is the idea that prisoners must suffer for their crimes, even more so then they already are? Should not our correctional facilities strive toward enabling inmates to overcome their past and build a productive future? Yet unfortunately, we are seeing a parade of policies which treat inmates as sub-citizens, undeserving of basic human and constitutional rights.

Double-bunking part of prison expansion plan

prison bunksExpansion plans for a federal prison in Kingston, Ontario show provisions are being made for double-bunking  – a practice condemned by many as being dangerous and inhumane.

On CBC’s Power and Politics, host Evan Solomon questioned MPs about the development plans for the Collins Bay institution, which show that standard cells will be built with provision for a “future upper bed.”

Candice Hoeppner, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, said the government does not have plans to make double-bunking permanent, but that preparation for them is “just good planning”.

NDP Justice Critic Jack Harris countered that, “prudent planning would be to avoid the kinds of prisons policies that they’ve got now, which is going to lead to more violence, people with less rehabilitation after being in prison and coming out being more dangerous offenders than when they went in.”

Double-bunking, putting two inmates in one cell, is already practiced in Canadian prisons. Corrections Canada reports that 13% of inmates are currently double-bunked – and this figure could rise as high as 30% as the tougher sentencing provisions of the omnibus crime bill come into effect.

In 2010, Jeremy Phillips, 33, an inmate at the Mountain Institution in the Fraser Valley, was killed by his cellmate Michael Wayne McGray, a man serving six concurrent life sentences for murders.

Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, has  condemned double-bunking for increasing violence between inmates, threatening the safety of guards and increasing the spread of infectious diseases.

In his Annual Report 2009-10, Sapers gave an example of case in which double-bunking resulted in violence: “A maximum security inmate is released from administrative segregation to a double-occupancy cell, despite a psychological assessment on file that noted it would be preferable if he was accommodated in a single cell because of previous psychiatric history. The inmate assaults his cellmate and is transferred to the Special Handling Unit.”

Sapers also reported that bed capacity in the five treatment centres only met 50% of identified need. “Exemptions are even being requested to “double up” in segregation cells where two inmates must share space designed for one for up to 23 hours a day.”

“Given high rates of mental illness, drug addiction, violence and criminal gang membership,” Sapers reports, “it is difficult to see how double-bunking can be viewed as a correctionally appropriate or sustainable solution to crowding pressures in either the short or medium terms.”

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) used to require approval by the Commissioner prior to increasing the number of double occupancy cells. However, in Augst 2010, CSC released a policy bulletin announcing the suspension of this policy. This decision was made despite acknowledgement that “single accommodation is the most desirable and appropriate method of housing offenders [and that] double bunking (one cell designed for one inmate occupied by two) is inappropriate as a permanent accommodation measure within the context of good corrections.”

Responding to double-bunking

Vic Toews

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When questioned about the practice of double-bunking by CBC’s Evan Solomon in August, 2010, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said that double-bunking is “not something that is inappropriate or illegal or unconstitutional or violates international standards”.  Toews went on to say that “many countries use double-bunking and quite frankly I think in many cases it’s appropriate”.

However, Justin Piché points out the practice of double-bunking contravenes the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Section 9. (1) of this international standard states that “Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself. If for special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, it becomes necessary for the central administration to make an exception to this rule, it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room”.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has also stated: “Double Bunking is an unsafe, ineffective means by which to address population management, and will inevitably prove problematic for correctional officers, correctional staff, offenders, CSC and, finally, the general public.”

Additionally, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association argues that the practice of double-bunking  threatens the safety of inmates and staff and, ultimately, the public.


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