location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 4 / Chapter 4 The Task Force on Administrative Segregation 1996-7 / Edmonton -- A Violation of Trust

The women also felt that, even when judged against the standards of male institutions, the regime at Edmonton was unduly restrictive. The women were not allowed to move outside of their cottages and the attached patio except for the purposes of going to school, work, or for some institutionally-approved purpose. For example, they could not in the evenings walk along the pathways connecting the various cottages, either just to go for a walk or to spend sometime with one of their friends. The designated time for association, outside of work or school, was in the evening from 6:30 to 9:30 in the recreation and games room where all of the women congregated together. What this meant was that if a women was in crisis, or just wanted to talk with someone outside of the cottage in which she is living, the only time to do that was in the recreation room in the presence of all the other women. None of the women could understand why there would be any problem with allowing them to walk in small groups, or even by themselves, within the compound along the paths connecting the cottages. Because there was no inter-cottage visiting, this meant that they were limited in confiding with each other to those with whom they lived, and that did not necessarily correspond to their closest friendships or their support networks. This restriction on private association they felt was far worse than what they had experienced at the Prison for Women where they had far greater access to each other. The paradox was that in the so-called open environment of Edmonton they felt a greater degree of segregation from each other than they did in the fortress of the Prison for Women.

Another part of the regime which the women resented was the half-hourly checks that were made in every cottage by two officers. This involved the officers coming into the house, checking who was there, and looking into the individual bedrooms. The women said that they felt invaded by this constant surveillance and physical presence of staff in what, under the new philosophy of Creating Choices, was supposed to be their homes. The issue of personal intrusion into the women’s space was particularly acute in the case of the medium-security women who were subjected to strip searches following their visits. This was not based upon reasonable cause, but was a standard procedure which was deeply resented by the women who had not experienced this at the Prison for Women. One of the women said that being strip searched each time after her common-law husband came to visit amounted to a level of violation that she would never have believed she would experience at an institution supposedly built upon the framework of Creating Choices. The ‘choice’ it gave her for being appreciated as a woman for the duration of the visit was to be immediately devalued as a prisoner when she had to submit to the strip search thereafter. This was not just limited to visits with friends and families. Edmonton Institution, as part of its "partnership with the community," had introduced a mentoring program in which volunteers come into the institution and worked one-on-one with women to provide them with help and support in planning for their return to the community. The mentor program was organized through a variety of women’s organisations, including a women’s business group and a church group. The mentors all received enhanced security clearance and therefore there was no suggestion that, unlike friends and family, they might be introducing drugs or other contraband into the institution. Yet, even after the medium-security women have visited with their mentor, they were subjected to strip searching. One of the women had given up her mentoring relationship primarily because she was not prepared to undergo the indignity of the strip search.

One of the major concerns of the women was that there was a degree of arbitrariness in the operations of Edmonton, that had not characterised the Prison for Women. They were not talking about the arbitrariness associated with the segregation of the women involved in the incidents that had led to the Arbour inquiry itself, but rather the day-to-day inconsistencies they saw in the application of rules and policy. They lived in a constant state of uncertainty that their actions, condoned by some staff, would be condemned by others. There was also the arbitrariness in some of the rules regarding what women could have in their houses. Earlier in the morning, Task Force members had visited with several of the women in one of their cottages and they had told us that they were not permitted to have any glass utensils; all of their cups, mugs and containers were plastic. The theory behind this was that glass could be used for self-mutilation or as a weapon. However, as we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee out of plastic mugs, the women pointed out that the room was lit by the glass light bulb shining down on the table; a light bulb that was as accessible for self-mutilation as it was for illumination. They also pointed to the array of steel kitchen knives in the rack beside the stove; these, were the women so inclined, would make far more formidable weapons than any glass container. In terms of security concerns, the restrictions made no sense.

The women’s stories revealed a further and more pervasive restriction on their institutional liberties that went beyond the limitation on their association, freedom of movement, and what they viewed as arbitrary security measures. All of the women felt they lived under an ultimatum both explicit and implicit, that they should not speak out about any problems they experienced at the institution to outsiders or the press. They had previously told Kim Pate that they were reluctant to use the grievance process or even to phone her for fear they would be labelled as troublemakers and shipped to Saskatchewan Penitentiary as maximum-security prisoners. This had been made quite clear to one of the women when she first came to Edmonton from Saskatchewan Penitentiary. She was told, "You have two choices. You can do as we tell you or you can go back to Prince Albert." The degree to which the women’s’ freedom of expression had been chilled was revealed when I requested that they write to me about their experiences. They immediately expressed a concern that they were required to give their letters to staff, unsealed. This was to enable the letters to be inspected for contraband, but the women were quite convinced staff actually read the contents and they were fearful that any letters that documented their concerns would centre them out as troublemakers and might result in their transfer. Having been in male institutions at every level of security, I had never experienced from prisoners as great a climate of fear of making what were clearly legitimate criticisms of the institution as I observed in 1996 at the Edmonton Institution for Women. I should make clear that these were not women who were afraid to speak out and, indeed, some of them had been very vocal when they had been at the Prison for Women in making their complaints public. However, here at Edmonton Institution, in the post-Arbour correctional climate, their voices had been chilled as they had never been at the Prison for Women.

The meeting with the four women was deeply disturbing. The meeting took place in a pleasant room, and from where I sat, I looked out the window through the chain-link fence to the highway. As the women talked, there was a constant stream of traffic reflecting the arterial pulse of the outside community. This was a very different picture women would have experienced from within the Prison for Women in Kingston, with its high granite walls designed to cut off any glimpses of life outside the prison. Yet the more the women talked, it became clear that the degrees of separation they experienced at Edmonton Institution were as bad, if not worse, than at the Prison for Women. When I articulated the public’s perception of the Edmonton Institution as being a vast improvement on the Prison for Women, as evidenced by its cottages, its modernity, and the absence of high prison walls, the three women who had been at the Prison for Women all expressed, painfully, that with all its faults, they would rather serve their time at the Prison for Women than at Edmonton. They felt they had a greater degree of association between themselves, a greater consistency in the application of the rules, and a far greater sense that their voices could be heard.

The distress with which these women described their experiences at Edmonton was manifested by Anita Hunt. Ms. Hunt, after being released from the Prison for Women on parole, re-established herself in Edmonton, which was her home town. While on parole, she had worked with the warden on the planning committee for Edmonton’s Institution during the period it was being built and the programs were being designed. She had thrown herself into the task because she believed the Correctional Services of Canada was serious about improving the situation of federally sentenced women and implementing the vision of Creating Choices. Subsequent to her work on the planning committee, she had been charged and convicted for another offence, for which she received a two-year sentence. She therefore found herself now a prisoner in the institution which she had helped design. However, instead of implementing a vision of empowerment, it had turned out to be more repressive than the Prison for Women, for which it was intended to be a counter-point -- a new start, a new philosophy. For Anita Hunt, what she was now experiencing, was, as she put it, "a violation of trust." She had dared to believe that things could be different. With tears streaming down her cheeks, and with her sisters comforting her in a quiet demonstration of what peer support is all about, Anita Hunt cried out to us, "I don’t want to leave another Kingston to anybody."

Page 2 of 2