Number of women in federal prisons is up, and advocates think they know why – Nova Scotia

The number of women in federal prisons has jumped significantly in Canada in the last decade, and advocates say that’s evidence of what happens when community support programs are cut.

There are 37 per cent more women behind bars than there were 10 years ago (from 502 in 2007 to 688 this year), according to Ivan Zinger, Canada’s correctional investigator, who serves as an ombudsman for federal inmates. He said women are one of the fastest-growing populations in the federal system.

Many have been victims of crime themselves, he said. More than two-thirds report being sexually abused at some point in their lives, and nearly 90 per cent were physically abused.

It’s no wonder, then, they end up in prison, according to Savannah Gentile, director of advocacy and legal issues with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

“I have heard from a number of women that the first time they felt safe was the first night they spent in a prison cell,” she said. “And I think that’s really an indictment on our communities if the first time a women is safe is when she is behind bars. It’s really speaking to a lack, a lack of resources that exist for women.”

The scarcity of resources can range from lack of housing and good jobs, to difficulties getting help for mental and physical ailments. Gentile said some programs have either been cut or simply can’t cope with the demand.

Savannah Gentile is the director of advocacy and legal issues with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The growing number of women behind bars also raises questions about overcrowding.

Correctional Service of Canada is adamant that female inmates aren’t being crammed into federal institutions.

Julia Scott, a spokesperson for the federal agency, said in an email it has up to 805 beds for women (184 of those were added in the last six years), but the female inmate population is below 700.

Scott also said only about two per cent of female…

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