voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


By Sophie Doyle

At the end of the 20th century reports of deplorable conditions in women’s prisons forced the government to confront women’s unique paths into criminality and distinct needs in the criminal justice system. In 1990, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) formally adopted a “women-centered approach” (WCA).[1] Yet, little has been done to differentiate resources and services for incarcerated women.

Women constitute a small percentage of violent criminals in Canada. They are instead more likely to commit income-generating crimes (e.g. fraud, shoplifting prostitution) as tactics of survival and coping with poverty, abuse and/or addiction. Since Bill C-10 was enacted, many incarcerated women are first time offenders serving mandatory minimum or plea bargain sentences. Their crimes seemed to them a rational means of enduring systematic victimization often created and perpetuated by men in their families, communities or interactions with the state.[2] CSC practice and procedure blatantly disregard women’s distinct needs, especially based on social histories of trauma too often relived in the sexual assault pervasively practiced by correctional staff as a means of controlling prisoners. State rhetoric about managing difficult prisoners employs a “criminology of the other”, in which offenders are portrayed as dangerously different from “us”. Their communities beyond prison walls hold similarly subaltern positions in society and have little hope of affecting change for incarcerated sisters, mothers, daughters and friends. Indeed, social justice for women is usually framed using such relational terms, denying any definition of a woman on her own terms or in her own right.

In arguing for de-incarceration, Angela Davis has condemned the “connection between state-inflicted corporal punishment and the physical assaults of women in domestic spaces”.[3] The strip and body cavity searches are legitimized practices wherein “prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside of work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault”.[4] In the victim’s experience of terror and humiliation, there is no difference. One inmate testified for the Arbour Report, “I know it is in any law that you are not supposed to take your clothes off for any man if you don't want to…It’s degrading to the institution to allow that”.[5] Davis points out that given most women incarcerated in Canada are racialized, there are certain traces of slavery, colonialism and genocide in using shackles and chains to restrain prisoners.[6] Indeed, colonial implications of such disciplinary power are glaring in Aboriginal carceral experience, characterized by systemic racism and discrimination.  Aboriginal female offenders are more likely than other female offenders to endure longer and harsher sentences, particularly in over-classification of security levels.[7] Feminist critical race theorists argue this reflects a modern eugenics movement, seeking “to have ‘genetically inferior’ women removed from social circulation for as many of their child-bearing years as possible”.[8]

            Prisons have become a repository for economically, socially and morally ‘unsuccessful’, and ‘unwanted’ citizens including the mentally ill, the poor, addicts and sex workers.[9] Federal prisons are often the only avenue for professional help, and explicitly requested by female offenders for this reason. Federal sentences are longer but provide access to services and programming that far exceed the opportunities for rehabilitation in provincial prisons or even community at large. In one study, a formerly provincially incarcerated woman specified “if I was foolish enough to do something [and facing jail time again] and the judge looked at me and gave me under two years I’d have to punch someone out in the courtroom to try and get over two years [to be sentenced to federal prison]”.[10]

 “Empowerment is like democracy: everyone is for it, but rarely do they mean the same thing by it” – Iris Young

Since 1990, “empowerment” has been a buzzword in CSC’s discursive revamping of criminal justice for Canadian women. “Empowerment” is an appealing term to both taxpayers and inmates. However, there is a troubling disjuncture between state and feminist notions. Feminist scholars define empowerment as a process of restructuring oppressive power relations by which women recapture control and self-determination. These ideals presume that inmates are afforded basic human rights, which research and personal anecdotes too often disprove.[11] The state’s operationalization is politically charged to preserve existing power relations and, to this end, expressions of autonomy are not only discouraged, but brutally punished in prison. [12] The state’s language of empowerment disempowers women by manufacturing a single female identity: assuming homogeneity of sex, erasure of nuances and pluralities in race, age, ethnicity, religion, etc.[13]  Echoing Foucauldian critiques of reform, Fortune et al. argue that “empowerment rhetoric is nothing more than a reform strategy in which women are expected to empower themselves while being provided with only those choices that the organization’s administration deem to be meaningful and responsible”.[14] The state enacts a strategy of responsibilization, of both individual and community, maintaining control while shedding responsibility.[15] Describing community involvement, the CSC website discusses “those offenders who reform themselves…[whose] success in starting fresh depends partly on their own efforts and partly on the opportunities provided by the community at large”, deliberately omitting the responsibility of the state in the well-being of its citizens. [16] In other words, prison is not only a technical tool for law enforcement but also a political instrument that embodies the neoliberal “cultural trope of individual responsibility”.[17] Appropriating “empowerment” as a governance strategy, CSC aims to squash traditional criticism of their punitive reputation, and create a firmly neoliberal conception of citizenship in inmates.

            Gendered work experience is a blatant example of failed opportunities for empowerment. Job-skill development for women in federal prison reifies feminized low-wage employment, offering female inmates little to no marketable skills. There are no opportunities for paid employment in provincial jails, which is especially problematic for women supporting children in the community. In federal prisons, women are offered poorer and fewer job-skill development opportunities than male counterparts.[18] Work is typically limited to positions of cooking, cleaning, and hairdressing—curiously reflecting 1950s carceral programming, based on assumptions of “proper” female behaviour. White, middle class reformers believed training would “produce better wives and mothers” but the model only generated and reified skills for domestic servitude among poor and black women.[19] Given that post-release job placement is focused on manufacturing, textiles, construction and services, women need to be taught trades like their male counterparts. While such programs claim to promote reintegration for “success as Canadian citizens”, their goals are clearly articulated in economic terms in which women traditionally hold tenuous influence.[20]

Though women tend to face economic exclusion based on social relegation to homemaking and caretaking duties, control over this is also stripped from female offenders.  Separated from their family, female offenders are disempowered as maternal identity shatters. Today, two-thirds of female offenders are single mothers. At one time, women were commonly offered conditional sentences so they could stay with their family, continue to work, and access community treatment. These non-custodial sentences were served in the community as community service, curfews or treatment for addiction, for example. [21] Bill C-10 has virtually obliterated any opportunity for judges to grant such sentences, separating over 20 000 children from their mothers.[22] State rhetoric locates social problems as uniquely individual faults and weaknesses, justifying state surveillance, policing and imprisonment rather than addressing structural inequalities and oppression. It diverts resources from community supports to correctional services, eroding philosophies of the welfare state and intensifying its punitive nature.

Federal facilities offer few opportunities for genuine rehabilitation. For example, prisons have mandated therapy programs for inmates but, as one inmate said, staff “want you to heal too fast, and on their terms”.[23]  If uncooperative in therapy, staff punish inmates by, for example, revoking exercise or phone privileges, commanding segregation or recommending against parole. Yet, if inmates cooperate, therapy tends to reveal deviant behaviour or thoughts, which is also punished. Prisoners’ personal histories and narratives are rewritten by experts’ psychiatric discourse. Therapy in federal prison is therefore more frequently an exercise in surveillance, control and punishment, than an avenue for rehabilitation.[24] Still, there is hope for such programs when they are outsourced to community actors. Inmates have reported great enthusiasm for these programs, which are voluntary and confidential, meaning inmates are not punished for what they do or do not say or feel.

The growing “medicalization of deviance” has further tightened state control over inmates. What was once considered “bad” has now been labelled “sick”, [25] especially for women. Typically, where deviant men are considered criminal, female counterparts are perceived as insane.[26] A predominant form of correctional psychological intervention has become the prescription of psychotropic drugs. This practice is especially prevalent in provincial jails, which have no funded counseling programs. Even in federal prisons, overcrowding and budgeting issues limit access to therapy (not to mention inherently weak rehabilitative potential of state mandated therapy). The medicalization of deviance is a governance strategy, serving to sedate inmates and ensure obedience. As one former inmate expressed, the priority seems to be institutional security, not mental wellness:

they gave me Seroquel because I couldn’t sleep. But how can you sleep in there? It’s loud, it’s cold, you’re scared and depressed and away from your family. I just thought they gave out too much of that shit, you know? They heavily medicate people in prison so you don’t cause any disturbances.[27]

Female inmates are too often governed by an exploitative and subjugating regime of carceral medicine, which isolates and placates women, threatening agency and impeding potential for empowerment.[28]

The very terms framing public discourse misidentify problems between offenders, society and the state. Offenders are often identified as being “in conflict with the law” despite the impossibility of being “in conflict” with a power system to which one is subordinate. Such expressions encourage public support of a punitive criminal justice system by emphasizing the normative offender as deviant and inherently problematic. Canadian prison reform insists WCA has been central to reorganizing correctional decision-making and policy making, but the Canadian carceral system continues to simply insert the female offender in male-based penal and correctional institutions, which arguably are neither empowering nor rehabilitative for men either.[29] Our criminal justice system ignores female offenders’ lived experiences and social histories. The language of reform is itself an institutionally created and sanctioned resistance to change. Michel Foucault insists, “prison ‘reform’ is virtually contemporary with the prison itself; it constitutes, as it were, its programme”.[30] Language of reform staves off civil unrest, only accepted and embraced by the state when to do otherwise would risk revolution. By accepting reform’s incremental change, we fail to identify larger problems inherent in limitations of the institutions and structure in question. After all, the illusion of dissent, Chomsky argues, is what bolsters the public’s subservience to the system: The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”[31] The potential for rehabilitation and empowerment is limited if it confined to working within carceral parameters.


[1] See Creating Choices: The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women; Mark Macguigan, Report to Parliament: Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada, “The MacGuigan Report” (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services Canada, 1977).

[2] Shahid Alvi, “Visible Minority Women as Offenders and Victims” in Jane Barker, ed Women and the Criminal Justice System: A Canadian Perspective (Toronto: Edmond Montgomery Publications, 2009) 289 at 299; Katherine van Wormer & Laura E Kaplan “Results of a National Survey of Wardens in Women's Prisons: The Case for Gender Specific Treatment” (2006) 29 Women & Therapy 133 at 148.

[3] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003) at 68.

[4] Amanda George, “Strip Searches: Sexual Assault by the State” in Patricia Weiser Eastea, ed, Without Consent: Confronting Adult Sexual Violence (Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, 1993) 211 at 212.

[5] Louise Arbour, Commission of Inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston (Ottawa: Canada Communication Group C Publishing, 1996) at 47.

[6] Supra note 3 at 77.

[7] See Shoshana Pollock, Locked In, Locked Out: Imprisoning Women in the Shrinking and Punitive Welfare State (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University, 2008) at 7.

[8] Lucia Zedner, “Wayward Sisters: The Prison for Women” in Norval Morris & David J. Rothman, eds, The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 295 at 318.

[9] See Jennifer M Kilty, “It’s like they don’t want you to get better’: Psy control of women in the carceral context” (2012) Feminism & Psychology 22:2 162 at 164 [Kilty]; Shoshana Pollack, “”You Can’t Have it Both Ways”: Punishment and Treatment of Imprisoned Women” (2009) Journal of Progressive Human Services 20:2 112 at 114.

[10]  See Madonna R Maidment, Doing Time on the Outside: Deconstructing the Benevolent Community. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006) at 84.

[11] See Pat Carlen, “Controlling measures: The repackaging of common-sense opposition to women’s imprisonment in England and Canada” (2002) 2:2 Criminal Justice 155.

[12] Kelly Hannah-Moffat, “Prisons that Empower: Neo-liberal Governance in Canadian Women’s Prisons” (2000) 40:3 British Journal of Criminology 510 at 521.

[13] See Colleen Anne Dell, Catherine J Fillmore & Jennifer M Kilty, “Looking Back 10 Years After the Arbour Inquiry Ideology, Policy, Practice, and the Federal Female Prisoner” (2009) 89:3 The Prison Journal 286 at 289.

[14] Darla Fortune, Julie Thompson, Alison Pedlar & Felice Yuen, “Social Justice and Women Leaving Prison: Beyond Punishment and Exclusion” 13:1 Contemporary Justice Review 19 at 21.

[15] See supra note 14; supra note 12.

[16] Correctional Service Canada, “Community Corrections Activities” (15 December 2012) online:

[17] Loic Wacquant, “Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare, and Social Insecurity: Crafting the Neoliberal State” (2010) 25:2 Sociological Forum 197 at 200.

[18] Supra note 7.

[19] Supra note 3 at 64.

[20] Correctional Service Canada, “CORCAN” (01 November 2016) online:

[21] Madonna R Maidment, ““Women-Centered Approach to Community-Based Corrections: A Gendered Analysis of Electronic Monitoring (EM) in Eastern Canada” (2008) 13:4 Women & Criminal Justice 47 at 57.

[22] See Renee M Pomerance, “The New Approach to Sentencing in Canada: Reflections of a Trial Judge” (2013) 17 Canadian Criminal Law Review 205; Raji Mangat, More than we can afford: The Costs of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing. (British Columbia, BC Civil Liberties Association, 2014) at 41.

[23] Kilty, supra note 9 at 121.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See Peter Conrod & Joseph J. Schneider, Deviance and Medicalization: From Badness to Sickness. (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2012).

[26] Supra note 3; Kilty, supra note 9.

[27] Kilty, supra note 9.

[28] Ibid.

[29] See supra note 14; Pollack, supra note 9, Maidment, supra note 10; Mangat, supra note 22.

[30] Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish (New York: Random House Inc, 1977) at 239.

[31] Noam Chomsky, The Common Good (Tuscan: Odonian Press, 1998) at 43.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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