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Sexual Violence

A persistent and pressing issue in our work is the sexualized violence experienced by incarcerated women and gender-diverse people at the hands of people in positions of authority within the Correctional Service of Canada. Sexualized violence in the prisons designated for women is a persistent individual and a systemic problem. Inherent to the persistence of the problem is that CSC is not bound to act upon the recommendations of any external bodies – and there have been extensive recommendations to end this violence, including from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. It is morally and legally incumbent on the Correctional Service of Canada and on the Federal Government to act to finally address this persistent systemic issue – an issue that impacts incarcerated people and CSC staff alike.

  • Why is sexual violence underreported in Canada?

    Whenever anyone comes forward to share their experience of sexual violence, they do so despite considerable risk. We continue to live in a culture where people who experience sexual violence are not believed and are desensitized to report instances of sexual violence. Of course, the reasons that people do not report sexual violence are as varied as the people who experience it, but the reasons routinely relate back to a sense of powerlessness and an informed understanding that coming forward is often not worth the personal risk to their wellbeing, their livelihood, or their reputation. In short, people do not come forward to authorities when they have experienced sexual violence because they know that they are more likely to be re-traumatized than to find healing or justice. With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising then that sexual violence is so vastly underreported in Canada.

  • What are the particular challenges facing incarcerated people who choose to come forward with allegations of sexual violence?

    All the factors that prevent people from reporting experiences of sexual violence in community are compounded for women and gender diverse people who are, or have been, in prison. Survivors of sexual violence are often confronted with the societal expectation of being “the model victim”. Too often, people who come forward are questioned and their credibility unduly scrutinized. For people who are or have been incarcerated, society already views them as less credible. Despite this culture of disbelief, in Canada, only 9% of sexual assaults in 2020 were classified as unfounded. The societal misconception that people in prison are “bad people” (a view that is also informed by racism, colonialism, and classism) leads to a general lack of empathy for people in prison and can contribute to victim-blaming.

    In addition to overcoming the stigma against people in prison, incarceration creates additional disincentives for reporting: loss of liberty, particularly when the violence is perpetrated by someone in a position of authority (like a Correctional Officer). Indeed, Correctional Officers and other Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) staff wield incredible power over the liberty of incarcerated people. Coming forward with a claim against a CSC staff could result in retaliation that could jeopardize one’s chance of being granted parole when eligible. CAEFS has heard from a survivor who did not report an incident of sexual assault for 8 months for fear that reporting would impact their upcoming parole hearing. Despite all these disincentives, there have been numerous sexual assault claims made against Correctional Officers in Canada. In fact, in recent years, three of the six federal prisons designated for women have seen sexual assault charges brought against staff members.

  • In what ways is sexualized violence a systemic problem within federal prisons?

    Sexual violence in federal prisons goes beyond individual acts of violence: sexualized violence is part of the fabric of Correctional Service of Canada’s culture. Earlier this year, a class action lawsuit was started by female correctional officers against CSC alleging that their workplace is “rife with gender-based harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and assault”. Given that their ‘workplace’ is the prison, the claims of these CSC staff also speak to the conditions facing incarcerated women.

    In 2020, the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) – who is the legislated ombudsman for people in federal prison – released a report on their national investigation into sexual violence and coercion in federal prisons. Their investigation echoes the claims made by the female correctional officers: “sexual violence is a systemic problem that exists in Canadian federal prisons”. Moreover, the OCI found that CSC has demonstrated an ‘organizational indifference’ to the problem, evidenced by the fact that they do not collect, record, track statistics, or conduct research around sexual violence in the prisons.

    The culture of sexual violence that is pervasive in prisons is, in part, enabled through policies and practices that intentionally violate the bodies of incarcerated people. One such policy that CAEFS has adamantly critiqued is strip searching. In federal prisons, routine and non-routine strip searches are conducted under the premise of preventing the introduction of contraband into an institution, yet there is little evidence demonstrating that strip searches meet this objective. What is well documented is that strip searches are traumatizing and harmful. The Supreme Court of Canada has even described the practice of strip searching as “inherently humiliating and degrading”. For women and gender-diverse people – particularly those who have experienced sexual violence – strip searches are experienced as an act of sexualized violence. Strip searching is state sanctioned sexual violence.

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