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May 3, 2001

Double standard behind bars

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Ever wonder four times as many men kill themselves as women? Or why they are the majority of the homeless and addicted? Did God and Mother Nature screw up when they created half the population? Or does part of the answer lie in how we routinely discount men's humanity?

Last month, the federal government released a report that, quite inadvertently, provides startling evidence of the double standard that prevails in our society. Titled The Cross Gender Monitoring Project, it is the third report in as many years dealing with male prison guards in female prisons. Declaring "female-only front line workers ... essential for the protection" of female prisoners, this report says male prison guards should be yanked from these facilities.

The authors toured 10 female penal institutions, interviewed one third of all federal female prisoners, and consulted with feminist organizations. They found that 43 of 109 female prisoners could remember an incident, sometime in the previous 18 months, in which they'd "seen male staff coming on living unit[s] without announcing" their presence first. Six prisoners said they'd "been touched in a sexual way" by a "staff member, contract worker or volunteer," and three said they'd "been frisked by a male staff member." Of the 25 allegations of sex harassment, sexual touching and consensual sex unearthed, the report says the vast majority involved people other than male guards.

Nevertheless, the authors believe protecting the privacy and safety of female inmates is so important, it's best to eliminate all possibility of inappropriate contact by getting rid of male guards altogether. In their words, "Respect for a woman's privacy and dignity must be paramount" (my emphasis).

Sound reasonable -- if a tad overly cautious? Let's look at the larger picture. In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal from a male prisoner who objected to female guards frisking male inmates and conducting unannounced patrols. It's OK, said the court, for female guards to insert their hands in these men's trouser pockets and to pat these men's inner thighs during frisk searches. It's also OK for them to catch glimpses of these men unclothed or using the toilet.

Why? In the words of the court, "Imprisonment necessarily entails surveillance, searching and scrutiny. A prison cell is expected to be exposed and to require observation." In other words, when men commit crimes, they lose their right to privacy. Why is it OK for female guards to frisk men but not vice versa? According to the court, "women generally occupy a disadvantaged position in society in relation to men. Viewed in this light, it becomes clear that the effect of cross-gender searching is different and more threatening for women than for men."

Clear as mud. Even if you believe the typical man enjoys advantages the typical woman does not, male prisoners aren't typical. Seven out of 10 of them never finished high school. Two thirds have substance abuse problems. Half of them have been behind bars at least once before. Large numbers are mentally ill. Many are aboriginal.

Moreover, among the 40% of male prisoners who were physically and/or sexually abused as children, four out of 10 say they were abused by their mother and one in six say they witnessed their mother abusing others. It is not safe to assume, therefore, that none of these men consider women threatening.

Our refusal to accord them the same privacy and respect we accord female prisoners may have unintended consequences. One in five male federal prisoners has been convicted of a sexual offence. Which means they aren't adept at recognizing and respecting other people's boundaries. When they return to the street -- and almost all of them do -- do you suppose their prison experiences will have refined their understanding of this concept?

Despite all the hand-wringing we engage in regarding our 300 female federal prisoners, we've given no thought to the possibility that some of our 12,500 male inmates might feel sexually humiliated by female prison guards -- and might take out their rage on innocent women later. Nor does anyone seem concerned that, while we're striving to protect female prisoners from sexual harassment, virtually no attention gets paid to the three per cent of male federal inmates who say they've been sexually assaulted behind bars.

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