Defending Prisoners' Rights
CAEFS monitors the conditions of confinement in all six federal institutions designated for women and operated by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)
Federally sentenced people are those who are serving a sentence that is longer than two years.
The monitoring of conditions of confinement are primarily done by our 5 regional advocacy (RA) teams - Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairies, Pacific - who are comprised of individuals connected with local Elizabeth Fry Societies, including board members, executive directors, staff, and volunteers.
Our advocates work to identify and address any systemic human rights abuses against prisoners.
Prior to COVID-19, this work was done through regular advocacy visits to the prison(s) for women in their region. Now, we rely on phone calls from prisoners to report concerns regarding conditions of confinement to us. We are actively working on regaining access to the prisons.
When issues arise, we work with our peer advocates to guide and support prisoners through internal remedies (like grievances), and make external referrals to local societies, lawyers and other supports when needed.
These issues are then brought forward to the warden and the prison’s upper management. Prior to COVID-19, this was done through in- person meetings following our advocacy visits. Now, our teams meet regularly with the warden over the phone. Whether in person or over the phone, these meetings are documented in a formal letter that is then sent to the warden, the CSC commissioner for women, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, and the Senate.
The CAEFS office also uses the information gathered by the regional advocacy teams to develop more strategic advocacy positions that we use to work towards policy changes that center the needs of criminalized and/or incarcerated women and gender diverse people, described below under 'Legal and Policy Initiatives'.
Regional advocates also provide, or help to facilitate, trainings and workshops for federally incarcerated people. These include Human Rights in Action and more recently a series on Reproductive Justice.
Current Legal and Policy Initiatives
Human Rights Case
In 2010 CAEFS filed a Human Rights Case on behalf of all federally sentenced women in 2010 before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Information from our years of advocacy and monitoring conditions of confinement will be used as evidence in this case. For instance, we have created a comprehensive database that tracks the issues raised in our regular advocacy letters to wardens. This will allow CAEFS to document past human rights concerns, as well as any that may arise in the future. CAEFS continues to work on this case today.
CAEFS is working to support the inquest into the death of Terry Baker, found unresponsive in 2016 at the Grand Valley Institution. This death affirms that prisons are no place for individuals with mental health issues. As an organization with a substantial interest in the Inquest, CAEFS has requested standing to take an active part in the Inquest proceedings and to call an expert witness.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has launched a federal constitutional challenge to the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in federal prisons. The legal case focuses on Correctional Service Canada (CSC)’s failure to adequately protect the health and safety of prisoners during the pandemic, including the failure to implement adequate infection control and make physical distancing possible, and to take proactive steps to shift low-risk prisoners to community supervision. In mid-June 2020, CAEFS submitted an affidavit to support this legal challenge. The affidavit draws on information that CAEFS has collected through our ongoing monitoring of conditions of confinement in prisons designated for women, and reflects conversations with incarcerated women and gender diverse people across the country from April 2-July 15, 2020. In the affidavit, CAEFS highlights reported concerns about prisoners’ health, including the impossibility of maintaining physical distancing, limited access to cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, a lack of control over who enters a living unit, concerns regarding the possibility of CSC staff bringing in the virus, and overall restrictive measures that limit access to programming, phones, elders and cultural supports, legal counsel, health-care staff,and parole officers.
Reproductive Justice Workshops
In late 2019 and early 2020, CAEFS partnered with Martha Paynter to deliver reproductive justice workshops to individuals in all 5 English-language federal institutions designated for women in Canada.
This project was funded by Senator Yvonne Boyer, who conducted the External Review of Tubal Ligation in the Saskatoon Health Region, along with Dr. Judith Bartlett. The review was prompted by media reports in 2015 of forced sterilization of Indigenous women in the Saskatoon Health region. Senator Boyer and Dr. Bartlett used a community engagement approach to welcome women to be interviewed about their experiences of forced or coerced sterilization. Boyer and Bartlett interviewed seven women who bravely came forward for their review. At the time of writing, at least 100 women have joined in class action lawsuits for damages stemming from the experience across several provinces.
CAEFS reproductive justice workshops stemmed from an understanding that people who are incarcerated may not have known how, or had access to communication pathways, to contribute their stories to Boyer and Bartlett’s review or to join the class. In fact, incarcerated women may not even have known of either process or of the issue of forced sterilization itself. These workshops sought to remedy this.
Martha facilitated these workshops to over 200 incarcerated individuals, with the support of our Regional Advocates and the elders at each institution.
By bringing education about reproductive rights, CAEFS Reproductive Justice workshops sought to empower incarcerated women to bring forward concerns to CAEFS advocates.
Martha’s final report is forthcoming and will be posted here.