Nanaimo RCMP cells.

Spotlight on core review: Women’s groups oppose change in guarding

NANAIMO – Core services review recommends City of Nanaimo cut four prison guard jobs.

Several Nanaimo women’s organizations are on guard against a core services recommendation they feel could jeopardize the rights and well-being of female prisoners.

Core services review consultants suggest an estimated $360,000 could be saved each year if the city axed four prison guard positions at the city jail, after finding the use of separate guards for male and female prisoners is “unique” to Nanaimo and costly.

It’s a move the city could roll out this year if approved by politicians, a proposed implementation plan shows. A report on the issue is expected to go to council next month, marking the third time in 12 years the issue of guarding has come up for discussion. In 2004 and 2009, recommendations were specifically about a shift away from gender-specific guarding – the city’s current practice of men guarding men and women guarding women – and have faced push-back from community members.

Coun. Gord Fuller spoke out against gender-specific guard cuts in 2009 and said there’s no reason at this point he’d change that position, but that it’s “extremely important that people realize gender is not mentioned in [this current] recommendation.”

But representatives of several community groups are concerned about a change in policy to cross-gender guarding, which they say violates human rights, is demeaning toward women and may lead to psychological harm.

Teresa Ludvigson, resource development and communications manager for Haven Society, said the worry is cross-gender monitoring would be implemented.

“We want our opinion stated very clearly that we do not condone or approve of cross-gender monitoring,” said Ludvigson, who wants politicians to consider that women held in cells are in pre-charge or pre-conviction status, and that guarding includes the supervision or watching of women in cells while they’re attending to personal or intimate acts, including the use of the toilet, various stages of dress or undress or when they’re sleeping.

“Most of the women that are involved within the criminal justice system or approaching holding cells, they have a history of sexual abuse, the experience of being watched could prove to them to be violating or invasive.”

Nanaimo is the only community in B.C.  that city police support services manager Mike Dietrich is aware of that requires gender-specific guarding. The city, which hires guards, has moved from calling in female guards for female prisoners when needed to having a full-time female guard and male guard around-the-clock to ensure female guards are there when they’re needed. An additional guard on shift also means the city will always meet the RCMP standard of having two guards when there are more than 11 prisoners and a dedicated guard if there’s a suicidal prisoner.

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A change in practice was attempted in 2004. A city report pointed to RCMP national policy that allows for cross-gender guarding and that many detachments and police jurisdictions have implemented the practice, including Prince George, Kamloops and Kelowna.

“There was a recommendation to council that we discontinue that practice of trying to have gender-appropriate guarding and go instead to cross-gender guarding, which means we had endeavoured to always have a women guard a women but now we were saying in 2004, it’s difficult to do, it’s costly, let’s not do it. Let’s just let the men guard the women,” said Coun. Diane Brennan, who was on council at the time. She said there was an immediate reaction from the community. Council opposed the staff recommendation to continue to support cross-gender guarding and ultimately agreed to work with police and women’s groups on security practices at the detention facility.

While the core review recommendation doesn’t mention eliminating female guards specifically, she said it ignores the facts about the issue – if you are going to have gender-appropriate guarding, a woman has to be on shift all the time.

The Nanaimo chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women has already begun a letter-writing campaign to mayor and council. Joan Blick, advocacy chairwoman, said a high percentage of women in holding cells are pre-trial status or held overnight and never face any charges, so the presumption of innocence has to be there. The women could be naked, lying in the cells in vulnerable positions or going to the washroom and all of it is visible to the guards, she said.

“We shouldn’t be demeaning to women. Find the cost savings somewhere else,” she said.

Federation president Susan Murphy said if positions are going to be eliminated, a 24-hour need will remain, so she says the cuts will come through eliminating the requirement for women.

“It’s going to cost you less money if you do it with mixed gender so I think the organizations and individuals raising this now are saying before you go forward with this idea any further we want to let you know we don’t support a move that would take us back to cross-gender monitoring.”

Dyane Brown, president of the Nanaimo chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, said gender-specific monitoring is about respect for women and providing people with their basic rights. She’s surprised the issue has resurfaced.

“It’s just coming up in the same context it was before, that the city is trying to save money but this is trying to save money on the backs of the most vulnerable people we have here in town, people in jail, young women for the most part,” she said. “It’s really not OK.”

City chief administrative officer Tracy Samra told the News Bulletin a staff report won’t suggest whether to cut prison guards,  but will look at the issue from an operational perspective.

“Staff is very much aware of the importance of this principle [gender-guarding] within the community and the history that took us there,” she said.

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