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October 20, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

Ottawa Citizen: Our prison system was not designed for women

By now, most people in Ottawa are familiar with the case of Julie Bilotta, the pregnant woman incarcerated in Ottawa’s infamous Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, whose cries for help as she laboured for eight hours to birth her son were reportedly all but ignored by detention centre staff until the eleventh hour.

Rightfully, Bilotta’s plight strikes a chord of outrage. How could both guards and nurses, as Bilotta tells it, ignore a very pregnant woman’s insistence that she was in labour, telling her instead that she had indigestion? How could they remove her from her shared cell where, at least presumably, she had the comfort of another human presence, and move her to solitary confinement? How could they taunt her during this transfer, allegedly suggesting that, if she couldn’t take the pain of childbirth, she shouldn’t have got pregnant in the first place? How could they lock her away for four hours to labour in complete isolation with no medical assistance save scant checks by nursing staff, who concluded that Bilotta was not in labour? How could they do all this to a woman who has yet to be convicted of the crimes she was charged with?

A nurse, who has been suspended with pay while an internal probe is conducted, says she was acting according to procedures after contacting an on-call doctor by phone.

But if we look back even at the very recent history of the imprisonment of women in this country, it is clear that “they” have done all this and more. Prisons were never designed to hold women. Because the vast majority of lawbreakers are male, the prison as a primary tool of punishment has always had an, “add women and stir” strategy, assuming that men and women are interchangeable when it comes to incarceration.

A litany of tragedies in Canadian women’s prisons tells us this is not the case. Backed up by excellent research from around the world, we know that women experience the “pains of imprisonment” in very different ways.

The federal arm of Canada’s penal system was forced to recognize as much in the early 1990s when a string of suicides and incidents of self-harm led to the establishment of a federal task force on the conditions of women in prison. Shortly thereafter, another incident inspired the country’s outrage. The strip searches of eight female prisoners by an all-male riot squad led to a commission of inquiry headed by the venerable Mme. Justice Louise Arbour. In her 1996 report, Justice Arbour called out the penal system for its wanton and pervasive disregard for both the rule of law as well as basic human rights. She outlined the need for sweeping reforms to a system that was totally blind to the particular needs of women prisoners.

Some of Justice Arbour’s recommendations were taken up, not least of which was the closure of the infamous Kingston Prison for Women. Sadly, however, the atrocities suffered by women in the penal system did not stop. The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies filed and won a human rights complaint on multiple grounds with regards to the treatment of women prisoners with a specific focus on the continued mistreatment of aboriginal women. More recently, recalling the strip searches at the Prison for Women more than a decade earlier, the nation recoiled in horror in 2007 as we watched 19-year-old Ashley Smith commit suicide while her guards stood outside her segregation cell door, watching and videotaping her. The guards had been instructed not to intervene after previous attempts at self-harm. A coroner’s inquest is ongoing.

Little has changed. Women in prison are still routinely dismissed as being “mad, bad or sad,” a litany of pathologies that serves as the basis for dismissing women’s concerns and complaints and often lead to prescriptions for psychiatric medications in lieu of medical care.

This is not to say that all women are treated horribly or all jailers and prison employees are callous. It is to say, however, that the case of Julie Bilotta reminds us that the system is still not equipped to adequately deal with women, and especially with women in their roles as mothers. It is also to say that the culture of gender-blindness Justice Arbour railed against almost two decades ago is still very much alive and well.

Case in point, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, Madeleine Meilleur, claimed recently that giving birth in a prison segregation cell is similar to having an emergency birth at home.

An emergency birth at home presumably involves a reasonably comfortable setting, the assurance that help is on the way and the presence of supportive people willing to comfort and assist the labouring woman until medical help arrives.

Perhaps Meilleur has not seen a segregation cell at OCDC, but I have. They are about the size of your average walk-in closet, constructed of concrete with a steel door that has one tiny window and a meal slot that can only be opened from the outside. There is a steel bunk with a thin mattress, a steel toilet and a steel sink. It is dirty, cold and smells bad. Sometimes there are rats. Usually there are cockroaches. To communicate, the prisoner must stand and yell at the window until a guard comes. Often the guard will only communicate with the prisoner through the meal slot. A segregation cell is designed specifically to deprive the prisoner of any and all creature comforts. It is decidedly unhomey.

Up until Thursday’s bail decision that allowed Bilotta to move to a halfway house where she could stay with her baby, she was only allowed to hold her baby in the ambulance on the way to the hospital after his birth. Because of the nature of OCDC, during the three weeks that separated her baby’s birth and her release, she was only able to see her baby through “closed visits” — meaning behind a sheet of Plexiglas.

Often billed as the “collateral damage” of the criminal justice system, there is ample research to show that babies and children of imprisoned people also suffer the pains of imprisonment. Incarceration, for the most part, is a finite and short-lived experience in a woman’s life. Her maternal bond, however, if she wants it and if it’s right for the baby, lasts a lifetime. Imprisonment disrupts that bond and, in Bilotta’s case, didn’t even give it a chance to be established right away.

Leading up to the birth of my son 10 months ago, my midwife counselled me on the importance of bonding with the baby in the first few days. “The only place he belongs is in your arms,” she emphasized, explaining that this mother-child closeness also helps the baby to adjust to life on the outside. If separated, not only is the baby unable to connect with the person with whom he has been the most intimately familiar during his nine-month gestation, he is also denied the right to breast feed, something which is now widely recognized for its importance to the health of newborns.

Winston Churchill, hardly a bleeding heart liberal or apologist for the “criminal element,” once said that we should judge a society by the ways in which it treats its prisoners. If the ongoing plight of women prisoners serves as a barometer for Canadian society, I am ashamed to conclude that ours is a barbarous nation.

Dawn Moore is an associate professor in the Carleton University Department of Law.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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