My name is Savannah Gentile. I am the director of advocacy with CAEFS.
I want to start by thanking this committee for taking the time to look into this very important issue. I, too, want to acknowledge that we are on unceded Algonquin territory.
The B.C. Supreme Court recently released a decision on segregation that found that segregation disproportionately impacts indigenous women. Unfortunately, by failing to centre on the experiences of incarcerated women, it did not extend this impact to all women, and in particular to maximum security women prisoners. I'll address that issue in a minute.
CSC itself acknowledged in its 10-year status report on women's corrections in stating the following:
Segregation tends to have a significant impact on women [prisoners]. Generally speaking, women are linked to each other through relationships and the isolation of segregation, combined with the crisis or stress the woman is experiencing, can take its toll.....
Despite this acknowledgement; despite the fact that Ashley Smith died in a segregation cell in 2007, the year after CSC's 10-year review closed; despite the completion in 2013 of the inquest into what was deemed her homicide, the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported last year that CSC has failed to implement the very specific recommendations that could have increased funding and community capacity to “provide the level of care necessary to manage challenging or complex mental health cases” in the community.
It's worth noting that even though these recommendations came out of the inquest into Ashley Smith's death, CSC never actually diagnosed Ms. Smith with a mental health issue while she was incarcerated. Instead of implementing these recommendations, “CSC claims that it is too costly to place and treat” women with mental health issues in psychiatric facilities, and further that “these facilities are reluctant to accept complex needs cases”. These claims are not entirely substantiated, as the OCI notes, “as CSC has received proposals from external psychiatric/forensics facilities that would expand treatment capacity in the community”.
Let me be clear: CSC did not implement recommendations that could have led to a massive change in our ability to treat mental health in the community.
In the conversation about segregation, we would be remiss not to speak about the impact of maximum security. Maximum security is a form of segregation in women's prisons. Women in maximum are subject to restrictive, punitive conditions, and they are isolated from the general population. They experience similar harms. They have similar difficulty adjusting to the general population and to the community more broadly. I am personally aware of a number of cases of women being released to the general population only to be returned to maximum, sometimes first through a segregation placement, due to issues with adjusting.
Indigenous women are significantly overrepresented in maximum security. This has been the case for a number of years. The prevalence of trauma and mental health issues in maximum security is staggering. Despite these facts, there are significant gaps in dynamic security, which result in serious consequences for the safety of women in maximum. There have been at least three serious assaults at the Grand Valley prison for women in Kitchener in the past four or so months that I know of. Two of these assaults resulted in hospitalization, and in one case the women involved had reported their interpersonal difficulties to staff weeks in advance but nothing was done.
To deal with interpersonal issues on the pods, CSC frequently engages in cell moves for the women and engages in what is called “modified movement”, which is essentially locking the women down in their cells under solitary confinement. Women in maximum security have restricted access to education, programming, and spirituality, in part due to a lack of infrastructure to support the unique needs of women in maximum, and also to the fact that these women can't get off the “max” unit to access programming in education in the rest of the prison because of what is known as the “level system”, which was highly criticized by the Officer of the Correctional Investigator this year.
It's not the first time that the Office of the Correctional Investigator has levelled criticism of this kind. In fact, in 2011, the management protocol was eliminated after much protest from CAEFS and the Office of the Correctional Investigator. It was eliminated, only to be replaced by its cousin, the level system, which demonstrates yet again CSC's resistance to change and its inability to correct itself.
The fact that women are over-classified, in particular indigenous women and women with mental health issues, is not news. This year, the Auditor General's report “Preparing Women Offenders for Release” identified that the CSC had not implemented an initial security classification process specifically for women, and it in fact continues to use a tool developed and validated on a population of white male prisoners over 25 years ago.
Moira Law recommended that all women be started at minimum security because CSC's classification scheme is discriminatory. Unfortunately, CSC never published her report.
Before I get into what is possible with the current legislation, I want to say that there is a serious need for judicial oversight and the elimination of segregation in all of its forms. CSC has a track record of failing or refusing to implement recommendations or to correct itself accordingly and cannot be left without this oversight. There's also a need for women to have their sentences revisited where correctional treatment results in the mismanagement of lawful sanction and renders sentences punitive and more severe than that imposed by the sentencing judge. This was in fact recommended by the Hon. Louise Arbour in her 1996 report.
What is possible with the current legislation? In the interest of time, I want to first refer you to Senator Kim Pate's testimony on November 28 of last year before the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. She spoke in depth about section 29, which I briefly touched on in the beginning of my testimony. She also talked about sections 77 and 80 of the CCRA, which speak to the importance of involving groups with particular knowledge and expertise on women's issues and those of indigenous peoples.
My colleagues today have addressed sections 81 and 84, so I'll just end by saying that all of these sections have been severely underutilized since their inception 25 years ago, in part because CSC policy—not law, but policy—has restricted what the legislation allows, and in so doing has interfered with the intent of these provisions. The requirement of minimum security is a policy choice, not a legislative requirement.
I want to call on you all as members of Parliament who are taking on this very crucial and important issue to exercise the right of access granted to you by section 72 of the CCRA, as Minister Damoff recently did. It's nearly impossible to have a complete understanding of the state of our prisons unless you take the time to go in to meet with the women and to respectfully listen to what they say.