11. Feminist Criminology

11.6 Crime Statistics on Women 

Dr. Rochelle Stevenson; Dr. Jennifer Kusz; Dr. Tara Lyons; and Dr. Sheri Fabian

The above theories about the criminalisation of women aim to explain general crime statistics that reveal clear gender differences.  Savage (2019) reports that in 2017, female offenders represented approximately one in four of all police-reported crime in Canada, with the most common offences being property crime (35%). Moreover, female offenders are four times less likely than male offenders to be charged with a violent crime. When women are charged with a violent crime, 70% of those charges are for assault, and of those, 76% are common (level 1) assault (Savage, 2019).  Gender differences also emerge with sexual violence offenders; for sexual assault and sexual offences against children, 95% of offenders were male (Savage, 2019). A similar trend emerges for homicide, with 89% of homicide offenders being male. Here, evidence of the overrepresentation of female Indigenous[1] offenders is clear: the rate of women accused of homicide is 27 times higher for Indigenous women than non-Indigenous women (Savage, 2019). There are also gender differences within Indigenous populations, which includes First Nations, Inuit, Metis and those of unspecified Indigenous identity.  From 2007 to 2017, 49% of women accused of homicide identified as Indigenous versus 28% of men (Savage, 2019).

History of Women’s Incarceration in Canada

Historically, women in Canada have faced dreadful conditions while incarcerated. These conditions have been documented by numerous commissions and reports beginning in 1849 with the Brown Commission report. These documents criticized the incarceration of women alongside men, noted the abuse and brutal punishment of women, and recommended gender-segregated penitentiaries (Barker, 2018).

The Prison for Women (P4W) in Kingston, Ontario opened for women in 1934 and was a response to calls for women-only prisons. However, only four years after its opening, the Archambault report (1938) recommended the closure of P4W. Other reports followed, including the Subcommittee on the Penitentiary System (1977), which stated that P4W was “unfit for bears, much less women” (Barker, 2018, p. 11).

A central report in the history of incarcerated women in Canada is the Task Force of Federally Sentenced Women (TFFSW) Creating Choices Report (Canada, TFFSW, 1990) (see the Women Offender Programs and Issues Report). Like previous reports, this one documented a lack of programming and treatment, as well as details on how women’s conditions were troublesome. For example, P4W was constructed as a maximum-security prison, and as such most women in P4W were restricted to higher security protocols than warranted given their offences and risk levels (Canada, TFFSW, 1990). Women were isolated from their families, and Indigenous and Francophone women lacked cultural and language appropriate services (Canada, TFFSW, 1990). Creating Choices called for the closure of P4W and the implementation of five regional institutions and a healing lodge.

While plans for the new regional facilities were underway, there was an incident at P4W, made worse by the subsequent actions of correctional officers. On April 22, 1994, a fight occurred involving both prisoners and correctional staff while some women were waiting for medication, after which a number of women prisoners were placed in segregation. While in segregation they were denied access to lawyers, exercise, and hygiene items like toilet paper and soap (Arbour, 1996). In the four days following the incident, there were periods of tension between the women in the segregation unit and the correctional officers. In response, on April 26, 1994, the warden of P4W called in an all-male Institutional Emergency Response Team (IERT) to do cell extractions, where the women were forcibly held down, handcuffed and shackled while their clothing was cut off their bodies (Arbour, 1996). They were then “left lying on the floor of her cell in restraints —body belt and leg irons — and with a small paper gown” (Arbour, 1996, p. 72). The following day some women were coerced into agreeing to a body cavity search in exchange for a cigarette and a shower. Most women remained in segregation for up to nine months. It was not until February 21, 1995 when the CBC’s Fifth Estate aired parts of the IERT videotapes that the events of April 1994 were widely known and condemned.

The Commission of inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston [PDF], also known as the Arbour Inquiry, was commissioned in response to the IERT footage. The report strongly condemned CSC’s treatment of women prisoners as well as the organization’s lack of commitment to justice and truth (Barker, 2018). The Arbour Inquiry is a significant report in the history of women’s incarceration and its findings mirrored many of those in previous reports, including Creating Choices. Largely in response to the decades of critiques and revelations of abuses, P4W was closed in 2000.

In line with offending statistics, women represent a minority of incarcerated persons. According to Correctional Service Canada (CSC, 2019), women represent 6% of federal prisoners in Canada and within that group, Indigenous women are greatly overrepresented. The 2016 Canadian Census data showed that Indigenous persons make up approximately 4.9% of the total population (Statistics Canada, 2017), yet CSC (2019) reported that 42% of federally incarcerated women were Indigenous, and 27% of women who were under community supervision identified as Indigenous—a clear indication of the overrepresentation of Indigenous women within the criminal justice system.

CSC reports consistently highlight the differences between male and female prisoners. Female prisoners, when compared to male prisoners, report higher rates of physical and sexual abuse (CSC, 2019; Tam & Derkzen, 2014). For instance, in Lynch, Fritch, and Heath’s (2012) study looking at incarcerated women’s experiences of victimisation, they noted “between 77% and 98% [of female inmates] have a history of some type of IPV exposure” (p. 382). Similarly, female prisoners have up to four times the rate of mental health problems and/or substance use problems when compared to both the general Canadian population and male prisoners (Brown et al., 2018; Correctional Service Canada, 2019), with almost three-quarters of incarcerated women in Canada reporting substance use problems (Brown et al., 2018).

The Story of Ashley Smith

On October 19, 2007, Ashley Smith died at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario while correctional officers watched through her segregation cell window as she was strangled by the ligature around her neck. She was 19 years old. Five years earlier, she was charged with mischief for throwing crab apples at a mail carrier. During one year of her incarceration, she was moved 17 times across 8 different prisons (Tavcer, 2018). A Correctional Investigator report found “Ms. Smith received virtually no treatment; a comprehensive treatment plan was never put into place despite almost daily contact with institutional psychologists; and attempts to obtain a full psychological assessment were thwarted, in part by the decision to constantly transfer Ms. Smith from one institution to another” (Tavcer, 2018, 171-2). Ashley Smith’s treatment while incarcerated, and subsequently her death, point to significant gaps in trauma-informed and gender-based treatment (see this Fifth Estate documentary on the Ashley Smith case [Video]) (see this correctional investigator report [PDF]).

These statistics illustrate that gender, trauma-informed, and culturally appropriate programming for federally sentenced female prisoners is required to address their criminogenic needs (Tam & Derkzen, 2014; Wardrop & Pardoel, 2018).  Derkzen (2019) expands that gender-responsive programming helps in assessing risk and provides a more holistic approach to respond to the needs of female offenders. Despite efforts to identify such programming in Canadian institutions, none were located. Although recommendations to develop gender-responsive programming may have been addressed, evidence is not provided in government documents and websites. Stewart et al. (2017) compared the criminogenic needs of female and male offenders, noting that women, particularly Indigenous women, scored higher on almost all risk elements than men. Beaudette et al. (2014) point out that Indigenous women are over-represented in Canadian federal prisons and present with more criminogenic risk factors than non-Indigenous women due to historic and ongoing colonial factors. For example, Indigenous women are younger, and have lower education levels, as well as possess high needs levels related to substance use, employment, and emotional needs (Beaudette et al., 2014). These barriers are directly linked to colonial practices (Monchalin, 2016).

  1. While Statistics Canada uses the term Aboriginal to refer to First Nations peoples in Canada in some reports, for consistency we have embraced the term Indigenous, as this is a more inclusive reference, and is how First Nations peoples prefer to be addressed.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Rochelle Stevenson; Dr. Jennifer Kusz; Dr. Tara Lyons; and Dr. Sheri Fabian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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