Photo of Kingston Penitentiary
Canada has five federal correctional facilities designated for women, as well as one healing lodge for women that is only eligible for individuals under minimum or medium security. Credit: Larry Farr / unsplash

A new study—Maternal incarceration in a provincial prison in Canada: A qualitative study, recently published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing—is shedding light on the experiences of mothers in Nova Scotia prisons, a report its author calls “the first of its kind.”

The study resulted in seven recommendations, ranging from the accommodation of mental health issues, the rights of children, and making publicly available statistics that show whether children affected by parental incarceration identify as Indigenous or African Nova Scotian. The final recommendation will help experts better determine just how disproportionately our criminal justice system criminalizes its racialized residents.

Among the findings are that all children should be identified during the admissions process with parental consent. Children should also be free of discrimination or punishment based on the parents’ actions, noting “visits should never be used as a tool for discipline.” 

The study also concluded that incarcerated mothers in Nova Scotia suffered from being separated from their children, having “serious implications on their right to parent and their relationships with their children.”

The authors also call for one phone call each day for parents to speak to their children.

The project got off the ground in 2019, when the N.S. Department of Corrections began exploring a Mother-Child Program similar to the federal model. The Department asked community groups like Wellness Within to bring forward data on lived experiences, a crucial voice that Paynter and others recognized was absent from the department’s research.

Designed through a lens of “feminist standpoint theory, community-based research methodologies and prison abolition,” authors conducted 14 individual interviews, as well as one focus group, “for a total of 18 participants” between fall 2021 and winter 2022.

For Martha Paynter, nurse, decarceration expert and co-author of the study, while the response to mother and child programming has been positive, the solution remains not within prison programming but in preventing the incarceration of mothers altogether.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Paynter said that even just a week of incarceration—which she noted couldn’t accomplish any rehabilitative purpose—could cause too many barriers to overcome.

“The average length of stay in a provincial facility like the one in Nova Scotia is a week,” Paynter said, adding, “that is enough time to ruin your life.”

“Your children will be taken from you. You’ll lose your job. You’ll lose your house, or whatever space you’re renting,” she said, asking “What could we possibly achieve with one week of incarceration?”

According to Paynter, a broad theme among participants was that mothers found visits with their children traumatizing for both parties, suggesting that women don’t want more children spending time in prison environments.

“It sounds humanizing that we bring children into prisons, and that will prevent the breaking of those bonds and the trauma of separation,” Paynter explained. “But what the women say is that they don’t want their children in prison. They want to be out of prison.”

Paynter said that while the study did offer some potential reforms, like free phone calls for those incarcerated, the real focus of their work is to provide “alternatives to incarceration for mothers experiencing criminalization,” with hopes of “impacting sentencing and incarceration practices.”

“The public in general don’t understand that provincial facilities are used predominantly for remand,” Paynter explained. “It’s not a question of ‘you do the crime, you do the time.’ These are people who have not been tried, not been convicted, not been sentenced.”

Canada has five federal correctional facilities designated for women, as well as one healing lodge for women that is only eligible for individuals under minimum or medium security.

Paynter pointed out in a 2021 interview with rabble.ca that 42 per cent of women who were incarcerated at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in N.S. were sent home for health and safety purposes.

As of 2019, just six per cent of federally convicted individuals are women, averaging under 700 women under federal custody between 2018 and 2019.

The federal government recognizes that Indigenous women are overrepresented in federal correctional systems, at “42 per cent of incarcerated women, and 27 per cent of women under supervision in the community.”

Criminalized women are also “more likely to have a history of physical or sexual abuse” as well as “have a higher incidence of substance abuse and mental health problems” compared to men.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...