Speeches | Women in Prisons in Canada

15 December 2010

Cet débat est disponible en français.


Honourable senators, there is time for me to speak, which might mean that I have the last word in 2010. Finally, I get the last word.


I want to speak on my inquiry, which is to draw attention to two issues with respect to women in prisons. The first one concerns the work of the Greater Edmonton Library Association and its prison library and reintegration committee. This group has been working for about three years on several library-related and library-specific projects in the Edmonton Institution for Women. It started over three years ago. The Edmonton organization that employs a librarian in the public legal education community hired a woman who had been convicted of killing her husband after years of brutal abuse. This woman offered to take the librarian and others from the Greater Edmonton Library Association to the Edmonton Institution for Women for a tour. When they saw what was construed as the institution's library, they were struck by the fact that there were all kinds of books, as she said to me, but nothing to read. The books were a mess. They were out of date and they were in disrepair. What they saw at that moment was truly a gap in the kind of fundamental resources that would be so important for inmates in an institution like this.

With that start, they began to build literacy and library-related programs in the Edmonton Institution for Women. Three years later, they have a structured program called Storybook. This is a program whereby women inmates read stories, which are recorded on a disk. The disk and a new book, a new version or a new copy of the book from which they read are sent to their children outside the institution. The mother of that child, in effect, as close as she can come to it under the circumstances, is able to read to her child, which, of course, sends an important message to that child about literacy, creates at least some form of contact and relationship-strengthening between that mother and that child, and gives the mother who does the reading and offers it to her child a sense of worth and purpose that she probably does not get to feel very often in an institution of that nature.

The second program the Greater Edmonton Library Association's Prison Library and Reintegration Committee has set up is a book club in the medium- and minimum-security wings of this prison. Of course, that means that women are able to get books, read them in consort with one another, and discuss them periodically, just as any other book club would function. They are now beginning to move that book club program into the maximum-security side of the prison, which is more complicated because of the balkanization of that facility, which is necessary for security. However, again, the book club offers a valuable literacy program to women who probably get relatively little programming of that nature.

Third, the committee has established a technical literacy program, under which they seek to provide literature, books, and manuals to assist inmates in learning about technological changes with which they will be confronted when they finally get out of prison. Many of the inmates may well have been in prison at a time when for example, cellphones became common; it depends how long they have been in prison. This allows for these women, at least in some measured way, a chance to begin to understand the complicated world, or at least a portion of it, in which they will have to reintegrate.

Finally, the library has a fourth program, which is a borrowing program that they have structured with the Edmonton Public Library so that they can, more or less, like anyone else, borrow books and other materials from the library. They now have access to materials which, before this program, they simply did not.

Honourable senators, this program is valuable at many levels, for many reasons. Clearly, the program addresses the literacy issue, which affects many inmates. Often we are told, and science tells us, that people who have literacy issues end up on the margins of society and often in the criminal system by virtue of the difficulties they have encountered because of literacy issues alone. This program strongly promotes literacy, and because the Storybook program is part of the program, it strongly promotes family literacy.

Second, the program allows inmates to maintain a meaningful connection with their children while in prison. As limited as that might be, it is often better than what they have been able to sustain. Of course, the program generally fosters reading, information seeking and education amongst inmates. In fact, one of the side effects or benefits of this program is that it offers the chance for inmates who are literate to read to inmates who are not, and to provide a service to others, which of course is a therapeutic process.

What is absolutely striking is that these four programs and this program generally, are funded and supported absolutely by volunteer work and volunteer donations of materials, books and money. That, of course, makes the program difficult to sustain. However, it is striking to consider that there is no budget in the Edmonton Institution for Women — zero budget — for library facilities and services.

An Hon. Senator: Shame.

Senator Mitchell: Honourable senators, how could it be that some of the most fundamental elements, surely, of support for inmates who one day need to reintegrate into a society — including literature, information, literacy, connection with their family and children — simply are not provided for in this prison. I ask how it can be that this support is unavailable in this prison specifically and, I am led to believe, in the federal prison system for women in this country, generally.

I raise this inquiry to applaud the volunteer members of the prison and the Prison Library and Reintegration Committee of the Greater Edmonton Library Association. There are many wonderful volunteers in Edmonton, as there are, of course, across the country. I want to applaud them. I want to recognize the women in our institution in Edmonton who participate in this program in an effort to better themselves so that they can become productive citizens or so that they have a greater chance to do that when they leave prison. I want to applaud those who undertake to participate in the Storybook project for that which they offer their children by participating in that program.

I want to say that the real gap and misfortune in all of this, and the issue I want to point out every bit as strongly, is that this program is not supported in our federal prison system. It is all but incomprehensible that there not be budgeted money and structured programs to promote literacy, storybook telling for inmates' families to foster that relationship, technical literacy, and borrowing of books in local libraries.

I would appeal to the government, in its efforts to reduce crime, to look at this as a way of reducing crime in a productive and, very likely, successful way, compared with minimum sentences, which science tells us will actually increase crime and not make us safer at all.

The second issue I would like to raise concerning the status of women in prisons in Canada is the Mother-Child Program, which has been a mainstay for a number of years in the federal women's system. This program allows women, under supervised circumstances and rigorous parameters, to actually have their children visit, stay for visits or actually live with them in their prison environment. There are those who might say that that does not seem to be particularly appropriate; however, in fact the experience has been positive. We have not heard, as long as I can remember, of any problems with the program. Over the years, up until changes about two years ago, there would be roughly 25 women with children enrolled and participating in this program.

Today in the penitentiary system in Canada, there are about 500 women, 330 of whom have children under the age of five who, without this program, are largely severed from any close relationship with their children. This program was positive in terms of the therapy it provided implicitly. It provided therapy for the mothers who were able to retain the sense of worth of caring for their children directly. It provided therapy for the children who are often too young to know where they are but are aware they want to be with their mother and have the warmth, sense of relationship and love that we all know is so important, those of us who support family values.

Yet, what happened? Two years ago, arbitrarily and surreptitiously, the Minister of Public Safety changed the rules and raised the bar so impossibly high as to make it all but impossible for any one of those 330 women who have children under the age of five, for example, to participate in this program. The participation in this program has dropped from 25 children to two children.

Honourable senators, what does that say, once again, about the punitive, short-sighted, limited-in-its-creativity approach to reducing crime and supporting people who need help to reintegrate adequately into our society? What does it say about creating greater safety in our society and greater fulfillment in their lives at the same time? What does that say about how this government approaches these issues? It says a great deal. It is a striking contrast between what is now, as a result of this government's tough-on-crime policy, and what, in fact, was successful and could be successful once again.

Honourable senators, I implore this government to reassess the way it approaches crime and to look at these programs that are successful, that were successful and that should be supported because they are the way of a modern, intelligent, creative crime policy for the people of this country.


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