Prison perpetuates abuses, re-traumatizes girls, advocate says

Treatment of teenage girls in custody violates their rights, robs them of their dignity and amounts to child abuse, an advocate said Friday.

Annabel Webb, co-founder of Justice for Girls - a non-profit advocacy group banned in 2007 from entering B.C. prisons or taking calls from inmates- said the justice system must be reformed.

"Let's not reform the prison system; let's get rid of it," she said at Girls, Crime and Custody, a conference of service providers brought together by the Elizabeth Fry Society.

The gathering was aimed at keeping girls out of court, especially in the face of new federal crime legislation.

"I'm not going to talk about the Stephen Harper omnibus crime legislation thing," Webb said parenthetically. "Aye, don't get me started."

She gave a damning indictment, saying the system compounds the harm girls have already suffered. She said it needs to be replaced with one that assists girls, many of whom are victims of past violence and abuse before they come into conflict with the law.

With a background of working with abused women and youth, Webb said she dealt with "some of the most brutal situations of violence and abject poverty imaginable." That didn't prepare her for what she found as an advocate for girls in prison.

"I realized that the punishment of prison is much more profound and insidious than the simple loss of liberty."

Loss of dignity is the very fabric of prison life, she said. Prison practices such as segregation, pat-downs and strip searches, invasive testing and the denial of proper nutrition and hygiene effectively re-traumatize.

"Children should not be subject to solitary confinement. It's a cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment violating international human rights standards."

In one case, a 14-year-old victim of sexual abuse, who didn't want to testify against the man who raped her, was arrested on a bench warrant for a minor breach on a property offence.

Brought out of lock-up in leg shackles, she was told by the judge who sentenced her, "If you don't change your ways, Ms. T, you are sure to wind up like those women on the pig farm," a reference to the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton.

"I question what it means to be in an institution at such a vulnerable moment of development and maturity … What is her life trajectory when, at this critical moment, she is criminalized and incarcerated?"

More than half of the female inmates in Canada are indigenous, many of them having come from communities violence is epidemic and poverty entrenched, she said. In a social-historical context, imprisonment of indigenous girls is a continuation of colonization and cultural genocide, in some ways replicating the residential school experience.

Offenders need to be held accountable for their acts, but emphasis should be on healing them in their own communities, she said.

Patrick MacDonald, program supervisor with the Phoenix Centre in Kamloops, agreed it's not a good time to be incarcerated and that there have been failed attempts to reform the system.

"But I'm not sure we're going to see prisons eliminated anytime soon," he said, seeking some culturally specific advice from Webb.

"I guess my fundamental point is that no matter how good and caring the program, it's a struggle to heal in prison because that's not what it's designed to do," she replied.

Webb shattered the myth that children are not imprisoned in Canada, another delegate observed.

"Systemically, we have to do a better job of reporting the violence against girls way, way before they're exposed to prison," Webb concluded.

Justice for Girls was banned from attending prison or taking calls from inmates because it challenged the system and exposed abuses, Webb said. It has unsuccessfully fought the ban imposed by the Ministry of Children and Families.

The ministry maintains that the ban is in effect because the advocacy group insisted it does not have a duty to report abuse or co-operate with investigators. That constitutes a violation of law, a ministry spokesman said.

Rainbow against the darkness: Chapter presents first bursary

In the midst of dialogue on child abuse and human suffering, there was a rainbow in the room at Friday's conference on Girls, Crime and Custody.

Rainbow Acoby, a TRU nursing student from Lytton, was presented with the first women's educational bursary from Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society.

Acoby said three years ago she was in that dark place, incarcerated for drunk driving.

"It was then I tweaked. I wanted to turn my life around and quit using drugs and alcohol."

She went to work part-time while upgrading her education. After struggling for many years, she's building a brighter future for herself and her 11-year-old daughter. And she's just started a new relationship, she added, grinning.

Acoby plans to use the $1,000 bursary to attend summer classes on health-care ethics. After graduating, she wants to return to Lytton to practice as a registered nurse.

The new bursary offers assistance to women 18 years and older who are working to develop their economic independence. Preference is given to current and past clients of the society.

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