Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Forum for Criminalized Women

As part of my new job, I spent the afternoon at a community forum on criminalized women. This is a subject on which my knowledge has been only marginal, but I’m now getting a chance to sink into it. What I am discovering is quite sobering and disconcerting.

For example, women are the fastest growing prison population not only in Canada, but worldwide. Of the over 1,000 women in Canadian federal institutions, almost a third have a self-identified mental health disorder, the vast majority are poor and under-educated, and over 85% were abused.

If this begins to paint a picture for you of the type of women behind bars in Canada, add to it that over a third are Aboriginal and two thirds are mothers.

Further, almost half of the crimes that they have committed are crimes of property – such as theft and shop lifting. The majority of women charged with assault or murder were acting against an abuser of themselves or of their children. And over 70% of women who are sent back to prison are re-incarcerated because of a technical offense, such as failing to fulfill a parole requirement.

Are these women such threats to their community that they must be locked up for months or even years far from their families and support networks? Because there are such fewer women prisoners then men, there are also fewer prisons, half-way houses, services, etc. – meaning inmates can be thousands of kilometres away from home and support.

Across the board, research shows that offenders are better able to reintegrate into society and less likely to reoffend if they have community support. Yet repeatedly in the discussion today we heard how there is a lack of support within the community, a lack of funded and available programs.

Our government is moving to build more prisons, extend prison sentences and impose more mandatory sentences – none of these things have been shown to deter crime or lower rates of re-offending and none of these things will give criminalized women what they most need – which, as one speaker put it, is support, respect, meaning, healing and connection.

I’m just new to all this. But I’m getting fired up already.

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