Correctional Service Service correctionnel Canada Canada the 2002 mental health strategy for women offenders jane Laishes Mental Health, Health Services

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CSC Facilities for Women Offenders

In 1934, the Prison for Women opened in Kingston, Ontario. Since its opening, a variety of Task Forces and Commissions examined the disadvantaged situation of federally incarcerated women, and there were numerous calls for the closure of the Prison for Women. With this in mind, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women was established in 1989, as a joint initiative by the Federal Government and relevant private sector groups. After extensive consultations and research which incorporated the views and experiences of federally sentenced women, the April 1990 Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women entitled, Creating Choices was released. Among its recommendations were the following:

  • Closure of the Prison for Women in Kingston;

  • Creation of four new regional facilities for women offenders;

  • Creation of a healing lodge for Aboriginal women offenders; and

  • Expansion of community-based services for women offenders.

In September 1990, the Federal Government announced acceptance of the Creating Choices recommendations and initiated implementation. By 2000, the regional facilities and the Healing Lodge had opened and the Prison for Women was officially closed. Appendix C contains additional information regarding the history of events pertaining to federal women's corrections in CSC.

The four regional facilities recommended by Creating Choices are located in Truro, Nova Scotia (Nova Institution for Women), Joliette, Quebec (Joliette Institution for Women), Kitchener, Ontario (Grand Valley Institution for Women), and Edmonton, Alberta (Edmonton Institution for Women). The design of the regional facilities reflects the recommendations of the Creating Choices report with up to 10 women living in stand-alone houses clustered behind a main building which contains staff offices, program space, recreation, a health care unit, and a visiting area*.
The Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge is the first institution of its kind. It was developed with and for the Aboriginal community and the majority of the staff, including the Kikawinaw (the director of the institution - “our mother” in the Cree language), are of Aboriginal descent. Interventions are Aboriginal-based with a strong emphasis placed on Aboriginal culture and spirituality, including the provision of full-time, on-site, Elder services.
Currently, federally sentenced women in the Pacific Region are placed at Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women (BCCW) which is a provincial facility that through an exchange of service agreement, accommodates 40 federally sentenced women. Given the upcoming closure of BCCW, slated for 2004, CSC's Sumas Centre in Abbotsford will be converted to a multi-level security facility to accommodate federally-sentenced women offenders. The design of the facility will be consistent with other regionally-based facilities for women offenders and will offer the same level of services and programs as those available in other regional women's facilities across the country.
Isabel McNeil House, which opened in 1991, is a 13-bed minimum security facility

located in Kingston, Ontario. It is the only stand-alone minimum security facility.

Women of all security levels with particular mental health needs may receive treatment in a specialized, separate 12-bed women's unit at the Regional Psychiatric Centre - Prairies (RPC). This unit serves as a national mental health resource for Anglophone women. Francophone women may receive treatment at Institute Phillipe - Pinel in Quebec where CSC has contracted for inpatient treatment services.
In 1999, IIS was created to modify and expand the existing regional facilities to safely accommodate women offenders who were maximum security and had been

co-located in men's institutions and/or who had mental health needs that required more intensive support than that available in the community living model of the women's facilities.

As of December 2001, the first component of the IIS, the Structured Living Environment (SLE) houses were all open and operational. The SLE are specialized houses at each of the regional facilities designed for minimum and medium security women with mental health needs.
The final component of the IIS the opening of the purpose-built Secure Units in the regional facilities for women classified as maximum security and currently housed in distinct, co-located units in men's institutions. The Secure Units are scheduled to open in 2003. When this occurs, the co-located maximum security units will close with the exception of the Regional Psychiatric Centre.


“Women in American society have life experiences that differ from men’s in important ways. Many of these - sexual assault, domestic violence, poverty and discrimination - hurt women’s mental and physical health” (American Psychological Association).
The findings of the 1989 Mental Health Survey (in Creating Choices, 1990) commissioned by CSC indicate that the types and incidence of mental health problems are different for men and women. Some mental health problems experienced by women offenders can be linked directly to past experiences of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and assault, as well as substance abuse and poverty.
Overall, women outnumber men in all major psychiatric diagnoses with the exception of anti-social personality disorder. Differences also exist in the behavioural manifestations of mental illness between men and women. Women suffer from approximately twice as much depression as men (federally incarcerated women are three times as likely to be moderately to severely depressed compared to incarcerated men). Men tend to be more physically and sexually threatening and assaultive while women are more self-abusive and tend to engage in more self-mutilating

behaviours such as slashing (see Appendix D - Gender Differences with respect to Mental Health).

In addition, important mental health differences exist between incarcerated women and women in general. In a study comparing incarcerated women matched by age and ethnicity to those in the community, (Ross, 1988) incarcerated women had a significantly higher incidence of mental disorders including: schizophrenia, major depression, substance use disorders, psychosexual dysfunction, and antisocial personality disorder. A New Zealand study found that when compared to women living in the community, women offenders had a higher current prevalence of several types of disorders including schizophrenia, major depression, and post-traumatic stress (Brinded et al, 2001). In the United Kingdom, women offenders were also found to have a higher prevalence of schizophrenia and neuroses than non-incarcerated women (UK Department of Health, 1997). While less than male offenders, women offenders also had a high prevalence of personality disorders and alcohol/drug dependence. In addition, studies have shown that incarcerated women have a much higher incidence of a history of childhood sexual abuse and a history of severe physical abuse than women in the general population (see Appendix E - Mental Health Problems of Incarcerated Women Compared to Community Samples).
The above findings are consistent with the results of CSC prevalence studies of mental disorders in women offenders. The Creating Choices report includes the results of a survey of 170 of the 203 women serving federal sentences in 1989. The survey found that two thirds of the women had children and more than 70% had been single parents part or all of their children’s lives; 80% had been abused, 68% reported physical abuse, and 54% reported sexual abuse; and 69% reported that substance abuse had played a major role in their offense or their offending history. Among incarcerated Aboriginal women 90% had been physically abused, and 61% reported sexual abuse (Shaw, 1990).
A 1989 study, which achieved a 58.5% response rate, assessed the prevalence of mental disorders in 76 inmates at the Prison for Women (Blanchette, 1989). Table 1 provides a summary of the proportion of inmates that met stringent criteria for DSM disorders.
Table 1: Prevalence of DSM Disorders, Stringent Criteria, Prison for Women, 1988.


Percentage (%)

Major depression


Drug use/ dependence


In 1992, the following findings were obtained from assessing the mental health needs of 75 women at the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women (19% of the population was comprised of federal inmates):

  • 49% were found to have personality disorders;

  • 67% reported current substance abuse problems and 87% reported that substance abuse had been a problem at some point in their lives;

  • 36% reported childhood physical abuse, 47% reported childhood sexual abuse, 19% reported adult sexual abuse, and 69% reported adult partner physical abuse;

  • 29% reported engaging in self-destructive behaviours such as slashing;

  • 20% reported current depression, while 32% reported that depression had been a problem at some point in their lives; and

  • 24% reported that they experienced current problems with anxiety, while 29% reported that anxiety had been a problem at some point in their lives.

The authors reported that many of the inmates had multiple problems with many having suffered abuse and experienced violence as children and adults (Tien, 1993).
As a result of the research that has been done with women offenders, the Creating Choices report notes that there is a strong need for improved access to physical and mental health services. Three main reasons for providing mental health treatment within correctional facilities are to: (Metzner, 1997)

  • reduce the disabling effects of serious mental illness to maximize each inmate's ability to electively participate in correctional programs;

  • decrease the needless extremes of human suffering caused by mental illness; and

  • help keep the prison safe for staff, inmates, volunteers, and visitors.

The research noted above supports the need to provide appropriate mental health services oriented to the specific needs of women offenders. In light of the CCRA and resultant policy (see Appendix F and Appendix G), mental health services for women offenders must be developed and implemented in recognition of gender differences. These differences can be found in the etiology and classification of mental health problems, the prevalence of specific categories of mental disorders, and with regard for the context in which these problems developed.

Many women offenders are from marginalized backgrounds and situations that may include poverty, discrimination, abuse, and chemical dependency. Programs and services must be holistic insofar as they need to address the social context of women’s lives and target those areas that have contributed to their criminal behaviour. Therefore, gender appropriate mental health services must respond to the experiences and related mental health needs of incarcerated women.
Effective correctional programs for all women offenders should also be based on a model of empowerment whereby women gain insight into their situation, identify their strengths, and are supported and challenged to take positive action to gain control of their lives. This process acknowledges and holds women offenders accountable for their actions while recognizing that actions occur within a social context (Kendall, 1993).

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