Mothers behind the bars of Canadian prisons

In the last decade, the number of women being incarcerated in Canada is growing at a disturbingly high rate. Between 2003 and 2013, the female federal inmate population increased by more than 60%. For Aboriginal women, the incarceration rate has increased by over 87%.

The harsh government policies which are imprisoning so many women not only impacts those serving time behind bars. Their families suffer too since the majority of incarcerated women in Canada are mothers. Not only that, they are often the sole custodial parents and primary caregivers of their children. They were likely to have been living with their children prior to being incarcerated. Imagine the upheaval caused by the separation. What happens to the children? What happens to the mothers?

Sometimes there is something sensational that happens that draws public attention to the fact that we are incarcerating mothers. For example, in 2012, a young mother gave birth to her son alone in a jail cell of the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, while guards and nurses allegedly ignored her cries of pain.

But for the most part, we are ignorant about the majority of those who are incarcerated, and especially of the children they leave behind. If we knew more, would we still accept the regressive policies that will only see more women, more mothers, locked up?

If you are interested in knowing more, a recent book, Incarcerated Mothers: Oppression and Resistance, brings together several essays examining the experience of incarcerated mothers, both in Canada in abroad. Authors show that despite lip-service to mothers’ rights to have contact with their children while in custody, the lived experience is quite different.

You can also view a short video called Bonding Through Bars.

If you have any comments about mothers behind bars, please leave them below.

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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.

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.

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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EMCP, Carleton University

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