Visit to Grand Valley Institute for Women Penitentiary

Some members of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, including myself, visited GVI this afternoon. Very interesting and informative. 

First we had to be buzzed in through the barbed wire fence, then go through an airport security machine and also have our ID checked for drugs! We had already had a police check. This is my third police check (One for Citizen’s Police Academy, one for Girl Guides and now one for this!) My friend says I should put it on my brochure, “Politician passes three police checks”. Yeah, vote for me.

There are presently about 127 inmates with only 8 in the maximum security section.  Two women in the “isolation” area which only has four cells. One of the isolation cells had a TV in front of it, I guess so the prisoner could watch TV without smashing it.

We saw the open room where prisoners can meet family. Many toys in the visitors room as most inmates have children. All visitors have to be pre-checked and those with violent or recent drug history are denied. The assistant warden said that there is very little drug traffic in the prison. An incident a few years ago where drugs were thrown over the fences with tennis balls but nothing recent. There are two sniffer dogs and the tight entrance security that help.

There are a few classrooms and a health unit. There are 75 guards for the 127 prisoners and over 200 full time staff alltogether.  There are many courses for the women to take and many get their grade 12 and some practical skills.

There are a lot of psychologists and behaviourists. An interesting area was the life skills unit. Women with life skills, mental or social problems stay for 6 months in a separate house with 24/7 guards and a psychologist. As they interact with each other, they are given the skills to control emotions and do better socially. In this unit and the classes, inmates learn to track the triggers that got them in jail in the first place.  Considered a very successful program. It reminded me of the programs that Lutherwood does with its young offenders and the houses were very similiar to the minimum units at Lutherwood.

Most of the women are low risk, in for such things as being drug mules.  They live in unlocked houses (that are alarmed after 10:45 pm) and there is an open grassy square in the middle of the houses. Each house holds 8 to 10 women.

The women do  their own housecleaning and food preparation. Also, from the washer and dryers, their own laundry. They wear their own clothes and can order clothes from Zellers or Sears with the money they earn working in the prison.

The assistant warden said that most are pretty quiet (They end up in the segregation for up to 5 days if not) but the bones of contention are relationships and food.  10 women living together in one house. The men with us shivered.

In the maximum security area are women from across Canada who are sent to GVI because the prison always has the fewest women in maximum security. A change in the law now means that lifers must do two years in maximum before they go into minimum. This was due to some lifers escaping from minimum security prisons that didn’t have very good fences.  But the assistant warden said that with women, the lifers are the best risks. They have often committed a single domestic murder due to domestic abuse. The vast majority of murderers are men.  We wondered why instead of this new law, the government didn’t just make better fences and security like GVI has?

Our group wondered why the staff area in maximum was air conditioned but not the prisoners’ cells. Before you go all “tough on crime” on me, the heat in the cells means they need fans or the heat can make prisoners, like all of us, short tempered.

The houses in the courtyard for the minimum prisoners are not air conditioned but they look like they have good air flow and have porches.

With all the staff, a penitentiary is very expensive. The Tories are wanting to get rid of mandatory supervision, where an inmate gets out after two thirds of their sentence is completed.

There are several reasons why this is not “smart on crime”

1. More staff will be needed at GVI and the prison will be either crowded or need expensive expansion. (Your tax dollars at work!)

2.More prisoners will apply for parole.

3. Right now, released prisoners are supervised for the last third of their sentence, given help adjusting to the outside. If they are just released at the end, their sentence is over. No one knows where they will go or what they will do. Even now if a prisoner is a grave risk, they are not let out on mandatory supervision.


6 responses to “Visit to Grand Valley Institute for Women Penitentiary

  1. i just found out my mother is in gvi …. i have not seen her since i was the age of 3

  2. Pingback: The Ethics of Prison Architect: A Case Study |

  3. The best way to find out what prison is like, is to speak with the prisoners.

  4. Pingback: Grand Valley Institute Women’s Penitentiary | RQ Magazine

  5. I couldn’t agree more with much you say here. I’ve always been amazed at the number of prisoners we have in Canada and wonder if we really need to incarcerate so many. Why, for example, do we have ‘drug mules’ in a maximum security prison?

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