Executive Summary

A Survey of Women in Institutions and Under Community Supervision in Ontario

This study was conducted by Margaret Shaw with the assistance of Sandra Hargreaves as well as Leonas Campbell, Marlene Chalfoun, Loreen Commandant, Martha Dow, Siu Fong, Amanel Iyogen, Inez May, and Kelly Moffat.

Published by the Research Services Strategic Policy and Planning Division
Ministry of the Solicitor General and Correctional Services
February, 1994
© Queen's Printer, Ontario

A sample of 650 women in provincial institutions or serving sentences under community supervision in Ontario was interviewed between November 1991 and February 1992. The purpose of the survey was to:

  • help build a detailed profile of women across the province who become involved in the criminal justice system;

  • consider their subjective experiences of that system; and

  • identify the kinds of programmes and facilities which are needed for women.

The survey was initiated by the Research Services Unit of the Ministry of Correctional Services, in conjunction with the Ministry discussion paper Agenda for Change (1991) which argued for the need for coherent policies and programmes for women offenders.

Women form a very small proportion of the population passing through the criminal justice system in Ontario; only approximately 8% of those sentenced to custody, and 18% of those admitted to probation in a year are women. There are relatively few programmes and facilities specifically designed for women. There were a number of reasons for undertaking the survey now: major changes in awareness of the issues affecting women's involvement with the law; greater awareness of the needs of Aboriginal and visible minority women; the growing consensus on the need to develop a community-based model of corrections; and more recent policy and social changes which are likely to affect female offenders.

The adult sample

There were 531 women in the adult sample, 243 in institutions and 288 under community supervision. The age range was 18 to 64 years, with a mean age of 30 years. Sixty-nine percent identified themselves as Caucasian, 13% as native peoples, 10% black and 6% as belonging to other minority groups. Nineteen percent had been born outside Canada. Both native women and those from visible minority groups appeared to be over-represented in the sample. Eighty-nine percent were English-speaking, six were francophones and 13 spoke primarily other languages. Over half the Aboriginal women stated that they preferred to use their native language.

Forty percent of the women were single, 30% were separated or divorced and 31% were in common-law relationship or, less often, married. At the time of arrest, 16% were single mothers living alone with children.

Current status and offending

Excluding women at Vanier Centre for Women (25 % of the institutional group), 25 % of those in jails or detention centres were on remand, 15% were awaiting further charges, 23% were sentenced and awaiting transfer, and 35% were serving their sentence there.

The majority of prison terms were for periods of under six months, with 35% serving less than three months. Twenty percent of the institutional group had spent between one month and one-and-a-half years or more on remand.

Among the community group, 90% were serving probation sentences, usually combined with other sentences and special conditions, 8% were in community residences, and 1% were on remand.

The majority of women did not have an extensive history of offending, and 41% were first offenders. Only 3% of the sample had previously received a federal sentence. Approximately a quarter of the institutional group had a considerable history of incarceration, regularly reappearing in prison on similar charges, receiving the same short-term sentences, and their circumstances remaining unchanged.

The great majority of offences or charges involved property (46%); 15% were charged with drug offences; 14% minor assaults and the remainder a variety of charges including breaches of court orders, 'moral' and public order offences, drinking, and traffic infractions; 5% were charged with more serious offences of violence, primarily robbery.


Sixty-nine percent of the women had children, and 4% step-children. A third of the children were aged five years or below, and 43% were aged 6-16 years old. Thus the majority were, at least officially, at a dependent age. Eighty percent of the mothers said they had been single parents for all or part of their children's lives, and 55% said they had had primary  responsibility for bringing up their children.

Prior to their arrest, 53% of the institutional group and 70% of the community group had been living with at least one of their children. Most children living elsewhere were with relatives but 11 % of women with children had at least one child in foster care. The reasons for alternative living arrangements included children adopted at birth (14%), living elsewhere by the mother's own choice (30%), living elsewhere because they were grown up (30%), and taken into care, or by an ex-partner, against the mother's wishes (39%).

Over half of the incarcerated mothers had had to make alternative care arrangements for those children living with them (and some of those now in the community). Three-quarters of those in prison and half of those in the community said they had had considerable problems concerning their children at the time of arrest and subsequently, including care arrangements, emotional problems, the pain of separation, loss of custody, possible abuse by those responsible for caring for their children, and their inability to deal with their children's problems.

Contact with children in prison was a major source of concern, and the need for more flexible policies was stressed. Excluding women at Vanier Centre for Women (who are permitted "open" visits) the overwhelming response from women in jails and detention centre, was for touch visits, and many women stressed the need for visiting facilities away from the normal visiting area where they could see all their children at once, and spend some time with them. This applied to mothers with young babies as well as those with older children and teenagers. The possibility of overnight stays with their children was also raised.

Family and childhood and experience of abuse

Only 30% of the women felt they had had a reasonably secure and stable childhood, and 40% mentioned severe disruptions including alcoholism, family violence, separations and illness. Among the women in prison, 30% had spent time in foster care, residential homes or training schools, and 8% had lived on the streets from the age of 13 or 14.

Seventy-two percent of the women stated that they had experienced physical abuse at some stage in their lives, and 48% stated that they had suffered sexual abuse. Altogether 77% of the sample stated that they had been physically or sexually abused, and the reported experiences of both groups of women in prison and the community were similar. Seventy percent said they had been emotionally abused.

Physical abuse was more commonly reported to have been experienced as adults than in childhood. In the great majority of adult cases (90%), the abuse was reported to have occurred at the hands of husbands, common-law partners or boyfriends. Most women rated their abuse as serious. In the case of sexual abuse as adults, 61 % involved acquaintances or strangers rather than close partners. Sexual abuse was stated to have been common in childhood, and in three-quarters of the cases involved a wide range of relatives including fathers, step or foster fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and brothers. Almost all physical abuse in childhood was stated to have been perpetrated by close relatives. Around 50% of the women who reported that they had experienced abuse wanted help now, primarily individual counselling.

Physical and mental health

Almost half of those in the community and two-thirds of those in institutions mentioned problems with their physical health, including some apparently serious conditions often associated with alcohol and drug use. Almost half the women in institutions felt they were not getting the health care they needed, as did 11 % of those in the community. The primary concerns among women in institutions were that they were not listened to or treated seriously by health care staff, that there was insufficient access to health care, and no opportunity for second opinions or consultation with family doctors. They felt their status as alcohol or drug users adversely affected the quality of care they received.

Approximately half of the women in institutions mentioned problems with their mental health as did a quarter of the community group. Eighty percent of those incarcerated said they suffered from at least one mental health problem, primarily depression and anxiety, as did two-thirds of those in the community. Some of this difference must be attributed to the conditions under which many were living in jails and detention centres. Rates of attempted suicide or slashing were similar for both groups of women. The primary need was for greater access to individual counselling from psychiatrists or psychologists who would 'really listen' to them.

Overall, the women, particularly those in institutions, are a high risk group most of whom will not have access to the more extensive health services available at Vanier Centre for Women.


Alcohol and drugs have played a significant part in the lives of the majority of the women: 79% of those in institutions and 60% of those in the community. Two-thirds of the former said that alcohol or drugs had been involved in their offending and half of the community group, and in most cases they were major users of alcohol or drugs or both. Drug misuse was much more common among the institutional group, as were high risk behaviours such as mixing drugs and alcohol, injecting and sharing needles, and sniffing gas or glue. In addition, 45% of the women in institutions and a third of those in the community said they had been prescribed drugs by a doctor over a long period of time.

There was a need for alcohol programmes with continuity from prison to the street, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), individual counselling, residential programmes, and those which were culturally sensitive. A greater number of women wanted access to drug treatment, including help with withdrawal, individual counselling, and group or residential programmes. They reported difficulty attending for treatment in the community because of lack of access to child-care or transport, or the support of friends and family members.

Education and work

The educational and work histories of both groups of women were similar. Thirty percent had not reached Grade 10 at school, and two-thirds did not have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Only 9% had received post-secondary qualifications, but as many as 82% said they would like some form of education or work training now.

Around two-thirds of the women were not working at the time they committed their offence(s). Most had been out of work for more than a year. The majority of jobs were in service or sales or unskilled manual work.

The main sources of income for the majority of women were welfare or mother's allowance. Only 12% of the women said they did not want a paid job in the future, and 47% of the women in institutions, and 27% of those in the community, wanted specific job training in such fields as trades training, nursing, social work, child-care, or computing.

Thus the work skills and education levels of the women are low, and their work experience limited, with little to distinguish those in institutions from those in the community in these respects. Both are poorly equipped to earn a reasonable income in a legitimate job.

Most important needs

The women felt that the most important things which would help to keep them out of the criminal justice system in the future were employment, work training, help with emotional problems, housing, and treatment for substance abuse. In most cases, the women in the institutional group were more likely to mention needs such as employment, work training and housing.

In terms of the priority attached to such help, substance abuse counselling, followed by housing and employment were rated the most important by women in institutions. Those in the community rated counselling for emotional problems, child-related needs and employment the most important.

Staff assessments, while not available for all women, were similar to those of the women themselves, stressing work and employment, but they placed greater emphasis on the need for help with substance abuse than the women themselves.

The experience of remand and detention

The views of women in institutions and some of those in the community about the conditions under which they were remanded in custody or served their sentences indicate three major areas of concern: the physical conditions under which they had to live; the lack of programming or assistance; and their treatment by those in positions of authority over them. Many of the comments, although not all, concerned jails and detention centres rather than the Vanier Centre for Women.

The difficulties of trying to live in the overcrowded, and sometimes cold or dirty conditions of jails and detention centres were stressed by many of the women. The lack of privacy, the noise levels, the stress of sharing an overcrowded cell or dormitory for most of the day or night, the minimal access to fresh air or exercise in most instances, all helped to create an atmosphere of tension and to heighten, anxiety, sleeping difficulties and depression. Some institutions at the time of the survey were seriously overcrowded with six women sleeping in a cell designed for four in one instance.

A major concern was with health and hygiene, particularly a perceived absence of privacy in bathrooms and washing areas, the lack of changes of clothing for exercise or access to showers following exercise, the minimal provision of clean clothes or sanitary napkins when necessary, and the lack of provision of appropriate products for women such as shampoos or for skin care.

In spite of efforts by staff in some institutions, the main experience of the women in jails and detention centres was of boredom and inactivity. Since women form so small a proportion of the total populations of the smaller institutions they have little access to work or programmes including recreation. In a number of cases, they did not have access to programmes available to men, including AA and school. Correspondence courses were offered in some institutions but had to be undertaken in dormitories or cells where there was little respite from noise and interruption.

Overriding the physical conditions and lack of programming was the concern of most women to be treated with greater understanding and respect. This applied to both first-time offenders as well as to those with considerable experience of imprisonment, all of whom stressed that people who are treated with respect will respond similarly. The experience of many was of being treated badly. The inappropriateness of unpleasant, punitive and over-secure conditions in relation to their offending behaviour was mentioned by a number of women who stressed the need for alternative ways of dealing with remand and sentencing.

The Native Women

Eighty adult native women were interviewed, 19 in regions other than the North. The majority (80%) were Registered Status Indians, and two-thirds had been born on a reserve. Almost half the women in institutions were considerable distances (over 100 km) from their homes.

The native women were more likely to have been charged with minor assaults (31%) and drinking offences (15%) than the main adult sample, and less likely to be charged with property or drug offences. They were serving slightly shorter sentences than the main sample, in spite of the fact that they were more likely to have previous convictions. Over half the institutional sample had accumulated a considerable number of short-term custodial sentences (ranging from 5 to over 50).

A higher proportion of the native women had children (86%) and more of them compared with the main sample. They were more likely to have been living with them at the time of their arrest. Less than half of those in institutions had had contact with their children, and most wanted to be able to see them, particularly through open visits.

They reported higher levels of family disruption and alcoholism in their childhoods, and higher levels of physical, though not sexual, abuse than the main sample. Seventy nine percent said they had been physically abused, especially as adults, and 41% sexually abused, more often as children. The percentage of native women who had attempted suicide or slashed themselves was slightly higher than for the main sample.

Overall, the native women had received much less formal schooling than the main sample, and were less likely to have been employed. Almost a quarter had not reached Grade 8, and only 14% received a high school diploma. Only 4% said they had received post-secondary education or training (and 47% of the main sample). Two-thirds of the women said they would like to undertake further education or training, primarily literacy or basic upgrading. Only 19% said they had had a full or part-time job, their primary source of income being welfare payments and mother's allowance.

The impact of alcohol on the lives of the native women was greater than among the main sample. Over three-quarters said that alcohol was involved in their offending and almost half described themselves currently as heavy users. Few currently used drugs, but 15% had sniffed solvents. Over half the women had never received any treatment for alcohol abuse, and 44% said they would like help, particularly residential programmes for women and native-based programmes, and AA groups.

There was a need for native-based programmes including access to Elders, native cultural and spiritual activities, native workers and counselors, native interpreters in institutions and female native staff. They felt their main programme needs were work skills and education, closely followed by housing, and issues relating to their children.

The native women were generally more at ease speaking their own language. They felt they were harshly treated in institutions because of their native status. For them, the problems of being incarcerated and how they were treated were overlaid with an additional barrier of language, race and cultural expectations, and their apparent resignation masks their concern about their circumstances and severe life problems.

The Young Offenders

Eighty-four young offenders were included in the study, 41 under community supervision, and 43 in open or closed custody. The majority of them had been charged with property offences (41%), 25% for assaults, and 14% for breaches of court or probation orders. Just under a third were first offenders and half of the sample had been charged as juveniles (Phase I Young Offender).

The majority (85%) felt they had problems in relation to their family, including violence, alcoholism and separations. Those in custody were more likely to mention problems and to have left home at an earlier age. They were also more likely to have dropped out of school at an earlier age.

Two-thirds of the sample said they would now like to undertake training or additional education, primarily basic education or upgrading. Over half of them wanted a job, or help finding one, particularly in the child-care or nursing fields, or trade training.

Overall, 63% said they had been physically abused at some stage in their lives and 58% sexually abused. Much of this had been during childhood. Rates of physical, and particularly sexual abuse, in childhood were higher than among the adult population. Around half of them felt they wanted help with issues of abuse, primarily through individual counselling.

Young offenders, especially those in custody, were more likely to mention specific mental health problems than were the adult sample. Just under half the sample said they had attempted suicide or had slashed themselves at some stage. There was less evidence of current involvement in alcohol and drugs than among the adult sample, but greater evidence of the mixing of drugs and alcohol, and 20% had injected drugs.

In assessing the issues they needed to deal with, the most frequently mentioned was employment, followed by improved family relationships, education upgrading, work training, and help with emotional problems. Staff assessed more young offenders as needing help, primarily in the same areas, but they also felt more of them needed substance abuse counselling.

Meeting the needs of the female population

The main findings of the study help to underline the particular needs of women in institutions and the community which are different from those of the much larger male population. These include their greater vulnerability to physical and mental health problems, their high levels of physical and sexual abuse as children and adults, their often heavy involvement in alcohol, street and prescription drugs, their low levels of educational and work skills, their status as mothers, often with sole responsibility for their children.

The difficulties which women face as a minority in the much larger male system both on remand and under sentence are also emphasized. Since many women are unlikely to be transferred to the Vanier Centre for Women (or may be deemed unacceptable), their experience of incarceration under such conditions cannot be said to be positive.

Native women across the province are subject to greater disadvantages than the non-native population in terms of living conditions, addictions, levels of abuse, and to language and cultural differences. Those in custody tend to receive repetitive short sentences which cannot deal with the issues leading to the commission of the offences which led to incarceration.

Apart from Aboriginal women, 16% identified themselves as belonging to an ethnic or visible minority group. They included established Canadians and more recent immigrants. A more targeted study of the problems confronting these women would help to provide a better understanding of how their difficulties can be overcome.

Women from visible minority groups are more likely than others to opt out of treatment programmes. They report that the absence of staff who speak their language or who share their ethnic and cultural background increases their sense of isolation. They suggest that the development of programmes run by people from their own backgrounds, and which are grounded in their own cultural traditions and experience, would have a greater likelihood of acceptance and of meeting their needs. Apart from staff training in ethnic issues, the women identified a need to increase the numbers of staff from minority groups, both in institutions and in the community, and to establish a network of readily available language and cultural resources for the variety of minority groups who pass through the system.

While women in the institutional group have generally greater involvement with the criminal justice system than those in the community, there are a number of similarities between them. Apart from drugs, their offending patterns are similar, with a majority charged with property offences, minor assaults and nuisance offences. They do not represent a danger to the public. The experience of physical and sexual abuse appears to be similarly widespread. Their levels of education and training and their work experience are similar. In neither case are most women well equipped to earn a reasonable wage. They are as likely to have children and to have been single parents, although those in institutions are more likely to have given over some of the responsibility for their care.

The foregoing suggests the importance of developing more programmes in the community to meet the needs of women under community supervision. This also presents an opportunity to consider the possibility of treating more women, now incarcerated, in a community setting. Given that the majority of women given a custodial sentence receive short-term sentences, and are not eligible for transfer to Vanier Centre for Women, there is little opportunity for assessment, or for their needs to be met in the institutional setting, even if such programmes were available. Repetitive short-term imprisonment does not offer an opportunity for treatment for these women. There appears to be a need, and an opportunity, to develop community-based treatment facilities which avoid the many problems of costly short-term incarceration.

In relation to children and parenting, maintaining or strengthening relationships between mothers and their children requires attention to such things as visiting arrangements and longer-term visits or Temporary Absence Programs (TAPs). Without such reinforcement, separation may result in a greater breach in relationships than may have existed, and the possibility of losing parental rights. Using community-based residential accommodation with facilities for children, or alternatives to incarceration or women with children may avoid many of the problems of separation.

In relation to the use of custodial remands for women whose offences are neither serious nor a risk to the public, it is suggested that the use of alternatives be explored. Both sentenced and remanded women are usually housed together in maximum security conditions. The use of residential facilities in the community for remand, with more flexible policies in relation to movement, visiting and contact with the community would help to lessen the difficulties for both the women and the institutions.

For many women, there are close links between substance abuse, offending behaviour, histories of abuse, and mental and physical health. It is difficult for them to deal with these issues when they are poorly housed, and without job skills, and often with children. What is needed is a more rounded approach to programme provision which recognizes the interrelationship of these problems and which is women-centred, i.e., which specifically takes account of their experiences and needs as women. Account also needs to be taken of their own views. Women may be unwilling to enter programmes because they have dealt with the issue, because of practical barriers, or differences in philosophy and cultural background which make the programmes unattractive.