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Legal group flunks B.C. on women in provincial prisons

West Coast LEAF issues mixed grades to the province, including a big F for the women incarcerated in provincial corrections.

Kendra Milne, director of law reform for West Coast LEAF, in her office in this 2016 file photo.

David P. Ball / Metro Order this photo

Kendra Milne, director of law reform for West Coast LEAF, in her office in this 2016 file photo.

British Columbia has received a failing grade on how it jails women, according to a new report from a top legal advocacy group.

West Coast LEAF provided Metro an exclusive look at the non-profit’s annual report card, How is B.C. Measuring up in Women’s Rights?, which has tracked the B.C. government’s performance on a range of issues impacting women.

All received a passing grade except provincial prisons, which incarcerate all inmates sentenced for less than two years as well as those held while awaiting trial.

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“We gave prisons the worst grade because at least in other areas there were small areas of action we could point to, even if they were piecemeal,” explained report author Kendra Milne, the organization’s Director of Law Reform, in a phone interview. “With prisons, it was hard to point to any actions at all.

“The main actions were actually inaction.”

She flagged several specific concerns among many problems, the “total failure” to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous women and girls in corrections, the lack of a prison on Vancouver Island, and the B.C. Ombudsman’s warnings this summer that B.C. has failed to adequately inspect its prisons for health and safety standards in the past 11 years.

That report, released by the Ombudsman in June, called for improved oversight of prison conditions, including for the extensive use of solitary confinement and other concerns. The Ombudsman recommended that, “By 2018, the inspection program is to be brought into compliance with new international minimum standards for the treatment of inmates.”

But Milne argued that little had been done to further that aim despite being warned.

“There were concerning reports about the state of inspections — B.C. has basically not been adequately inspecting prisons for over a decade,” she said. “Because women make up a very small percentage of the overall incarcerated population, there are inadequate facilities to house them.”

Milne handed out the grades based on to what extent the province had fulfilled recommendations from the United Nations’ committee that oversees the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), signed in 1979.

While the report stated that a B grade would indicate “considerable action” on the CEDAW committee’s past recommendations, a failing grade represented “total inaction or detrimental action. “

The public safety ministry could not be reached immediately for comment on Monday, but Minister Mike Morris discussed women in B.C. prisons in the Legislature on Apr. 28.

“The safety and the custody of the prisoners that we have across the province here are of the utmost importance to us,” he told legislators. “We have invested, as government, a lot of money into facilities specifically designed for women.”

In response to Milne’s concern about the lack of provincial correctional institutions on Vancouver Island, forcing inmates to be brought back and forth from the Mainland, Morris said, “The prisoner count on Vancouver Island for female prisoners does not warrant a full female facility in that particular location.”

Morris also reminded MLAs that there’s a reason inmates are in jail in the first place.

“Prisoners — it doesn’t matter whether they’re male or female — are placed in custody in the correctional centres because they pose a risk to the province, whether they’re under charge or they’ve been convicted,” he said.

Women’s rights report card

When it comes to B.C.’s women, the province was held back a grade over those in its prisons, according to West Coast LEAF.

However, while the women’s legal advocacy group only handed out a failing grade in one topic, other areas impacting women didn’t exactly excel when compared to United Nations recommendations.

So how is B.C. measuring up?

Prisons: F

Child care D-

Murdered and missing women D-

Housing D

Justice D

Poverty D+

Employment C-

Violence against women: C+

Health: C+

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