Community support for incarcerated women

I’ve been looking a lot at the Canadian justice system and have been frustrated by our government’s stubborn commitment to pursue agendas that may sound good to voters but are destructive for the people directly affected. So it was refreshing and encouraging today to learn about a great program that is actively doing positive things for prisoners.

Stride is a program within Kitchener-Waterloo’s Community Justice Initiative which supports federally sentenced women coming out of the Grand Valley prison into the KW community. They use community engagement and circles of support to provide care and support for women who face so many obstacles when leaving prison and trying to build a new life for themselves.

Most women in prison, and those who are coming out of prison, are isolated and stigmatized. The vast majority have been physically and/or sexually abused. Most were unemployed at the time of their offence; two-thirds have not completed high school. 85% of incarcerated women are mothers.  It is naive and unrealistic to expect that these women can leave the harsh prison environment and seamlessly integrate into communities.

Stride matches trained community volunteers with women wanting support with re-entering the community. By having community support and caring volunteers encircling them, women have a much better chance of not only staying crime-free, but also improving their lives.

One aspect of the program which is really interesting is called the ‘Stride Night Program’ in which community volunteers and local agencies go inside the prison walls to participate in evenings of crafts, sports, games and socializing. These evenings provide opportunities for inmates and community members to build relationships that can be so important and helpful for women’s community integration.

For anyone near Kitchener, I encourage you to check out RareFunk, a consignment store in the downtown that supports the female inmates by selling ‘Fresh Start Creations’ – the crafts and art which female inmates create. Through the proceeds from these sales, these women are able to give back to the KW region by donating to local women’s or children’s charities.

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Real justice, not more prisons

prisonThe more I learn about the backward policies our government has been advocating, such as building more prisons while reducing services and programs that actually rehabilitate and assist offenders, the more frustrated I become.

The Conservative government was recently found in contempt of Parliament (something unprecedented in Canadian history) in part for failing to disclose the full cost of their ‘tough-on-crime’ agenda. They have already acknowledged that they will spend an estimated $6 billion in construction costs alone for new prisons, but what we don’t know is the real total which will be spent on incarcerating and warehousing all the new convicts. Budgets for prison infrastructure have already more than doubled in five years (from $88.6-million in 2005–6 to $211.6-million in 2010–11).
To make sure these prisons are filled, the Conservatives are changing the Criminal Code to increase mandatory minimal sentences and remove the discretionary powers of judges who might recognize that an offender is not actually a threat to the community and that the interests of all parties – victims, community and offender – are best served by using alternatives to prison such as reparation, restitution and treatment.
Yet while this election was brought about by issues of contempt and spending on prisons, these issues have all but disappeared from the media.
Should you encounter any candidate in the next few weeks, or have a chance to ask questions which may be put before political parties, you may want to remind candidates about what triggered this election and ask if our tax dollars will continue to be dumped into ineffective, pricey ‘tough-on-crime’ agendas.
You could mention that more than a third of prisoners in provincial jails have not even been convicted of a crime – they are awaiting trial. The majority of our inmates are serving a sentence for a non-violent offence (78% and 31% in provincial and federal penitentiaries respectively). Many repeat offenders are mentally ill – they require treatment, health services, education, housing and employment.
Ask for real improvements to our justice system, not simply more prisons.

Bill C-23: Pardons will be more difficult to obtain

On June 17, 2010, the House of Commons split Bill C-23 (An Act to amend the Criminal Records Act) into 2 new bills – C-23A and C-23B. Bill C-23A was passed quickly without much debate – pushed through because Karla Homolka, having completed a 12-year manslaughter sentence, would have been eligible for parole under the old legislation and the government used her example to push for legislative changes. It essentially allows the National Parole Board to “deny any pardon that would bring the system into disrepute”.

The second part of the bill – C-23B: Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act, is currently before the house. It addresses the remaining aspects of Bill C-23 with such things as substituting the term “record suspension” for “pardon” and extending the period of ineligibility for a record suspension to five years from three for summary conviction crimes, and to 10 years from five for more serious indictable offences such as manslaughter. It also makes those convicted of sexual offences against minors and those who have been convicted of more than three indictable offences as ineligible for a record suspension.

And as with the other current ‘tough on crime’ legislation initiated by the Tories, there is no evidence that this Bill will result in gains to public safety or that it will further the objective of protecting victims. Instead, it’s been described by Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, as “yet another sad and sorry attempt to inflame, rather than to inform, the public.”

First, to be clear, pardons do not mean that people’s criminal records are erased, but that the information is removed from public record so as to improve their chances of obtaining employment and reintegrating into society. For example, a pardon ensures that a sexual offender’s criminal record doesn’t show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre, unless the offender applies for a job involving children, the disabled or any vulnerable group of people.
Pardons can only be applied for after the expiry of a sentence, which means people have paid all restitution orders, served all of their time and satisfied their probation orders. Since 1970, more than 400,000 Canadians have received pardons,96% of which are still in force – meaning the recipients remain crime-free within their communities.
But the government is proposing to extensively lengthen the amount time before which people can apply for pardons – to 5 from 3 years for summary conviction crimes, and to 10 from 5 years for more serious indictable offences, such as manslaughter
And in addition to delaying pardons, the cost of applying for pardons will increase to $631. Only 2 months ago they already bumped the price to $150 from $50. This may not seem like a lot of money too most, but to people who have been unable to find real work due to their criminal records, this could be an insurmountable obstacle.
Because without a pardon – in other words with a criminal record – a person’s chance of finding decent work is extremely limited. And lack of employment is very highly correlated with likelihood to re-offend. Unpardoned, people also continue to live with stigma and oppression, exacerbating such things as low self-esteem and social isolation which further contribute to anti-social behaviour.
So essentially, by making it harder for people to obtain pardons, the government is increasingly the chances that they will commit more crime – in other words, actually threatening the safety of communities.
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EMCP, Carleton University

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