Exploring gender-based violence in Canadian prisons: a scoping review

About the project

We completed a scoping review of literature to achieve our overall aim of mapping existing literature on prison policies related to gender-based violence, with a specific focus on LGBTQ2s+ prisoners. By identifying and analyzing this literature, we present knowledge about the role of traditionally sex binary prisons as well as the historical processes in the emergence and continued development of federal, provincial and territorial prison policies, programs and practices in Canada. To this end, we seek to answer the following research questions:

  1. What role did sex and gender identity play in the historical emergence of prison policies, programs and practices in Canada?
  2. What role does sex and gender identity play in the continued development of prison policies, programs and practices in Canada?
  3. What is known about gender-based violence in Canadian and international prisons?
  4. Do current (seemingly ever changing) prison policies, programs and practices result in the contemporary exclusion, marginalization or gender-based violent victimization of individuals or communities and if yes, how?
  5. What changes to prison policies, programs and practices are most likely to result in more inclusive care for 2SLGBTQIA+ people who are incarcerated (PWAI) and correctional officers?

Key findings

  • To address the role of sex and gender identity in the historical emergence of prison policies, programs and practices in Canada, we found the conceptualization of gender and sexual nonconformity dates back to the early 20th century, far removed from current interpretations. It informed and perhaps continues to inform, current (as well as past) prison policies. Two predominant conceptualizations of homosexuality prevailed at the turn of the century: the first conceptualized homosexuality as a moral deficit and the second as an incurable contagious illness which could lead to deplorability. Each understanding resulted in the solution of segregating people identifying as gay to punish as well as prevent the ‘spread’ of homosexuality throughout the prison. The psychological view of homosexuality as a disease further led to segregation in medical spaces. The history precludes the origins of policies like the ban on consensual sex within prisons, a ban intended to avoid security concerns arising from homosexual behaviour rather than perceived risk to individuals. This logic, arguably, continues to inform the maintenance of the ban. By contrast, women’s prisons, historically, fail to overly concern themselves with either gender expression or homosexuality, because incarcerated women were already viewed as having deviated from their normative gender.
  • Domestic violence appears to be a major factor in altercations in women’s facilities.
  • The literature is unclear about to what degree Canadian facilities stereotypically gender their available rehabilitative programming, but there are no set provisions either allowing PWAI to access gender-affirming programs nor ensuring that trans PWAI have equitable access to programs. Trans PWAI placed in separate or segregation units may have less access to services.
  • Historically, using administrative segregation to manage the risk of sexual assault does not necessarily prevent violence nor does segregation allow trans PWAI access to the same level of services. Services, particularly in women’s prisons, may centre around motherhood, alienating nonbinary individuals and trans men. Unless specified in what few jurisdictions do, there may have been/be no access to certain clothing items or hygiene products used by one’s gender. There are also few policies ensuring staff utilize the correct pronouns and names.

Policy implications

  • The overwhelming consensus in the literature is to end genital-based placements and instead focusing on gender identity, but placement discussion is nuanced. In addition, the placement by gender-identity may affect incarcerated women with particular histories—which is another consideration that requires discussion. A case-by-case decision may seem promising, but relies on robust checks and balances, equitable placement committees, and the potential involvement of local advocacy groups—it is complicated.
  • Hormone therapy, gender affirming surgeries, and the diagnostic process is argued to be accessible in prisons. Accessing care relies on individuals having a formal diagnosis in almost all cases, which literature suggest is not always a possible requirement. Additionally, nonbinary individuals may be unable to access a diagnosis due to the DSM-V’s focus on binary genders. The literature recommends moving away from relying on the DSM-V and instead using information from the individual about their gender identity such as lived experience.
  • The provision of gender appropriate hygiene, clothing, and rehabilitative programming is inadequate, and there should be measures to address this regardless of where the PWAI is placed.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Dr. James Gacek, Principal Investigator, Associate Professor, University of Regina: James.Gacek@uregina.ca

Team Members

Dr. Rosemary Ricciardelli (Memorial University);
Dr. Dale C. Spencer (Carleton University);
Jocelyne Lemoine (University of Manitoba);
Breeann Phillips (University of Regina);
Julianne Langlois (University of Regina)

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