People and Places

Q&A: Prisoner’s Dilemma

Inmate suicide, overcrowding, segregation, staffing shortages, lockdowns — the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Innes Road has been widely criticized. But conditions at the OCDC are by no means unique. In a report released this past spring, Canada’s federal prison watchdog highlighted the unsettling increase in the numbers of Aboriginal women being incarcerated. It’s a trend that will only continue to increase if alternatives to imprisonment aren’t developed in the next few years, says Kim Pate, a newly appointed senator and former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, an organization advocating for imprisoned women. Mark Bourrie spoke with Pate about the dire condition of the penal system in her Ottawa office, which is decorated with rubble from the notorious P4W, the now demolished federal Prison for Women in Kingston.

Kim Pate, a newly appointed senator, was interviewed in September in her office at the Canadian Fry society in Ottawa. Photo: Jessica Deeks
Kim Pate, a newly appointed senator, was interviewed in September in her office at the Canadian Fry Society in Ottawa. Photo: Jessica Deeks

How tough are the conditions for women in prisons and jails?

Conditions vary. The greater the level of security, the more concerned we are with the conditions that the prisoners must live with. In the criminal justice and prison systems, women are often an afterthought.

Does it matter whether the jail is new or old? There have been problems at the Innes Road jail here in Ottawa, and it’s fairly new.

Often it’s more about how staff and managers get along with each other. If managers and staff are at odds, the situation will be hellish for the prisoners no matter how new the prison is. At P4W, the physical plant was awful. [But] you had staff at the beginning who knew when to get involved, when to leave things alone. There was a community of women who supported each other that hasn’t been replicated in the “new” regional prisons for women.

So how do you start to fix the system?

We have an opportunity to make the case for reform when governments and people talk about marginalization, for instance during the Truth and Reconciliation process and the inquiry that’s coming into missing and murdered Aboriginal women [and girls]. The government can address issues of poverty, disabilities, and addictions. Jails are not full of well-off people, and there are already alternatives for those who have access to money, resources, and other forms of privilege that allow them to be diverted from the criminal and penal systems. We need to fix the system upstream, long before people end up in the criminal justice system. There’s interest again in a guaranteed annual income, an idea that had gone out of favour for a while. People do want to work and contribute. The challenge is to remove roadblocks that make things hard for them.

You say you want to “decarcerate” people. Your organization uses the legal system to fight for better conditions and for getting women out of segregation and even out of prison. Why should people support that?

It costs $217,000 a year to keep a female federal prisoner in a maximum- or medium-security prison, $500,000 in a maximum-security prison or in segregation. It is much cheaper to send a woman to Harvard than to keep her in prison. It’s not just the cost of running the prisons. About 90 percent of women prisoners have children. There’s a huge cost to governments for support for these children, plus there’s a great burden imposed on the families of imprisoned women because many of the children end up being raised by their grandmothers and other family members. This is a system that doesn’t work and is unsustainable.

You’re a lawyer. Why did you choose to fight for prison reform rather than practise law in a traditional way?

I started working for a law firm out of law school and quit after two weeks. In law school, I had spent my final term at a legal clinic, sometimes until 3 a.m. A lot of the cases involved women and kids, and at the time, the Young Offenders Act had just come in. Then I graduated and went from working in the clinic to being in a firm, writing legal memos. Suddenly, I was so removed from youth. I wanted to go back and deal with kids. So
I quit. I was 24, not very old myself.