Dr. Ruth Martin and former inmate Mo Korchinski fight for change for incarcerated women
Few people would think of prison as a haven. Yet for many of the 85,000 women incarcerated in Canada each year, life behind bars provides something they have rarely experienced: stability.
“Jail is a unique community,” says Mo Korchinski, who served almost six years for multiple sentences in B.C.’s provincial correctional centres after becoming addicted to crack cocaine at age 33.
“You have a job, you have friends, and a roof over your head. It’s safe, you have a purpose and you have hope in there. It’s sad that the only time women feel that way is inside prison.”
Now a filmmaker and prison advocate, Korchinski wants to change that – and she’s using her own experience to guide her efforts.
“Women are very nurturing by nature, and it only takes one person to believe in you to change your life,” says Korchinski, who witnessed such transformations between 2004 and 2008, when babies of incarcerated women were allowed in prison. “We had 10 babies come in and out during that time, and whenever they came in, the whole room just went mushy.”
Dr. Ruth Martin, a clinical professor in UBC’s Dept. of Family Practice who was a prison physician at the time, says the benefits were palpable.
“It prompted many women to wonder: ‘where are my children? Maybe I should get in touch with them, maybe they need me,’” says Martin. “The whole atmosphere in the prison changed. It was phenomenal.”
Today, Korchinski and Martin work closely at UBC’s Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education (CCPHE). They have recruited formerly incarcerated women to be peer mentors for women coming out of jail and carefully vetted resources for an online database to address their most urgent health needs during the first 72 hours after release, a critical period of time where women are most at risk of returning to their previous life.
Women face bleak prospects upon release
An estimated 63 per cent of female inmates are homeless upon release and the odds are stacked against them the moment they walk out of the prison gates.
“The major women’s correctional centre in B.C. is five miles from the nearest bus stop,” says Korchinski. “You’re released with a welfare cheque and the clothes you had on when you went to prison.
“What do you do? Where do you go?”
Over the past year, the CCPHE’s Unlocking the Gates of Health project has facilitated peer-mentoring for 17 women. The mentor works with an inmate to identify her most urgent health needs, including food, affordable housing and continuation of medication and addiction counseling. The mentor meets the inmate when they leave the prison and ensures that she has a safe place to go to.
“But the relationship usually goes longer and it’s very beneficial for the peer mentor, too,” says Korchinski. “Many of us sometimes wonder if it is really worth fighting to stay in society. Being a mentor really empowers us.”
Women were asked to identify their health issues
The CCPHE and projects like Unlocking the Gates of Health originated from a research project that Martin began in 2005, when she asked incarcerated women to identify their own health concerns.
“They were telling us that until they had a house to live in, a job, or a better relationship with their family, they were not going to be healthy.”
Martin has been a tireless advocate for “through-care” of prison inmates, adding that the first step is to move prison health care out of the Ministry of Justice and under the Ministry of Health and the health authorities.
“Many of the issues – mental health and addictions, for example – existed before and contributed to incarceration,” says Martin. “Currently our prison health care is contracted out to a private health care provider and when inmates are released, there is no continuity of the treatment – many go off necessary medication or counseling because they can’t access them after leaving jail.
“Then those same issues contribute to the next cycle of crime and incarceration, creating the ‘revolving door’ through corrections facilities.”
“It’s a matter of life and death for anyone stuck in that cycle,” says Korchinski. “Across Canada, people are killing themselves slowly by addiction. Why aren’t they getting help?”
In Nova Scotia, the first Canadian jurisdiction to transfer prison health care to its Capital District Health Authority, patient records are accessible from in and outside prison, allowing community health nurses to visit inmates and follow their progress after release. Such integration, says Martin, would take us closer to providing prisoners “equivalent care” as suggested by the World Health Organization.
Partners in health
Until that happens, Martin and Korchinski say they will continue the fight together – a relationship that has changed them profoundly.
“I feel very grateful for being part of lives of so many women,” says Martin, who has, at least for now, hung up her stethoscope to play the role of a reluctant activist. “I had imagined I would continue to be a clinician forever. But research allowed me to meet these women who have incredible resilience, expertise and voice – I guess I didn’t realize how much this would change me.”
Stats on women’s health in prison
76% – female inmates who suffer from mental illness and are involved in substance abuse
63% – female inmates who are homeless upon release
7% – women who beat the “revolving door of corrections”
Korchinski, who says she initially avoided Martin in prison, acknowledged Martin’s unique contribution in her life.
“I never even thought I’d make it – I didn’t think there was a way out of addiction. Now I’m a third-year university student, my kids are back in my life, I’m a grandmother who’s expecting another grandchild, and I’m clean seven years,” she adds.
“I didn’t believe in myself but I had enough people around me who believed in me. Dr. Martin cared and it made a huge difference.”
Dr. Ruth Martin is taking part in Bonding through Bars – Protecting the Health and Bond Incarcerated Mothers and their Children, an international roundtable discussion at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, May 5-10. A documentary film on the topic will be shown in conjunction with DOXA film festival.
For more information, visit internationalroundtablebondingthroughbars.pwias.ubc.ca/purpose.