Transcript: Fighting for Justice in Federal Women’s Prisons

Introduction: In response to an altercation in the Federal Prison for Women in April 1994, the Warden of the Prison for Women called in a male Institutional Emergency Response Team (IERT) from Kingston Penitentiary to conduct a cell extraction and to strip search eight women in segregation. Correctional Service Canada taped the event, and the footage was eventually aired on national television. People were outraged by what they saw. Serious questions were raised about the state of women’s corrections and in the department of Correctional Service Canada.  

In response, the Government appointed Madam Justice Louise Arbour to conduct an investigation into the incidents and  Correctional Service Canada’s management of related issues and events.  Arbour’s Report to the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston was released in 1996. We focus on the events leading up to the appointment of the  enquiry.  We also discuss the findings of the inquiry with Joey Twins, one of the inmates at the time, and Senator Kim Pate, a former Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.  Arbour’s comprehensive report included many recommendations such as the establishment of a Deputy Commissioner for Women, the closure of Prison for Women (P4W) and to accelerate the move toward modern regional institutions specifically designed to meet the security and programming needs of women inmates. 

Sue: My name is Sue Colley and  I am working with Rise Up Feminist Digital Archive. I’ve been with Rise Up! for probably about five years and we’re trying to build an archive of lots and lots of materials from the women’s movement. OK, Kim, can you  introduce yourself briefly.

Kim: Kim Pate, I come to you from the unceded unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe, otherwise known to many people as Ottawa. And I’m pleased to be joining you and very pleased to be joining and doing this in conjunction with Joey, who I’ve known for, dare we say, more than 30 years.

Joey: Yeah. I’m originally from Alberta, The Cree Nation Treaty 6 Maskwacis, Alberta. I’m from the bear clan.  My Indian name is Red Stone Woman – I walk through the fire. And I do motivational speaking, ceremonies, drumming, singing, whatever is required. And right now, I’m working with Indigenous youth taking the land back and reclaiming it and unceded territories. So we have a healing lodge for the youth. We have to get them while they’re young.

Sue: When I talked to Kim, she suggested that we actually focus our interview on what happened, that the events in Kingston for the prison for women in 1994 with riot and then talk about the outcome from that and what organizing was done and how you survived it. So could you start, Joey, do you think and tell us what was happening at the Kingston prison for women at that time, please?

Joey: At that time, there was a lot of unnecessary conversation with some guards and the way the women were being treated at the time and there were a lot of suicides prior to that, during that time, and so we went through a lot. You have to understand, there was a lot of deaths, a lot of my sisters died by suicide.

And so with all that and everything it took, we never healed from that, right?  It’s traumatizing because one minute, they’re alive and the next day they’re deceased, they take their lives. It was like a domino effect. And we didn’t know who was going to be next. And speaking of the male guards like, before that they would throw us in seg and do whatever they liked. I mean I can give you some really descriptive situations with other women prior to this incident and not very nice, you know. It was basically about power and control for the guards to do this, right? And yeah, at that specific time, I felt that one of my friends, Ellen Young, was being attacked at healthcare – there a Medline. And at that time, I had scissors in my back pocket because I used to do a lot of crafts and everything because that’s what kept my frame of mind going. And so, when everything happened so fast and there was screaming and everything.  So there were basically the six of us and basically, you know, we had to be there for how the guards were reacting and using injurious behaviour and stuff like that. It was very hard for me to see my sisters suffering like that. It’s not a place for anybody to be going into segregation and isolation while she’s slicing herself up or whatever but that’s what they did. They threw the women in segregation.

Years ago before that, they used to charge us for destroying government property. You know, because women were injuring themselves and I guess we are property of CSC [Correction Services Canada(CSC) – morbid, right? So it took some time to change that part and we’re still property of CSC being a lifer and all that. But I don’t feel I’m a property of CSC, you know.

But anyways at that time they’re trying to put her in isolation, in segregation, and the hole there wasn’t very inviting. You’re away from everyone and it’s very self-isolated. It’s like cells and then they had a few cameras on the bottom tier like there were two levels. Yeah, so I don’t feel that women were safe in segregation even with the cameras.

Anyways, getting back to that, and everything happened so fast. All I know is it was us fighting with the guards. That’s basically what it was. We were tired of being punched around and all that. So we’re not going to stand there and let somebody do that. So, yeah, it just went to that point. 

And I even got maced by Mr. Gilles and he’s 6’4” close to 300 pounds. And I told one of the guards, “I’m not going to hurt you” and it came out in our work mission. She testified, I was only restraining her, she felt she was being restrained. Now, so restraining and threatening somebody’s life are two different things in my way of thinking, right? And I know I wouldn’t threaten anybody. After that it happened for maybe 15-20 minutes and we ran from there because the guards were coming. So I basically took off, I don’t know where everybody went. The next time I heard them was in segregation. They got me like maybe, they called a male goon squad from Kingston Prison and they came to the Rangers to look for us. They said they were looking for us, and they got me and then they took me to segregation. They had dogs too. And they threatened to tear gas the rangers and there’s women locked up where you’re going to go like you’re locked up. So they took me to seg and put me in an empty cell and then waited for the other women to come in. I don’t know who was all in there at the time. The female screws, the guards, they told me to take my clothes off and I did. I complied. 

You know, they took my clothes and they gave me pyjamas and sheets, a couple of sheets. And there was no toilet paper in the bathroom like in my cell. So I say they weren’t really nice. I didn’t expect them to be nice to me but I do have human rights, right? But anyways, then they start bringing all the other women individually, right – the male goon squad.This is at the time of segregation when we went in.

Sue: Yeah. And is this when the other unit came, in the emergency unit?

Joey: It wasn’t a riot. Let me clarify that. It was not a riot. That is from CSC’s words, right? That did not come out of my mouth. I testified in phase one and phase two and I sat on phase three and four, right? And I did not say that at all. So, and I do believe the other sister, Brenda Morrison, did the same too. Correctional services always have to make themselves look good in the public’s eye because they knew they screwed up. When we got that video tape out twice, not just once, right, and we aired it on the Fifth Estate.

Sue: So this was the videotape of the emergency unit?

Joey: But they’re coming in like days later to strip search me. Like yeah, I was sleeping, it’s a proven fact. You know, and it’s like I said before, they already searched for weapons and shit. I had nothing other than just my clothes I had on. Even though there was a female guard there to use that knife thing to cut clothes off when somebody’s attempting to commit suicide or whatever they do, right. So that was that part and so they were really malicious to us. They were very brutal. We weren’t treated very nicely in segregation. And even, it took years later to actually feel normal again.

Sue: Yeah. So, Kim, when this was going on, were you in touch with the prisoners in P4W?

Kim: l, just to back up a bit. So, as Joey said, it wasn’t a riot, even by Correction’s own standards. When Louise Arbour and the Commission of Inquiry were looking into what happened. Correctional authorities themselves acknowledged it wasn’t a riot. And the description that I received first was that two women had got into an altercation, and Joey’s mentioned that, inexperienced staff intervened in and then it got a bit out of control. And then women were taken to seg and then they were punished. But by the time the first week had finished, five different stories had emerged from Corrections.

So I’m just going to park that for a minute and then come back to it. The context I think was really important. As Joey said, there was growing awareness of the fact that prison was particularly damaging for Indigenous women. A number of women had died and committed suicide in the prison for women. And that was happening at the same time as a group of women, Gayle Horii, being one, Joey and others as well were bringing a court action against the Correctional Service of Canada on the basis of the denial of their human rights and the denial of their Charter rights because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had only recently come into effect.

So that’s part of the context and the government decided to do what they called a task force on federally sentenced women. And that task force is the first.  In fact, internationally, it’s still recognized as one of the best prison reform initiatives ever. It was the first and only time that women who had been in prison were involved. 

So Fran Sugar, Lana Fox, who Joey knows, they were involved in the task force, as well as community members and groups like E. Fry [Elizabeth Fry], but also Native Women’s Association, immigrant women, Black women were involved and a number of women’s groups. It involved a number of government departments. And half of the task force was composed of women in and from prison and women in and from the community and half was Corrections.

They came up with recommendations, one of which was to close the prison for women and to open not prisons, but community based support service centres throughout the country. So that’s the context we’re in. So, this was just before I joined E Fry. I was involved with a local E. Fry out west, but I was working with John Howard Society and I was doing some other work and working with young people in the community. And I had already seen 10 years of the implementation of the Young Offenders Act, the same theory: closed down prisons for young people, open up community facilities.

So I was a little sceptical about what this plan looked like. But nevertheless, I was asked to apply and was ultimately hired by the National Office of Elizabeth Fry right as this plan was going off the rails. So this idea was we’re going to close the prison for women and open up some new regional prisons. But they stopped the involvement of women in prison, they stopped the involvement of E Fry and all the community groups, and CSC [the Correctional Service of Canada] took over implementation.

So this approach that was premised on community and women themselves in and from prison being involved was stopped and all of the staff who were at the prison for women, who knew it was going to close, guess what? Some of the best staff left, some stayed and they decided they would retire there. But the night that this series of incidents started that Joey talked about, the most experienced staff on the range that night had six months’ experience and had not done any basic training.

So there were, I think, five on the staff team that night, and virtually none of them had experience. The most experienced in the whole prison that night had about 18 months experience. That was it. And so in addition to that, when I started at E Fry, already a lot of the programs that used to operate at the prison for women were gone, education programs were being cut, the training programs, the jobs. 

Shortly after I got there, one whole range, B range, was locked down for over a year. Women’s visits with their children, which hardly ever happened anyway, were being cancelled at the last minute. So you can imagine, and I remember one in particular that Joey, you probably remember too, a woman whose child was in a wheelchair. It was a big deal, she wanted to see her child. All of the other women volunteered to give up their time so that she could have time with her daughter. The big focus was on getting her there. A day or two days before, they cancelled it. So these are women’s children being brought from all across the country if they were even getting the visits.

So that was one thing. That led to women being upset and some friction between the staff. I’m just fairly new with the national office at that stage, I’m about a year and a half into the job; and that night I was supposed to hear from a few women, and I didn’t hear from them. It was really unusual for them not to call. And so – I was a single mom – I had my son who’s now going to be 30 in two months. He was a baby, he was one year old. 

And I just thought I better go down and find out what’s happening and because women like Joey and others had welcomed Michael, my son, in too,  I took him in. And when I got there, they said that the entire prison was locked down. They unlocked one woman to look after him while I went and met with women and that’s when I heard from Joey and the other seven women who were in segregation. Every single thing they said was later shown to be true on the videotape. I didn’t doubt them. And they told me there had been a videotape, but I actually thought the videotape would have been erased. 

And later we found out during the Arbour Commission, when we asked for other videotapes of things that we’d heard about an incident that happened just before I was hired, where the dogs were brought in and set on the women and the staff had fire hoses, that video had disappeared. A bunch of them disappeared. So I believed what I heard from the women but I wasn’t sure we’d ever see the video. Turns out the video did still exist.

This is how important this is and why Louise Arbour made some of the recommendations she did because the staff didn’t even think what they did was wrong. Even though the lawyers or somebody, I presume it was the lawyers, told them that men shouldn’t have been stripping women. So they took that out of the report. They never did get rid of the videotapes and so they tried to stop them being released. 

The women, I remember -you  probably remember Joey – it was horribly traumatic because the women said, “We want this released if it’s the only thing that will result in people believing us”. Because by then the media – I was fairly new in the national scene. So the media thought I was out to lunch, some people thought I had mental health issues. People talked about the fact that I even within my own organization, people questioned whether I was too close to the issues or whether I had been conned by the women.

And I have to tell you, when I finally did see those videos, every single thing that the women told me was in those videos except one incident and that incident, I still believe happened. It was another woman, she described a baton being brought up between her legs while she was being held outside the cell. When I watched the video, what you see is her being held outside the cell. You see the staff, the two male officers making motions to each other. And then the video skips five minutes and I’ll go to my grave knowing that’s when that baton came up between her legs. 

Everything else, Joey being deprived of her heart medication, women having their clothes cut off and ripped off. Women being slammed to the floor with a shield, women having their glasses stomped on, women being held up against the wall naked with a shield for up to 15 minutes, women reporting that their shackles had come undone and then being smashed against the wall or with a baton because they reported it, all of that was in the video.

So when Louise Arbour was appointed to look at this, well first of all, Corrections kept saying that we were all making it up. When I say we, they said the women were and anybody stupid enough like me to believe the women, must have been making it up. So there was even friction within our own organization, which we don’t talk about publicly, but there were some who thought I should just shut up. 

And so, ultimately, when the video came out, what we saw was, in fact, who was being conned. It was those who were following what Corrections had said and believing that the women and I and others who joined in were somehow the problem. In fact, the problem was that Corrections was not telling the true story.

So when the ministers were stuck in that position, they appointed Louise Arbour to do a thorough review. She did the inquiry as Joey’s mentioned. And when she did the inquiry, two huge things came out. One is that she said that although there were rules everywhere, the rules depended on who was implementing them.

So, if so and so was in charge, and if they were acting in this job or they were at some other job, they might decide what the rule was that day. And even though there were rules, those rules weren’t necessarily followed. So she talked about there being rules everywhere, but nowhere the rule of law in Corrections, and recommended judicial oversight, that the courts have oversight of Corrections, that the only way she could see that being corrected is to do it.

Now fast forward to today, 2020 and the situation we’re just having with the structured intervention units, and Dr. Tony Doob, who’s been appointed by the Minister as an external expert to look at what’s happening with the replacement of segregation with structured intervention units, guess what, same thing. They’re being told stories, they’re being delayed in getting information. And we were left with the same conclusion: we need to have judicial oversight.

The other thing she pointed out is when women like Joey and Ellen and others made complaints and put in grievances, which was the only “legitimate” mechanism they had available to them to raise these issues at the time – the grievance system. They would say things like “We’re here because we’re convicted of something and Corrections is supposed to be here correcting,” I think I’m paraphrasing, “but yet they’re consistently breaking the law. So what lesson are they teaching us?”

And again, fast forward, we see the same thing again now within the Correctional Service. And so the other thing that Louise Arbour recommended that has not yet been implemented was that the way that Corrections treats a prisoner amounts to interference with a lawful sanction. So when someone is sentenced to jail, when a judge sentences someone to jail, the judge says, “You’re going to jail, you’re going to be separated from the community.” The judge isn’t saying you go there to be punished, to be humiliated, to be degraded, to be kept in segregation, to be penalized even further. The penalty is supposed to be separation from society.

And so what Louise Arbour said is where the way Corrections treats someone amounts to interference with that sentence, that lawful sanction, from the judge, then prisoners should be able to go back to court and have their sentence revisited and shortened or eliminated, or if they’re serving a life sentence to have their parole ineligibility changed. And so that was a significant recommendation that has yet to be implemented, but it’s really, really vitally important. 

And again, right now as with the Covid pandemic and as we’re seeing what’s happening with the structured intervention units, it really reinforces that we need that kind of judicial oversight. And we need the ability of prisoners to go to court and say,

“Look, I was a minimum security prisoner when COVID hit” or “I had already been released by the parole board and because of this, Corrections did not release me. They kept me in or they kept me past my dates, they didn’t give me any access to programs. And so as a result, my sentence is more severe than what the judge intended it to be and I should get some kind of remedy.”

And I think those still stand the test of time. They were two of the most important, in my humble opinion, recommendations that she made. There are lots of other recommendations she made, but those were two that I think we still need to be working on.

Sue: Right. And so you’re saying that none of this got implemented? None of it? No judicial oversight and when prisoners went to court to try and get their sentences revisited, they were denied. Is that right?

Kim: Well, in fact, in order to get out of segregation, Joey, you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but my memory is Corrections said to the women, and even though their lawyers said this isn’t legal, what the women knew is you guys keep saying this isn’t legal, but they keep doing it.

And so what Corrections said was, “If you want to get out of segregation, you have to plead guilty to attempting to escape prison, to assaulting and possibly even attempted murder, or you’re not getting out.” And so then, Corrections coerces those kinds of guilty pleas out of women, and then does the circular argument of then using that as an excuse for having kept them in seg in the first place. 

So even though those charges shouldn’t have been put there in the first place, they were there and they were used as an excuse for punishing the women further. Because the women were all kept in segregation for over a year without they went the first period of time almost 12 days without access to a lawyer, without access to phone calls, without access to showers, without even their  basic entitlements.

You know, when I first went in a few days after this had happened, women were there in just security gowns, basically, which is a fancy word for like a horse blanket type of covering. And some had a blanket on the floor, everything else was taken out of their cells. And one woman was still fully shackled because she had refused a full body cavity search. That was the other thing. 

They said, “Oh, the women agreed to a full body cavity searches.” Well, they were coerced again. They were told, if they didn’t have a full body cavity search, they would get nothing, they’d still be in shackles, they’d still be stuck in that situation. And the one woman who couldn’t for all kinds of past trauma reasons, couldn’t face doing it. and you know, I think personally, and Joey can correct me if I’m wrong, I think it affected all of the women in a very traumatic way. But this woman, she was still shackled. And she wouldn’t agree to the full body cavity search and so she was still in shackles.

When I asked them about that, that day, they said, “There’s nobody in shackles.” And I said I was just up, at that time segregation was upstairs, it later was downstairs. But at that time, I said, “I was just up there and she’s in so and so is fully shackled”. They said, “Oh, you must have been mistaken. It must have been the reflection of the bars.” 

Now those bars were painted I don’t know how many layers of white and beige and whatever colours of paint were over them. There was no way it was the reflection of the bars. But that is how much Corrections then and I would say still now believe they control all of the information. They create the records and they control all of the information that goes out of the prisons as well.

And so, they believe that nobody would believe us. And in fact, it took us the better part of a year to get people to believe us. And I’d like to think it would be different now. But at that time, if that video, if the women had not insisted on that video being released, I still think we would have been having this discussion yet because I think it would have been all swept under the rug and would have continued on.  And so yeah, a couple of recommendations Louise Arbour made like having a Deputy Commissioner for women was implemented. But that Deputy Commissioner for Women has no power. She doesn’t have power over all of the regional prisons for women, she doesn’t have a veto if some policy is developed. And so really it’s a functus – a legal term for basically a nice figurehead but really doesn’t have power. And all of the other recommendations for a while the Correctional investigator had a special investigator focused on women, they don’t have that anymore. But all of the other major recommendations have yet to be implemented.

Sue: Wow. So that must be very discouraging, Joey, hey. I mean, how did you and the other women manage to deal with this after there was a report, there were recommendations and then, basically, the system turns its back on you again? How did that feel?

Joey: Well, I got to think about the answer to this one because we were stuck together as women because that’s all we had is each other, right? And we form families inside because we spend a lot of time with each other prior, like every day. So we established our friendships, our family and everything inside. It’s a totally different world than out here, right?

And so I believe that’s what kept us going was our spirit and people that actually believed us like Kim our lawyers and the community that we’re not just a bunch of lying people trying to get our story out. But you know what, when we had that support and that understanding from our supporters, it made a lot of difference that we do matter. 

We are human beings and people do care about us. You know, that was my attitude, my way of thinking and the way, one of our ladies, our friend, Brenda Morrison passed away. So we’ve always talked about her like we’re just family – we support each other because that’s all we have.

Sue: OK, so the Elizabeth Fry Societies have been pursuing this for many years. Kim, what is the barrier to getting this change do you think?

Kim: Well, I think there’s a stigma that attaches to people who are convicted and there’s a presumption that whatever happens, people deserve, if they’ve been criminalized without any context. And so when I was with E Fry the second year I was there, thanks to the interventions of people like Joey, Gayle Horii, and others, E. Fry recognized that the track that they were on in terms of trying to reform the prisons, much like we’d experienced when I’d been working with young people for the 10 years before, that that kind of reform initiative is likely not going to move very far forward unless you’re in charge of it, in which case, there’s a better chance of getting co-opted.

So about that time, and it certainly got confirmed after the Arbour Commission, the board and the organization basically said well essentially they apologized for not believing what we’d been trying to get them to believe at the beginning. But they also said that they were going to focus or refocus their energies on keeping women in community and getting them out as quickly as possible –  a vision of women in community – so starting to focus less on trying to reform the prisons and more on decarcerating.

And so we started talking about why is it that so many women who are in prison are poor? Now, as we’re having this discussion, when I started with E Fry, about 18% of the women serving federal sentences of two years or more were Indigenous, now it’s 44%. I mean, that’s a massive increase. Black women have increased as well, and women with mental health issues. And so we started focusing on why it’s people who are most marginalized? 

And why is it that the fastest growing prison population in this country is women, especially Indigenous women, and women with mental health issues? How can that be? You will not find a person in this country who would say if they’re afraid to walk at night or whatever, that the people they’re afraid of are poor, Indigenous women with mental health issues, who are struggling to survive past trauma. That’s not who we think of when we think of who poses a risk to us in terms of public safety. And yet, that’s who’s the fastest growing prison population.

So it really refocused at the national level of E Fry and at the regional levels, and I think it persists now. And you know, of course, I’m four years out of that now, but that really what we needed to focus on is how do we work better at creating a more substantially equal society, so there are fewer people being criminalized and imprisoned, so we worked on things like guaranteed liveable incomes, like decriminalizing drugs, like developing better supports for women in the community, so that if they’re at risk of being criminalized, we try and prevent that. And if they’re in prison, get them out as quickly as possible.

And as Joey knows, and it was thanks to a lot of the women, when the Senate reformed, it was a number of women who’d been inside, Gayle and others, who were saying and some other folks I’d worked with who were sexual assault survivors who wanted to nominate me for the Senate. And part of the only reason that I agreed to do that was that I saw it as a way to continue the long-term work that was part of it. So that work continues now. And in fact, so important to me are the linkages that as Joey knows, I invited Joey and others to come and help me start off my work in a good way. So Joey helped me open my office in a good and proper way and I had an Elder from the Algonquin Anishinaabeg, to help open up the office.

And what was shocking to me was when that happened, I was advised that it was the first time on Parliament Hill an office had been opened according to Algonquin Protocol, even though they’re on unceded, unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe. And for me, it was vitally important because the first speech that I did was about the over representation of Indigenous women in prison and some of the women were still working to try and ensure they’re getting out of prison and some of those struggles continue. And actually, I’m very excited the last woman who was involved in April ‘94, hold on to your hat, Joey, by the end of this month, she should be out.

Joey: Right on.

Kim: But it’s horrendous that it’s had to take almost 30 years to do this. It’s a blight and I think it’s a major shame and travesty for Canadians. And you know, thanks to a number of the women’s groups who I went to, I was a novice and neophyte in the national women’s community. I came from working with young people and men in prisons and volunteering with women escaping violence and kids, girls who were in escaping sexual violence as well.

And so when I first came to Ottawa, I started reaching out to all these women’s groups. And their first response was, if you can make sure that you’re putting the women first, front and centre, then we’ll support you. And you know, some of my colleagues at E. Fry, were really upset about that. I thought that was a great thing. You know, of course, we put the interests and expertise and the experiences of women who were in prison first, and we did work together and try to learn from that. But that was seen as a bit of a threat by some folks. 

And so I think we’ve learned over the period of time, and I think that the work to really focus on developing a greater analysis that promotes substantive  equality and a greater analysis about getting keeping women from being criminalized and imprisoned in the first place. We’re not there yet, but that’s the track we’re on and every step, we get towards that, you know, I think we’ll see a better future long term.

Sue: Right. So the seeds of that were planted right back then and you’ve been working on that ever since. I mean, when the federal prison closed and you and the government opened up or the Correction Service opened up regional centres, was there a big push to actually stop women getting sentenced at all for minor offences or not? Was that one of the points of strategy?

Kim: That was one of the strategies but it was ineffective. There’s a woman, a professor named Emma Cunliffe, who’s a professor at UBC at the law school, who just wrote a piece about a year ago, urging any judges who look at testimony that comes from police or Corrections to never just accept it at face value. Now that’s revolutionary in the law. 

And part of the reason she did that is she’s looked at a lot of what’s happened with women in prison, in particular going back to the Arbour Commission. And what we saw then, when Louise Arbour’s report came out, one of the next things Corrections did because it came out on April 1, 1996. The incidents happened from April till November 1994 and into January of 1995. And then the video was aired at the end of January. And then the Commission was called in 1995. Louise Arbour issued her report on April 1, 1996 but the prison for women didn’t close ‘til 2000.

Corrections started to try and rush to open all of the regional prisons for women before the prison for women closed and before the Arbour Commission was finished to try and show that that was then but now we’ve improved. Again, fast forward to this week. And last week, you heard the minister saying, “Well, that was then – segregation. Now Corrections has got this new approach and we’re going to see it vastly improved.” 

Those ideas, that rhetoric, has always been, in my experience, the way that they’ve operated. So one of the things they said before the new prisons opened, “Well, we only anticipated -and everybody agreed – women were hardly ever violent” but  even with this they tried to describe this as a riot. It wasn’t a riot. Nobody got seriously hurt at all. If that had been in a men’s prison and someone tried to call it a riot, they would have been laughed out of the place. But Corrections was so insistent on trying to characterize women as violent, that they not only took it, but they started to put fences around the prisons that weren’t supposed to have fences around. 

They started to put eye in the sky cameras; they doubled, tripled, and then quadrupled the size of what they call their enhanced units, which was basically their maximum security units. Then they put in extra segregation units, all without any incidents having happened and justified it by the fact that they’ve had all these “violent women”, in prison for women who didn’t really get characterized as violent because they were in a maximum security prison as if that was true.

And so, the reality is that Corrections, by trying to justify what it had done, even when it had been called out, started to build more and more prison-like structures before it had even opened the new regional prisons. So by the time they open, they’re already starting to look like regional prisons for women. They may have cottages and they may have houses, but they set them up in a way, in my humble opinion, in a way to have them start replicating. 

And so very quickly, we saw the numbers of womenand of course now you’re in a region, in the Prairies or BC –  and it used to be if you sentenced a woman to federal time, she’d be going across the country to Kingston. Now, if she’s going to be in her own region, well, you see longer sentences being given out to women and more women being sent to prison.

And so in fact, in the short term, well it’s long term for people, but what we’ve seen is a massive increase in the number of women in prison. And I think now it’s starting with the realization that you don’t end up with 44% of the women in prison being Indigenous by actually doing the right thing. You’ve done the wrong thing clearly, and you’re using the prisons for issues that you shouldn’t be using them: for homelessness, for shelters for women who tried to escape violence, for women with mental health and addiction issues. 

And so I think we are seeing the realization and I don’t know, maybe I’m just being too hopeful. But I actually think we are seeing a change in that approach. I think the fact that Joey’s leadership was finally recognized. I mean, how many times did I have to pull out that damn letter, Joey? Joey got a commendation from the police chief in Kingston for saving the lives of many women prisoners and staff of prison for women during a fire – an accidental fire that happened in one of the women’s cells – people were still smoking at that time. 

And every time Joey went before the parole board, I’d have to pull out the original copy that she gave me to keep safe. The fact that corrections spend so much time monitoring and recording all the negative things versus monitoring and recording and encouraging the positive things. I mean, Joey has been a leader and as long as I’ve known you, Joey, you’ve been a leader; you’ll always be a leader,. And now you’re doing incredible stuff in the community. In my humble opinion, the way that Corrections dealt with you limited your ability to do that until you were out in the community. And now you’re an incredible role model for many young people, for women, for everybody in the community, for me. 

So I think those are really important steps forward that have not necessarily been taken by Corrections, but have, I think, been changing how Corrections is believed now. And when they say things like women are dangerous and violent, you just don’t understand or our classification system is right and you just don’t understand. I think finally, not just some of us, but finally the public is starting to wake up and say, “Hang on, that doesn’t sound right.” And I think it’s about time.

Sue: And, Joey, just comment and tell us a bit about the commendation that you got. What happened there in terms of saving people’s – the other women’s lives.

Joey: You mean prison’s women during the fire?

Sue: Yeah. 

Joey: Well, again the guards that were on shift, they didn’t know what to do, right. And myself, Ellen Young and a few others, right, I believe Emmylou is one of them. We told him to turn the power off, the hydro, because that’s the first thing you do, right. And then it was completely dark and they said, “What should we do? What should we do?” Well, call the fire department you know, get the hose out” and we went to get  it  – there was a lot of smoke. So we had to get the women from in the dark and lead the women to safety, to the gymnasium, right?

And then the same with A range and then the wing and all that, right. The wing, they were taking care of down there but we had made sure that from A range and B range that the women were OK. And then segregation but we couldn’t get through to segregation because there were two locked doors.

So they had to be taken care of. I don’t know how that worked out. But we had to really think fast, what’s important and the women risked their lives to go in that smoke, because that’s the number one killer is smoke. And the hose didn’t even reach that cell and then we used the hose from segregation. But the one at the front didn’t even reach the cells. And the B range is smaller than the A range. 

So yeah, and we finally we’re celled up in the gymnasium at that time because everything was covered in smoke. Yeah. And then we were waiting and waiting and waiting down in the gymnasium for hours. So we can at least go to another range to have and we were living on A range so we could have a bed and all that because our cells, we weren’t allowed to go back to our cells, not for a while days. So we were living basically on A range.

Sue: So the work you’re doing now, how do you think that helps work towards change in the prison for women system?

Joey: What do I do now?

Sue: Yeah. 

Joey: Well, I mean, as long as I live, I’ll never stop speaking about the injustice of our people or women in prisons, because it’s not only the women, it’s the youth now, right. And that’s why I’m so concerned for the youth too because they’re going to be in places like that. It doesn’t take long for an Indigenous woman or even a young boy to go into the prison system because we’re targeted, we’re Native and we’re no good and especially with the COVID, everything, you know.

And so yeah, the beds are going to be filled up. And so we’re trying to catch the young ones now, save them from the human tracking prison and all that. It’s important. And for the women there’s a lot of homelessness, as Kim said and we come from addiction too. Some women suffered from FASD (foetal alcohol syndrome) and mental health addiction. There are some people that don’t suffer from that, but we all have mental illnesses. Doesn’t matter if you’re incarcerated out here, we all got them issues, right. 

But when you’re in prison, we’re labelled because we have to see a psychiatrist upon entry into a prison, right. And then a psychiatrist meets us for about a few minutes, he writes whatever and then that’s it, that’s our assessment. And usually a Native woman that goes to prison because they’re Native, they’re automatically on a security level, maximum security. Very seldom you’ll see medium or minimum women upon entering like Grand Valley, all these other places. They usually go to maximum security.

Sue: And has there been any attempts to take this to the Human Rights Commission as a discriminatory action, Kim?

Kim: Yeah, so, five years after Louise Arbour’s recommendations were not being followed, we launched a human rights complaint in conjunction with the women inside, Strength in Sisterhood. Gayle Horri’s group, Women 4 Justice, Ann Hansen’s group, two women who had been at P4W – as well – in total, there were 27 national and international groups who brought the human rights claim against the Government of Canada on the basis of sex, race, and, of course, disability in terms of the number of Indigenous women, the number of women and the number of those with disabling mental health issues.

And they found that Canada discriminated against women on all of those bases. That is exactly as Joey said that the disproportionate number of women who had experienced violence, 91% of Indigenous women, 87% of women overall had histories of abuse. Many of them if they had been involved or been convicted of a violent offense, almost all of that was reactive, a lot of it defensive, as well as reactive. 

And in all of my 40 years of doing this work, I’ve only ever met one woman who committed a predatory act of violence by herself without a man or another person being part of and first facilitating that. And so that’s huge when you consider the difference, for instance, when I worked with men.

And so many have been in the child welfare system, many of them have been homeless, as Joey said. Many of them have, because of past trauma, they’ve either been given drugs to anesthetize themselves instead of treatment to deal with the trauma or they’ve self-medicated if they’ve not had any kind of support to deal with that. 

And so we see a lot of addiction and a lot of people with mental health issues, as Joey said. And yet it’s not because people pose a risk to public safety they’re in. It’s generally because – and COVID, the pandemic, has really laid it bare – of the incredible racism, sexism and ableism of our inadequate social, economic and health safety nets.

And so the only system that for decades has not been able to say no is the prison system. So we end up seeing prisons used for battered women, prisons used for people struggling with addictions, with mental health. And a couple of years ago, the Senate when there was some legislation coming before the Senate. We did make amendments to push for the types of releases and human rights approaches that the Corrections and Conditional Release Act legislation put in  place. 

In fact, the very first piece of legislation I spoke to in the Senate and House of Commons about when I was with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies was the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, Bill C 36 it was at the time I was starting. And it was supposed to be a piece of human rights legislation aimed at reducing the numbers of Indigenous women, Indigenous People, women and those with intellectual or mental health issues.

And so we’ve failed on that but I do think that we are turning a corner – just look at the defund police, decarcerate calls that are coming right now, in part because of what has been exposed through COVID-19 and the massive inequality. And at the same time, the pandemic of racism has been exposed. And so I actually do think we’re going to see more of those changes. And I do think those who’ve been inside like Joey will be part of leading us in those – are part of leading us in those directions and we’ll see very different changes.

So yes, there have been human rights complaints. Yes, there have been human rights pronouncements. The report that the Human Rights Commission put out is called Protecting their Rights. And they talk about how women, particularly Indigenous women are over- classified, put in segregation and put in maximum security. The fact that the entire prison system funnels them, and treats them in a different way than they treat men. All of that is exposed.

After that we then started going to the United Nations, the United Nations has pronounced on this as recently as two years ago. Dr. Pam Palmater and Dr. Cindy Blackstock, have done work in this area. We were there and the United Nations is saying Canada has to do something about this. 

They are discriminating against children and women and particularly Indigenous women. They have to change and I think I keep saying it:  I’m sure we’re on the edge of it. I hope I’m not sounding too optimistic, but I do think things are being exposed in a way that it will be very hard for the government to continue on and not change.

Sue: That’s very optimistic. I’m pleased to hear it. How about you, Joey? Do you share this optimism?

Joey: Well, we’ve come a long way with the work of Kim and a few other people that do side with us. I believe there’s going to be change coming down the pipe and we will win this war because human rights is a right, not a privilege. And in order for that to change, we have to come together and keep voicing our concerns as Kim has done for 40 years. We’ll be doing this but hopefully not another 40 years. But I have faith. I have to have faith and that’s what kept me alive all these years and that hope, that light at the end of the tunnel. Well, I see two lights.

Sue: Well, thank you both very much.