7.Learning from the Canadian Experience
Canada has moved from a traditional, male-centric approach to a women-only regional system in which women are held nearer home, can have private family visits and receive trauma counselling. However, although the original ethos of 'self-care' in a campus style setting remains sound, a number of studies have criticised its implementation. Since the 1990s the new prison regime has had to cope with increasing levels of female incarceration[xviii] and as a result has had to expand rather than contract (see Small custodial units in Chapter 5.). This has been attributed (in part) to an increase in the use of short sentences, particularly for women with mental health problems,. There are approximately 600 women in federal institutions in Canada (2012) (this excludes women serving sentences under two years who fall under provincial jurisdiction[xix]).
It has been argued that overcrowding has led to security issues taking precedence over rehabilitation, and that the pressure on the prison system has resulted in women being held at (too) high levels of security (particularly Aboriginal prisoners), underuse of conditional releases, a reported lack of appropriate support and safety, and poor mental health provision. One paper, based on interviews with women in halfway houses, reported the lack of counselling services and over-use of psychotropic drugs. As noted earlier, specialist mental health provision was centralised and is now delivered from two specialist national units.
A review of the task force twenty years on, which included a survey of female prisoners in 2010, reported improvements in offender-staff interactions, and an increase in the range of services and programmes available to women. However, the report also highlighted women's desire for increased access to health services, more frequently run programmes and more contact with community and reintegration services (e.g. employment and educational opportunities), as well as concerns about the costs associated with family visits (see International approaches to parental responsibilities in Chapter 8.).
Other reviews have noted the 'remarkable' progress that has been achieved in Canada. It is therefore perhaps amiss to focus on the problems that Canada has experienced without acknowledging the progress that has been made. Lack of readily available data and the federal/provincial arrangements in Canada make it difficult to assess the impact of the new regime and to compare recidivism rates with other countries. A Canadian government report in 2008 cites a reconviction rate (for new offences) for federally sentenced women of approximately 29%[xx].
A number of lessons learned can be drawn from the Canadian experience.
- Firstly, a new prison regime and regional distribution of prisons does not in itself reduce the female prison population. Without a corresponding reduction in custodial convictions, smaller prisons would struggle to cope with increases in prison population
- Secondly, the importance of staff culture cannot be under-estimated. As one report noted "The lesson seems to be that Canada changed the arrangements but did not change the culture of the staff." 
- Thirdly, some specialist care may be difficult to deliver in regional facilities, in particular specialist mental healthcare.
- Lastly, as noted, most women in Canadian prisons continue to keep in contact with family through letters and phone calls (rather than visits), and cite costs associated with travel and phone calls as continuing barriers to family contact. This suggests that location alone may be insufficient to overcome some barriers to maintaining family contact and that prisoners and their families may need additional support to do so (e.g. transport, parenting interventions).
Email: Tamsyn Wilson
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