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Graduate student speaks about research with young women in Canada's prison system

Graduate student speaks about research with young women in Canada's prison system

Rai Reece, a doctoral candidate in York's School of Women's Studies, spoke to the Barrie Examiner March 31 about her research working with young women in Canada's prison system. She was also an attendee of the Mobilize Barrier conference, which aimed to bring community organizations, agencies, youth, individuals, and government institutions to participate in a conference format in the City of Barrie to explore issues of youth, gangs, guns and drugs.

When Dr. Rai Reece pays a visit to a young female prisoner, she often sees someone who shouldn't be there.

Not because their crime is excusable, but because somewhere along the way, the system or their community has failed them.

"I started working with at-risk youth at age 18, working with only young women and now adult women, as well," said Reece, a professor of women's studies at York University. "What I've learned about these young women is there are always core issues or factors that impact their lives and drive them to this lifestyle. Those factors can be abuse, racism, sexism or even peer pressure."

Reece spoke Tuesday morning during Day 2 of the Mobilize Barrie conference at the Dorian Parker Centre in Sunnidale Park.

The conference is aimed at creating a safer community, while helping at-risk youth get the services and opportunities they need to stay away from drugs, gangs and a life of crime.

Reece's talk focused on young women in the prison system. She discussed how community organizations and legal authorities need to dig deeper to find the root of what makes these girls and women resort to crime and violence.

She said incarceration isn't always the answer, and without help overcoming their issues, these girls and women can slip through the cracks.

"There's a lot of talk of an influx of girls becoming more violent and joining gangs, but that's just public fear and perception," Reece said. "Statistics show there's actually a decreasing number. But, we are seeing a large trend of young girls engaging in sexual activity very early and they are seen as bad girls for what's being called deviant behaviour."

Being viewed this way is one trigger for young girls to lash out or invert and start making bad choices.

"Other reasons are physical, emotional or cultural violence that these young women are afraid to report," Reece said. "When girls are alienated, they retreat and stop talking about their problems. But the problems continue to affect their lives and behaviours."

Reece said if authorities and counsellors would only start asking more in-depth questions of these girls before they are charged and incarcerated, they might find underlying issues that these girls need help with to stop their outlandish behaviour.

"Once you empower young women, they will open up and feel free to talk about issues that lead them to this point," Reece said. "Young girls are highly more vulnerable on the streets than young men, and are subjected to sexual assaults and sex-work for money. These can have damaging effects on them.

"I've created girl-only focus groups so girls can open up about their experiences among their own gender," she added. "Service providers aimed at young women need to go to the sources, ask women what they want and need for assistance. Then, do an assessment to see how you can give them what they need."

Reece said police officers, counsellors and even parents need to consider mental health issues or crimes of poverty as reasons young girls commit crimes. Actions could be taken out of desperation.

"If we don't address systemic issues or crimes of poverty, these young people will quickly move from the youth justice system into the federal system," Reece said. "It doesn't excuse their crimes or violence, but some of these young offenders never really had a chance at a good life."

. . .

Reece also spoke on the dysfunction of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA).

"Penalizing youth for non-violent crimes and putting them in jail won't make them better people," she said. "The YCJA is not working. It's not keeping youth out of the federal system.

"If you are charged and are 17 years old plus a day, you are considered an adult and transferred into the federal justice system," she added. "As well, young people are not aware of their rights under the YCJA and aren't being made aware of the important information."

// The complete article is available on the Barrie Examiner's Web site.

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Wiliams with files courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.