Blog: Poverty and Women’s Incarceration in Alberta

September 8, 2020

Few may know of ESPC’s history supporting the formation of non-profits in the criminal justice sector. Although not typically an area of focus for our organization—we defer to the expertise of these partners—the social issues for which we do advocate, such as poverty, housing, and employment, are inextricably linked to the criminal justice system, especially when analyzed through a gender-based lens.

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary released a report in 2019 to provide background on the situation of incarcerated women in Alberta. Elizabeth Fry societies operate as independent regional non-profits across Canada, offering a range of programs and services for women who are involved with the justice system—that is, those who are criminalized or at risk of becoming criminalized. The Calgary report sought to inform their own local programming, and to respond to the lack of available data in Alberta on incarceration rates. Unfortunately, most Alberta-based data sources are incomplete—the province has not released corrections data since 2012.

Provincial correctional systems (including remand centres) are populated with offenders who are either sentenced to two years or less, or who are awaiting trial or sentencing. Individuals sentenced to more than two years are placed in federal institutions. According to the report, the majority of sentences in Alberta are a result of property damage, along with minor theft (under $5,000) and mischief; the most common charge against women is that of minor theft, often as a result of shoplifting (p. 4).

Research on incarceration rates across Canada suggests that “criminal acts committed by women are generally connected to poverty” (p. 7). The evidence shows that 80% of women in Canadian institutions are there for poverty-related crimes, with nearly half of those the result of simply failing to pay a fine. Regrettably, Alberta ranks highest in the country for charges or incarceration related to this kind of “criminal activity.” Of the women in provincial institutions, 74% indicated they were unable to financially meet their basic needs at the time of their arrest. In the face of hunger or homelessness, many of these women turned to crime to support themselves and/or their families. Essentially, poverty-related incarceration unfairly punishes women facing financial hardship, increasing the risk of continued poverty and engagement with the criminal justice system. These challenges often intersect with issues such as addictions, mental health, homelessness, and abuse.

The number of individuals in Alberta’s remand centres has been steadily increasing since 2008 (p. 5). The uncertainty that accompanies remand custody can be particularly challenging for some individuals. Not knowing their ultimate length of stay can directly impact housing stability (increased risk of missing rent payments or failing to renew a lease on time), employment status (no concrete or reliable return to work date), as well as their ability to maintain child care, personal health, and social networks. A large proportion of incarcerated women are also mothers, which can greatly intensify these challenges. According to one estimation, more than 25,000 Canadian children are separated each year from their mothers due to incarceration (p. 7).

Systemic racism has played its own role in affecting the incarceration rates of women in Alberta. The disproportionate representation of Indigenous individuals in the criminal justice system is well-documented. Indigenous women make up an average of 38% of the total provincial and territorial incarcerated population in Canada. Alberta, however, is the only province that has failed to release up-to-date provincial data of this kind, although “at last reporting, Alberta had the most disproportionately high level of Indigenous incarceration, surpassing all other jurisdictions in Canada” (p. 6). Whether this has improved or worsened in recent years in unknown.

Once released, women face numerous barriers to reintegration and healing. Reintegration challenges revolve around broader issues like finance, employment, and housing. According to the data, some of the major challenges that women face include barriers due to: limited education (67%), financial debt (63%), as well as limited access to transportation (48%) and affordable housing (47%) (p. 16-17). Without effective individual release plans, women often don’t have the resources to reintegrate confidently and successfully, and are more at risk of coming up against these challenges or to re-offend for survival.

Reintegration into society is also deeply connected to continuity: ensuring reliable, stable access to care (health and well-being), and understanding how the social determinants of health affect and are affected by reintegration readiness. Access to appropriate counselling and programming can make a positive impact on women’s well-being, while not having access to community services can increase rates of recidivism.

Addressing the complex needs of BIPOC offenders is not adequately examined in the report. Although justice reform recommendations support the modification of sentencing measures for BIPOC individuals (take for instance the introduction of Gladue reports for Indigenous offenders), research indicates that providing culturally appropriate programming and supports for individuals already in the system can have a positive effect on reintegration and reduce recidivism. This recommendation is repeated across the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, the final report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Children, and a recent parliamentary committee study.

It’s worrying that our provincial governments, both past and present, have been unwilling to release incarceration data since 2012. We cannot homogenize the female experiences of poverty, incarceration, or reintegration. Alberta’s population has diversified since 2012 and we must recognize the range of cultures and needs that are represented in these provincial institutions. Without up-to-date data, poverty reduction strategies to reduce rates of women’s criminalization and incarceration will be inadequate; the struggle to find meaningful ways to dismantle a justice system that reinforces discrimination and inequity will persist.

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