Telling the Story: A Study in the Segregation of Women Prisoners

By Martel, Joane | Social Justice, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Telling the Story: A Study in the Segregation of Women Prisoners


Martel, Joane, Social Justice


[My] cell was as long as me, as tall as me, as fat as me. There's a light on you all the time, you know, like one of these bright lights all the time. And you just got a mattress on the floor and a toilet. There's no sink to wash your hands. And it's infested with bugs; you sleep with them and eat with them. And there's no windows for sunlight--you don't know if it' slight or dark out (Marie).

I was lucky if I got a shower every two or three days, and sometimes I remember washing my hair in the toilet cause.... I just wanted it clean, so I'd try to wash it myself in the cell (Flora).

CANADA PRIDES ITSELF ON ITS CIVILITY. As A "MATURING" SOCIETY, IT VIEWS itself as progressing along a continuous path toward the development of the dignity of humankind. Canadians are proud that they provide extensive sociolegal protections for various human rights and freedoms, and that the United Nations' has ranked Canada as the number one country (out of 174) in which to live since at least 1991 (UNDP, 1992). Regarding the way we imprison people, our collective identity is rooted in the belief that, socially, we have "evolved" from a bleak era in which prisoners were equated with slaves or subhuman beings. We take comfort in the idea that much progress has been made in the 20th century in the conditions under which individuals are incarcerated in Canada. However, the excerpts introduced above tell a different story. They tell of women prisoners' experiences of segregation (i.e., solitary confinement) in Canadian prisons, a facet of criminal imprisonment that is generally overlooked.

Segregation is a prison practice used for separating and isolating a prisoner from the general inmate population for reasons ranging from safety (e.g., protective custody) to punitive purposes (e.g., disciplinary segregation). Despite its widespread use in prison, and notwithstanding the existing literature on a variety of prison-related topics, the issue of segregation still remains largely unknown today. An extensive review of the literature reveals only a few extant studies, mostly on the segregation of American male prisons in the late 1970s. This literature concentrates on the psychosocial characteristics of men usually found in segregation (e.g., Vantour, 1975; Barak-Glantz, 1983; Suedfeld et al., 1982), or on some of the institutional, legal, or psychological implications of segregation (Benjamin and Lux, 1975; Grassian, 1983; Brodsky and Scogin, 1988). More recent Canadian studies focused primarily on the compliance of segregation practices with existing law, or on the psychological impact of segrega tion as measured by statistical tools developed and administered by agents of correctional agencies (Canada, 1997; Motiuk and Blanchette, 1997; Zinger and Wichmann, 1999).

However, the segregation of women prisoners remains understudied. Apart from one recent study on the conditions of solitary confinement for women of color in an American prison (Shaylor, 1998), this practice has yet to be noticed in any systematic way by policymakers [1] and social scientists. This topic is usually the poor relative of penological studies, and the literature on prisons remains almost completely silent on the prison experiences of contemporary prisoners themselves. Although some seminal studies have documented the rise and maintenance of prison regimes in many Western societies (for example, Foucault, 1975; Melossi and Pavarini, 1981), relatively little is known about the individuals who are the target of, and are subjected to, repressive institutions. A few authors have critiqued this void in the literature (e.g., Rostaing, 1996) and argued that, similar to other marginalized voices, prisoners ought to be given a place in the study of "inarticulate groups, along with women, children, workers , and blacks" (O'Brien, 1982: 6-7). Their argument is particularly fitting when it comes to the way prisoners experience segregation.

This article relays the major findings of a field study of 12 women who experienced segregation while in prison in the Canadian Prairies. …

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