700 words, 3 minutes to read
The majority of people held in Canadian provincial jails are on remand – that is, they have not been found guilty of a crime but are being held anyway for a range of different reasons. Prisoners in remand generally are held under strict security conditions even if they are accused of relatively minor and non-violent crimes. And they have little access to any support for problems that brought them into jail in the first place, such as poverty, lack of housing, addictions or mental health problems. The harms of this practice are well documented.
A recent study from researchers at The University of Alberta sheds light especially on the conditions of women being held in remand in a large jail in a western province. The study is based on interviews with 36 women. The researchers draw five main conclusions, all of which are consistent with a considerable amount of other research on women in the criminal justice system.
One reservation to the study is that we don’t learn what proportion of these women were Indigenous, though we know that a huge share of women in prison are. The authors make reference to the unique challenges facing Indigenous women, but one wants to know more on that score.
Victims who don’t trust the system
First, most if not all the women were themselves the victims of abuse of various kinds, often starting in childhood and continuing throughout their lives. More than 80% reported serious incidents of violence against them in their past. This could involve physical, sexual and psychological abuse. The link between being victimized and later criminality is well established in research, as the authors point out. Even so, these women did not use those experiences as a justification for their wrong actions.
Second, these women had little or no faith in the police, the courts, or the other institutions that are supposed to protect them or at least treat them fairly. Their experience has taught them that these systems are not interested in or fair to people who are seen as marginalized in various ways. Indeed, a number of them reported having been victimized by the police.
Mothers in jail
Third, for those women who were also mothers (apparently most of them, though an exact number is not reported), the challenge of being separated from their children, either temporarily or permanently, was huge – primarily because they were well aware of the trauma this could produce for their children. In the talk about victims of crime, the effects on the family members of those arrested and charged, especially children, are rarely considered. Yet “As researchers in other contexts have pointed out, there are tremendous collateral negative effects on the family members of those who are incarcerated.” Women also reported being vilified by authorities, including jail guards, as unfit mothers. In some cases children were removed from the mother’s custody by court order and the women had to grapple with whether they could in fact provide adequate parenting.
It can be even worse on the outside
Fourth, many of the women have serious mental health problems – another commonality in prisons as pointed out many times by Canada’s Correctional Investigator. Neither addiction nor mental health is likely to get any treatment while a person is in remand, and may become worse as a result of the conditions in most provincial jails. “What little programming existed was portrayed by the women as being cursory and infrequently available.”
Finally, the researchers were surprised to hear from many women that bad as things were in jail, they had it worse when they were out of jail. “Many of the women described continuously facing the prospect of being victimized outside of prison by a long list of people in their respective circles.” The researchers refer to this as “ a tragic account of the failure of social services on the outside to provide marginalized women with basic necessities relating to security, housing, and social welfare.”
We have our priorities all wrong
Apparently Canadians are quite prepared to spend $200 per day per person keeping people locked up without helping them, but we are not prepared to spend anything like the same amounts helping people so that they do not get into trouble in the first place.