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February 21, 2001

Female inmates are a surprising, eclectic mix that defy stereotypes

Canadian Press
National Post

(CP/Ryan Remiorz)
An inmate sews underwear at the workshop at the Joliette women's prison in Joliette, Que. Inmates earn money to pay for their food and clothing.

(CP) - Many women who land in prison have known little but the abuse, violence and addiction into which they were born. But some defy the stereotypes that cast them as victims or born-to-raise-hell rowdies.

Laura White Cloud, formerly Laura Degenhardt, was 48 when she got into serious trouble seven years ago. The former model and movie extra also worked in nursing homes until she injured her back. Today, she's serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, with no chance of full parole for another seven years.

Her crime?

"I made the mistake of having an affair," the slim Metis woman says during an interview at the aboriginal healing lodge prison near Maple Creek, Sask.

"I loved my husband, but I got caught up in the flame and life at home seemed humdrum."

Her former lover, David Brown, was 25 when he and White Cloud were charged in December 1993. Brown confessed to police that he had pushed Laura's husband from a bridge over Nova Scotia's Herbert River.

He did so at her bidding, he told police.

The 59-year-old man died and Brown was convicted of first-degree murder. White Cloud denies his version of events but was portrayed as a willing partner in the crime and convicted.

She insists her husband was "the only man I ever knew real love with.

"I was devastated . . . I wish (Brown) had killed me instead."

White Cloud, now the prison librarian, says once she "would have run from someone just out of jail."

Now she knows that all kinds of people commit crimes for diverse, surprising and sometimes senseless reasons.

One woman lived a typical, middle-class life before burning her house down after a spat with her husband. She now lives in the maximum-security prison in Springhill, N.S.

Stivia Clermont speaks six languages and was an executive secretary and translator.

She's serving life at the Joliette Institution for Women in Quebec. According to 1998 news reports, Clermont was also once an exotic dancer who brokered a contract killing between a man who wanted his lover's husband dead and a hit man who committed the murder.

She was sentenced for first-degree murder and conspiracy. Clermont could have won a lighter sentence had she ratted out others, but she feared for her two sons, she says.

"I'm no junkie," says the 36-year-old. "I was an educated woman who had a house of her own, lived on the ocean in the States for the longest time.

"I had everything."

Clermont is trying to fill her new life with work, as she did outside. She gets up at 6 a.m. and always tries to look her best, she says.

She's the elected inmate representative and works as a hairdresser at the prison salon. She wants to learn Japanese.

Violent and seemingly hopeless circumstances, not necessarily evil intentions, bring many women to prison, Clermont says.

"There are some (battered) women here who called for help all those years . . . but nobody heard their cries.

"They only had one resort."

No one expected her to wind up where she did, says Clermont.

"A university graduate, working, having everything . . . and boom, I'm in."

Some facts about Canadian women serving federal prison sentences (two years or more):

- About 350 women, up from 210 in 1990. There are 12,000 men.

- Eighteen per cent are in for murder, 43 per cent for assault, robbery or other violent offence.

- Five new prisons in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia opened between 1995 and 1997 to replace the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont.

- About 30 women classified as maximum-security were moved in 1996 to male prisons in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nova Scotia after escapes and an inmate murder at Edmonton's new facility.

- Women range from late teens to eighties, about half are between 20 and 34. Average age is dropping.

- Eighty-four per cent are serving first federal sentence.

- Sixty-six per cent are single, about two-thirds are mothers.

- Fifty per cent suffered sexual and/or physical abuse (up to 90 per cent for aboriginal offenders.)

- Two-thirds were drunk or abusing drugs at time of offence.

- Aboriginals comprise about three per cent of society, 23 per cent of female inmates.

Source: Correctional Service of Canada; Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Here are some of Justice Louise Arbour's recommendations for improving women's corrections and how they've been handled:

- Create a deputy commissioner for women. Accepted by corrections but the job is just one of several duties for the person appointed.

- Stop using male riot squads in a women's institution. Corrections promised not to use them as a first response.

- Make the aboriginal healing lodge accessible to all aboriginal female inmates. Not accepted. Only minimum- and medium-security inmates are allowed.

- End long-term segregation. Accepted in principle. Inmates and advocates say it hasn't been done.

- Put segregation under judicial review. Not done.

- In the event of illegal or unfair treatment by staff, allow prisoners to apply for a shortened sentence. Not done. Corrections says it needs Justice Department to make changes.

- Allow women to keep in contact with family and children. Accepted. New regional prisons allow inmates to live with toddler-aged children.

- Restrict male staff contact with women. Accepted in principle. Male staff aren't assigned to 24-hour monitored cells and men announce presence before entering units.

- Extend a sexual harassment to inmates. Accepted in principle, policy is in draft stage.

Recent milestones in women's corrections:

- April 1994: Riot erupts at Kingston Prison for Women.

- April 26, 1994: Male squad called in, women are strip-searched.

- February 1995: Video showing brutality broadcast on TV.

- April 1, 1996: Justice Louise Arbour reports on incident, calls for revamping women's system.

- June 4, 1996: Ottawa responds to Arbour, announcing it will appoint a deputy commissioner for women and use only female guards in a pilot program at Edmonton Institution.

- 1996: A series of escapes and an inmate's death at Edmonton Institution prompts corrections to slow plans to move maximum-security women to new regional prisons.

- Sept. 3, 1999: Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay announces P4W will close and women's maximum units in men's prisons would move to new facilities by Sept. 2001.

- July 6, 2000: Kingston Prison for Women closes.

Here are some quotes on women inmates:

"Karla (Homolka) makes it look like we're all happy, having parties. Hey, we don't even see a birthday cake here. . . .She gets treated like a queen. We don't get treated like that, us maximum-security women." Saskatchewan Penitentiary inmate Sandi Paquachon.


"My health has been good through the years. I kind of stay preserved, like a pickle in a jar, I guess." Paquachon on her 23 years behind bars.


"When an inmate has had circumstances effectively amounting to illegalities in their sentence or gross mismanagement or unfairness, they should have the opportunity to be able to apply to a court and say: 'I've already more than served my time because of the horrible things that have happened to me. Shorten my sentence.' " Trisha Jackson, lead lawyer for Arbour commission.


"It's disappointing that in five years the correctional service hasn't been able to move forward to achieve a higher level of accountability." Jackson.


"Our environment is not an easy place to do time . . . but we're bending over backwards trying to allow people to remain an individual inside, and we're providing the best of programming that we can get our hands on so you know their needs are being met in amongst all of the chaos." Parole officer Suzette Lavandier, Springhill Institution.


"We've had some of the same issues, whether it's denial of right to counsel, whether it's illegal strip-searching, whether it's illegal placements in segregation . . . Staff have described to me that the law is like a guideline . . . but then they have to use their own judgments." Kim Pate, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.


"I'd say women are being treated differently, but they're getting an unfair advantage." Saskatchewan Penitentiary warden Brenda LePage on how maximum-security women get four chances a year to lower their security classification. Men are reviewed once a year.


"Because we deal in a human business, the bar is set very high for 100 per cent success and that's not very realistic." LePage on how 90 per cent of federally sentenced women are better off now.

The Canadian Press, 2001

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