Somehow the Visitation and Correspondence room inside the Edmonton Institute for Women manages to be sunny and bright and bland and depressing all at once. Outside the wall of windows, a faded plastic play structure—the kind you can pick up at Toys ‘R’ Us for a hundred bucks—stands looking sad and abandoned. Across a snow-covered yard, I count 10 almost identical houses, sunlight bouncing off the windows. As I sit waiting for the tour coordinated by the Alberta Public Interest Research Group to start, I think to myself that the scene could be any number of suburban cul-de-sacs, were it not for the 10-foot fence topped with razor wire surrounding the entire property. I remember that the fence wasn’t there when the place opened.
That was in November 1995 and the opening of EIFW was heralded as the dawn of a new era in women’s corrections. Creating Choices, the 1990 report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women, laid out a radical reform agenda that included closing the Kingston Prison for Women (P4W), the only federal women’s prison in Canada, and replacing it with smaller prisons in regions across the country.
Calls to close P4W were nothing new. The 1938 Archambault Royal Commission studying penitentiaries recommended P4W’s closure four years after it opened. That inquiry, and 15 that followed, took issue with the incarceration of women from across Canada in Kingston, which completely cut them off from their families and offered little potential for rehabilitation. Those criticisms would be ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments for decades. Even the 1977 MacGuigan Commission with its blunt description of P4W being “unfit for bears, much less for women” fell on deaf ears.
In 1990, however, the federal government accepted the Creating Choices recommendations and P4W’s closure was announced. The construction of the new regional prisons (Edmonton was one of five, along with a native healing centre) was under way before certain events occurred in April 1994, resulting in one more inquiry and one final damning document, the Arbour Report.
On April 22, 1994, a violent encounter between inmates and several guards culminated with the women being placed in segregation. A few days later, on orders from the warden, the women were yanked from their cells, strip-searched by an all-male emergency-response team and denied various legal rights, some for months.
An internal investigation downplayed the incident and found no wrongdoing but complaints about the incident persisted, with Correctional Service Canada officials adamant that no such thing had occurred until CBC’s The Fifth Estate got hold of the video. It turned out Canadians wouldn’t tolerate having their evening news interrupted by what looked like a low-grade porn movie showing guards in full face masks using scissors to cut the clothes off shrieking women prisoners.
Almost a year later, the federal government ordered an inquiry into the incident, to be headed by Madame Justice Louise Arbour. Arbour pulled no punches. She insisted that the inmates involved had their own legal counsel throughout the proceedings and refused to allow CSC staff to leave inmates in shackles and cuffs when they were brought to testify. Through her actions and words, Arbour relied heavily on the notion of substantive equality: “One area in which women have equality in Canada, without trying, is in the national system of punishment. The nominal equality translates itself into injustice,” Arbour wrote. “But, lest the injustice fail to be absolute, the equality ends and reverts to outright discrimination when it comes to providing constructive positives—recreation, programs, basic facilities and space—for women. … In light of today’s advanced sociological knowledge, the institution is obsolete in every respect.”
Arbour mentioned in her report that, by February 1996, the newly opened EIFW had received 17 women but makes no mention there were already signs of trouble. By January, there were media reports of a number of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm among the women. At the end of February, Denise Fayant, a 21-year-old First Nations woman and new mom who had arrived at the prison less than 24 hours earlier, was found close to death in her cell. She died at the University of Alberta Hospital two days later. For months CSC officials maintained her death was a suicide, though eventually Edmonton police opened a file and two of Fayant’s fellow inmates were tried and found guilty of manslaughter and being an accessory. Following three separate escape incidents involving seven inmates in a two-week period, all of the women were moved to other facilities until security measures could be improved, including the installation of that fence.
I’m snapped out of my trip down memory lane when a woman joins us. She’s wearing street clothes, a hint of makeup and sports a number of piercings, all occupied by crucifixes. “Don’t bother trying to count them,” I think. I’ll only be able to remember so much, having been stripped of my notebook and pen at the front door.
The inmate* introduces herself and adds, “I live here.” At some point she tells us she’s a “lifer” but never volunteers information about her crime. Nobody asks. She proves to be an excellent tour guide.
As we wander through the building, we learn that most of the 130 women currently housed at the facility (it is rated for a capacity of 125) live in the houses. There are supposed to be 10 women per house, but overcrowding has meant one of the houses now has 16 occupants. We’re shown the family visitation house, which women can book if they meet a number of conditions. We’re told the use of the house had been suspended for some time while the house now holding 16 women was retrofitted for the task. We’re told the nearly completed building we saw as we entered the facility is a new minimum-security unit that will house up to 44 inmates when it opens, likely in about six weeks. We’re told that it is hoped that will help ease up the tensions that come with overcrowding. We’re not told what those tensions are. We don’t ask.
We are shown the stores area where the grocery orders for each house are processed every week. There are two women working there, both First Nations, and they happily answer all of the questions the group throws at them. We learn each house is given a budget of $350 a week to feed 10 people and that all dietary needs are accommodated. I think of my own grocery budget and ask, “How is that even possible?”
The inmate beams with pride as she shows us the library, built up over the past seven years through the efforts of community volunteer organizations like the Women’s Prison Sub-Committee of the Greater Edmonton Library Association. She tells us the program has been so successful that surplus books are now sent to a number of men’s facilities.
We’re shown the CORCAN unit, one of 39 across the country, which is intended to provide inmates with important skills training to increase their chances of success upon their release. The unit at EIFW is capable of sewing, embroidery and banner-making. As we walk through, two women are stitching shoulder badges for the Coast Guard. I comment that the skills training is awfully gendered and the inmate replies, “Big time.” When I ask if there’s access to other training for the women, like in the skilled trades or construction, she laughs.
We see the computer lab, where the women learn Microsoft Word or Excel but do not have Internet access. The inmate says a lot of the women experience severe shock upon their release when faced with the technological advances that have occurred during their incarceration. She’s waiting to receive approval for an escorted visit to participate in a program put on by the Edmonton Public Library to specifically address this issue.
We meet the Chaplain, Snowy, who tells us about how heavily EIFW relies on community volunteers for programming. He tells us about the highly successful choir and mentions they could always use more volunteers to offer music lessons. I ask Snowy about recidivism and he says that the EIFW has a high return rate, not necessarily because women have re-offended but because some of them, after having spent a long time institutionalized, have a hard time reintegrating on the outside.
The inmate mentions she’s a mom and that her child is in Saskatchewan, but doesn’t go into any further detail. I ask if there have been any babies born at EIFW lately. She says it’s been a while, but marvels at how having a baby in the place, though only for a short time, changed everybody’s outlook for the better.
Her eyes light up when she tells us about the collective rescue of an injured stray cat last year. We talk about the strike the inmates launched last fall when the government arbitrarily slashed the few dollars a day they are able to earn by 30 percent. Prior to the move, some inmates could earn as much as $6.90 per day, which they use to purchase phone time, stamps and personal items. The inmate tells us some of the women still try to provide financially for their children and this move has really caused a major impact. And then, all too soon, we are done.
The CSC website states that the five guiding principles outlined in the Creating Choices report—empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, supportive environment, and shared responsibility—guide the delivery of correctional services for women.
There are now six regional women’s correctional facilities in Canada. Around the same time EIFW was built there were similar facilities constructed in Truro, NS; Fraser Valley, BC; Joliette, QC and Kitchener, ON. In addition, the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Maple Creek, SK was opened. It was at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener that Ashley Smith died by self-strangulation in October 2007, while guards looked on.
Postmedia journalist Laura Stone tracked former Justice Arbour down during the inquest into Smith’s death, noting that many of the concerns raised in Arbour’s 1996 report seemed to be contributing factors in the teenager’s demise, including prolonged periods of segregation and lack of mental-health supports. Arbour’s comments were chilling. “You have to ask yourself, well, has anything seriously been done to deal with these kinds of issues? Because it’s so reminiscent,” she told Stone.
Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers has raised a number of concerns with respect to women’s corrections over the years. Recently, he’s called on the federal government to loosen restrictions on the Mother-Child Program. The program had been established in 2001 to allow some women to keep their young children with them while incarcerated. In 2008, the government moved to exclude any woman who had been convicted of serious crimes involving violence, children, or crimes of a sexual nature. They reduced the age of children eligible to participate on a part-time basis from 12-years-old to six-years-old and imposed additional requirements related to Children’s Social Services (although CSC’s website does not reflect these changes). According to Sapers, prior to those changes the program had as many as two dozen women participating at any given time. Now, he says, they don’t even bother applying for it. Ivan Zinger, the executive director and general counsel of the Office of the Correctional Investigator confirmed in an email that today there are just two women using the program, both on a part-time basis.
In a report titled Risky Business: An Investigation of the Treatment and Management of Chronic Self-Injury Among Federally Sentenced Women, released by Sapers’ office last fall, he raised the alarm about chronic self-harming among women in the federal corrections system who continue to be treated and managed through isolation and prolonged segregation, despite what we’ve learned through the Smith case. We didn’t see the segregation unit on our tour.
This concerns me.
With the federal government’s get-tough on crime measures like mandatory minimum sentences, efforts to limit or deny conditional release, and longer sentences, the prison populations have nowhere to go but up. In his last annual report, Sapers noted that the women’s population in prisons is increasing at a much faster rate than men’s. In the 10-year period between March 2003 and March 2013, the female inmate population increased by just over 60 percent.
One in three federally sentenced women offenders is aboriginal. Since 2003, this group has increased by 83.7 percent.
In the end, the tour did nothing to assuage my concerns about conditions for women in Canadian prisons, though to be fair it did nothing to add to them. We didn’t see any women who looked anything but comfortable and content which I found, at the time, odd given our surroundings. In the end, improvements will come when the principles put forth by Creating Choices become more than just words on a page that happen to be utterly unaligned with the actions of the government in charge.
*This article was edited on March 16, 2014 from an earlier version.