Breaking the cycle of incarceration for women

We discussed issues and opportunities for women in the prison system with University of Alberta researchers Dr. Jana Grekul and Jenna Robinson

4 May 2023

Barbed wire at a prison

Earlier this year I had a chance to learn about an important justice topic that is directly related to poverty. Dr. Jana Grekul and Jenna Robinson presented their research on women’s reintegration after incarceration. Their presentation highlighted that women are now the fastest growing segment in the prison population and the systemic barriers that contribute to women not being able to escape the prison system. After I saw their presentation, I reached out to the researchers to dig a little deeper into the topic and learn more about the issues at play.

Tell me a bit about your research on women in the prison system and why it’s important.

The goal of our research project is to explore the challenges and successes that women face as they transition from prison to community through the eyes and voices of the women themselves, as well as the frontline professionals who work with them. This issue is significant for a number of reasons. First, women, and Indigenous women specifically, are the fastest growing part of the prison population in Canada. For example, between 2007 and 2017 the proportion of women in Canadian prisons increased by 30%; for Indigenous women this number was 60%.

From our research we know there are great community supports for women leaving prison, but there are also some serious gaps in service and support that contribute to women being sent back to prison. Ultimately, we question why many of these women are being sent to prison in the first place. Despite the challenges they face, we are struck by their resilience and hope. We want to highlight this fact and celebrate the successes of these incredibly resilient women – and the community members and organizations that support them despite the many challenges.

We know that Indigenous women are significantly over-represented among prison populations. Can you explain why this is?

Indigenous women make up only 2% of Canadian women but represent 50% of women incarcerated in federal prisons. The overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system is a very shameful, enduring, systemic problem in Canada.

“We call upon federal, provincial, and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade, and to issue detailed annual reports that monitor and evaluate progress in doing so.”

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action

The overrepresentation of Indigenous women in the criminal justice system is a result of systemic discrimination and other ongoing impacts of colonialism. Our justice system is racist, but when you combine that with the ongoing legacies of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, forced sterilization and coerced contraception, higher rates of victimization, intergenerational trauma, the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit folks, and state-sanctioned violence, one can begin to understand the external factors that perpetuate the overrepresentation of Indigenous women and girls in Canadian correctional institutions. As two white settler women writing about the experiences of Indigenous women, we will not ever fully understand their lived experiences or the systemic violence they endure. We hope that sharing our learnings from this project will facilitate constructive dialogue on the ways that colonialism continues to inflict harm and fuels the over-representation of Indigenous women in prison.

Can you explain the victimization-criminalization continuum? Why are some women more at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system?

Research undeniably shows that the vast majority of women who are in prison were first victimized. Many of their criminalized behaviours are reactions and survival responses to their victimization. For example, an Indigenous young girl may be taken from her home by social services because of abuse linked to parental alcoholism, which is further linked to experiences of pain and trauma associated with residential schools, loss of culture, displacement, and other instances of intergenerational trauma. Experiences of physical and sexual abuse within the foster care system are common. As a result, this young woman may eventually act out, whether in anger by assaulting someone, through drug use to numb her pain, or through involvement in gangs or survival sex work. These experiences significantly increase her chances of coming in contact with the criminal justice system. Imprisonment itself is another form of violent victimization; a participant in our study was sent to the Edmonton Remand Centre 29 times, meaning she suffered 29 strip searches. With a history of sexual victimization, the impact of this practice alone is indescribable and there are additional experiences of (re)victimization in prison. Many of the women we interviewed are navigating serious experiences of addictions as well. When it comes to women who are incarcerated, and Indigenous women especially, the picture that emerges is one of victims of physical, sexual abuse, living in poverty, often homeless, and struggling with addictions issues.

It costs $175,000 to $250,000 a year to imprison one woman and about $31,000 to support a woman in the community for a year

Elizabeth Fry Society, Cost of Incarceration

What are some of the biggest challenges women face after release from prison?

Our study affirmed numerous barriers that women endure when leaving prison. The first is housing because women are often released into houselessness. Another big challenge is having a criminal record and trying to find employment. Women want to work, but people won’t hire them. Related to this is the stigmatization and social isolation they face in the community. This often results in a return to former habits, old friends, addictions, and abusive partners because they have nowhere else to go.

Obtaining ID is another struggle they endure. During the incarceration process, their ID can get lost. Yet, to do pretty much anything on the outside - open a bank account, get housing - you need ID; the women explained that getting their ID could take weeks, even months. What is striking to us is that despite these challenges, the women - every single one we spoke to – have hope for a better life. They are resilient – they are survivors. One of the women we spoke with was literally walking around in the dead of winter, trying to stay warm and find a place to stay for the night, yet she talked about wanting to go to college and become a social worker to help others like her.

How has COVID-19 impacted how women transition from prison to community?

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing barriers to re-entry for women leaving prison but has also caused new challenges to emerge. During COVID-19, prison programming was either canceled or provided over the phone to mitigate associated risks. One of the women we spoke to described how her parole date was pushed back because the programming that was required for her release was not offered because of pandemic restrictions. The pandemic also influenced community programming and supports. Many women and community service providers shared that accessing supports was a significant barrier because everything moved online. Not surprisingly, many women who experience criminalization do not have access to computers, phones, or (stable and private) internet to attend community programming. The women also discussed the lack of social interaction as a barrier; one woman shared that coming outside during the pandemic was the hardest part for her because no one would look at or speak to each other, furthering the isolation and exclusion she had felt compared to previous re-entry experiences.

Are there any policy recommendations or changes you’d like to see that would help formerly incarcerated women, particularly Indigenous women?

Our community is doing a great job, especially with limited resources which are continually getting cut. Community organizations that support women re-entering the community need more resources and support. However, we also need to break down the barriers between the community and prisons so that transitioning out of prison is a smoother, more connected process. An example of this is having housing and ID arranged prior to release. Ideally, a job would be arranged as well. It would be beneficial to permit volunteers from the community into prisons to mentor the women and build supportive relationships in the community. We also must consider whether knowledge of a person’s criminal record is really necessary to disclose in all employment cases. We must make it easier for women to access the supports and resources that already exist. One of our frontline workers suggested having a “one stop” hub where a woman released from prison could access all the resources she might need: housing support, employment support, help getting ID, food, clothing, information on addiction support programs, and bus tickets. As it now stands for many of these women, they are required to seek out support on their own, often in a city they are unfamiliar with, without a phone or access to transportation. We need to make this time less challenging for them. And while there are larger, structural transformations that need to happen, including;

  • Addressing poverty
  • Dealing with racism and colonial legacies
  • Dealing with broader issues of violence against women, and Indigenous women specifically Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,
  • Questioning whether prison is the best place to send people with histories of serious victimization

Necessary changes can be made right now with some collaborative effort. The $175,000 to $250,000 a year that it costs to imprison one woman can be better spent on community support (about $31,000 to support a woman in the community for a year). to address the factors that lead to and perpetuate the victimization and criminalization these women experience.

The justice system and poverty

From policing to courts to incarceration, the justice system can exacerbate marginalization and poverty. Lack of resources can be a barrier to addressing legal issues, while having legal issues can lead to a lack of resources.