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Ruth Martinís brainwave resulted in prison inmates using research to generate policy options - photo by Martin Dee
Ruth Martinís brainwave resulted in prison inmates using research to generate policy options - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 2 | Feb. 7, 2008

Community Research Gets a Prison Perspective

By Lorraine Chan

As a family physician to women prisoners, Ruth Martin says she longed to find a way to improve health outcomes. Since 1994, Martin has been making weekly house calls to her patients in a B.C. correctional centre for women.

In 2005, she had a brainwave: why not ask women in prison to conduct health research by and for themselves? The results have pointed to the enormous potential these women have to make change within themselves and around them, says Martin, a clinical professor in the Dept. of Family Practice, Faculty of Medicine.

“We had up to 15 women in prison sign up for the research team each day. They each wrote a paragraph of passion, whatever they wanted to research and why.”

The Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW) is the province’s main facility for women serving sentences of less than two years. Located in Maple Ridge, ACCW houses 140 prisoners, 25 per cent of whom are Aboriginal.

“Many are dealing with abuse and violence, homelessness and poverty,” observes Martin, adding that women in prison experience a higher incidence of cervical cancer, HIV, hepatitis C, sexually transmitted diseases and other infections.

As well, recidivism rates are high, she says, with an estimated 40 per cent of women returning to prison within one year and 70 per cent within two years.

Martin floated the idea of community-based research to the ACCW inmates who immediately embraced the initiative as their own. ACCW’s then prison warden gave the women the go-ahead to count their research as part of daily prison work, the same as laundry, horticulture or kitchen duty. With Martin’s help, the prison research team submitted their proposal to the UBC Research Ethics Board for approval. The team set the research agenda and proceeded with orientation packages to fellow inmates, followed by surveys, interviews and forums.

Between 2005 and 2007, more than 200 women at ACCW took part in the project. Participants listed their top concerns, among them addiction, chronic illness, living with disabilities, fetal alcohol syndrome, methadone use, the parole process and parenting skills. The research team as a whole and the majority of study respondents emphasized spirituality as an essential component of healing.

The women generated useful policy recommendations such as the need to improve first and second stage housing for prison leavers, says Martin. Their data showed that 78 per cent of their survey respondents reported that homelessness contributed to their return to crime.

Another major finding was the gap in resources for women exiting prison. Without stable housing or job training, many are thrown back into the chaos and environment that first led to drug use or prostitution, says Martin.

Overall, the participants found that peer research boosted their self-esteem while honing their life and job skills.

“Many reported that it increased their hopes of integrating into society,” says Martin, adding, “As far as I know, this is the only women’s prison research project of its kind in the world.”

Although few had computer skills at the start, by the end many had gained enough proficiency to discuss their findings using PowerPoint. Others gained confidence and public speaking skills since their forums often included prison administrators, funders, academics and provincial health authorities.

“We’ve seen amazing transformations,” says Martin. “I feel very honoured and privileged to be a witness and a part of that in a small way.”

For Jennifer McMillan, the ACCW research project gave her, “a hardcore addict for 15 years,” the strength and courage to get off drugs and stay clean. McMillan has been in and out of prison “eight to 11 times – I can’t remember exactly how many.”

“Dr. Martin helped us break the code of silence that’s in the prison and on the street,” says McMillan. “When you’re just released from prison, you’re terrified.”

Women are given the clothing they were arrested in, a bus ticket, and “a couple hundred dollars welfare cheque if you’re lucky,” says McMillan.

“You feel hopeless and helpless, that you’ll just end up doing what you were before. But if you see other women doing well, it really helps.”

Intent on community development, McMillan distributes clothing and information about education and housing to former inmates and friends in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

And although the prison no longer runs participatory research, McMillan, along with 45 alumnae, maintains frequent, if not daily, contact. Their network spans the Lower Mainland, northern and interior B.C. and Vancouver Island. A core group has set up an office in Vancouver. They recently launched a website, stating nine goals that include safe and secure housing, education, job skills, support from family, friends and community and contributing to society.

Martin is currently applying for funding from the Canadian Institute for Health Research to follow the cohort of women who designed the survey and interview for the prison research. She says the funding will allow her to pay the women for their work instead of relying on them to do volunteer hours.

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Last reviewed 19-Feb-2008

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