Good evening everyone. I want to begin by thanking you for joining us tonight. We are very pleased to see you here. Before I begin I also want to draw your attention to the new funding initiative we have in your package from Fundscrip. Fundscrip is an innovative program that lets you earn cash rebates for our group based on things you buy everyday like groceries, gas and other household items. Every month you spend hundreds of dollars for things like food, gas, clothing, pharmacy, restaurants, electronics, home renovations, department stores, and so on.
All you have to do is pay for some or all of your purchases using GIFT CARDS bought at face value from FundScrip participating retailers and a percentage of every gift card purchased is contributed to our group’s fundraising efforts. So instead of paying with cash or a debit card, you use a gift card that you purchased through our group. It costs you nothing extra but you just earned money for our organization. We would appreciate your support and all information about the program is on our webpage.
I was listening to CBC radio driving back from Grand Valley Institute (the Federal Prison for women) one day in July. The show that was playing was Spark, with Norah Young and I had tuned in to an analysis of gender stereotyping of robots.
Friederike Eyssel, a professor of Gender and Emotion in Cognitive Interaction Technology at Bielefeld University, along with her colleague Frank Hegel, researched gender stereotyping of robots by showing them two different photos. One was a photo of a robot with long hair and the other a picture of a robot with short hair. Other than hair length, the photo was exactly the same.
Then they asked the participants questions about the robots. To what extent is the robot sociable, warm-hearted, and nurturing? To what extent is it dominant, assertive, with a sense of agency?
According to Eyssel, not only was the robot with short hair perceived as having stereotypically male qualities, participants also believed it was better suited to tasks like guarding, protecting, and fixing.
The robot with longer hair was seen as better suited for tasks like taking care of children at home, and taking care of a household.
The show was looking at the issue “Will Robots Make Us Sexist?” Soraya Chemaly argues that the male-dominated tech sector is affecting the way we design artificial intelligence. Public perception of the robot’s appearance is linked to their perception of the suitability of the robot to the task they are built to do. In other words, producers of robots looking to build a commercial robot for work in a nursing home perceive they will have more success marketing that robot it they create it with longer hair and a more feminized appearance.
As if this wasn’t frustrating enough, the show went on to talk about google searches and auto fill. You know what that is, it’s when you type words into google and google offers suggestions about the words that come next based on the frequency with which those words follow the ones you have typed. Apparently, if you type the words “Women Should” in google, auto fill will provide the following answers and remember, these are based on the greatest frequency with which these words finish the sentence on google searches…
- Remain silent in church
- Not laugh in public (this one thanks to the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister)
- Not be in the military
- Not run
- Not wear pants
- Be disciplined
You can conduct a similar experiment with similarly depressing results using any other group prone to sterotyping (Aboriginal people should….Black people should….). The only thing you need to know is that google search self customizes to your search history so you may get different results.
It got me wondering about stereotypes of prisoners. And so I tried it. I typed in Prisoners should and got the following answers.
- Not be educated
- Have no rights
- Be punished
- Be given religious teachings
- Not have luxuries
And most troubling of all…
- Be used in medical experiments
What all of this reveals is twofold. First of all, it tells me that the mandate of feminist organizations like ours in combatting gender stereotyping and offering gender specific service is still very much needed. Technology, rather than pushing the edges of our sex role stereotyping is only serving to replicate it.
And this also tells me is that we still have a long long way to go in educating the public about the realities of who Prisoners are and why they end up in jail, and what we need to do as a society in order to reduce crime. People still see people who have done time as the “other” when in reality they are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters. Classifying them as “other” in their minds allows us to treat them with less dignity and respect than we would accord other fellow human beings. Based on those answers, I imagine it will be a long time before the need for Elizabeth Fry Societies across the country diminishes to the point that we can close our doors.
I have spoken before at previous AGMs about the troubling path Canada is on regarding incarceration and corrections. Tough on Crime thinking has us travelling the path of the failed penal policies of the United States. Today 1 out of every 100 adults in America is incarcerated, for a total incarcerated population of over two and a quarter million people – (which incidentally is almost double the incarcerated population of China). And a full ½ of those people are incarcerated on drug charges. (Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Report 2008). In fact, there are so many people incarcerated in the US now that Sesame Street devoted an episode for children on having a parent in prison. Think about it – Sesame Street! The US has incarcerated the equivalent of the entire population of Kuwait. Now in Canada we are still much lower than this at about 1/6th the rate of imprisonment of the US, but we are trending up, and this is troubling In 2013, which is the last time we have data on this, the incarcerated population of Canada reached an all time high, and we can predict this trend is continuing. And it’s not just about incarcerating more people – Parole grant rates have dropped 20 per cent in five years and offenders are serving longer periods of time before their first release. As Steve Sullivan points out in his October 2014 article in Ipolitics, keeping criminals in prison longer may sound good to some but it also means less time in the community with the kind of supervision and conditions requiring them to take programs, and it is expensive to the public purse. Without even counting the costs to women and their families who pay the brunt of the lacks of reintegration supports, keeping only 5 women in Federal jail for an extra year costs taxpayers more than $1 million (2013 Annual Report, Public Safety Canada).
The Elizabeth Fry Societies are trying to stop these troubling trends – all of them. We challenge the sexism and racism inherent in the corrections and policing systems. We challenge the notion that incarcerating people is the way to achieve less crime and advocate for greater access to community based alternatives to incarceration as a way to reducing recidivism. And if they build a gender stereotyped robot to work in Corrections no doubt we will challenge that too. With the work of our Provincial and Federal networks – the Council of Elizabeth Fry Societies of Ontario and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, we have made some good gains. We have clarified with the provincial Ministry that it is not illegal for a woman to refuse to wear a bra in prison. We assisted Christina Jahn in her fight for better treatment of women with mental health issues who are incarcerated and restrictions on the number of days prisoners with mental health issues can be segregated and we are proud to say that not only did Christina win that fight, but she also received a CMHA Community Appreciation award for her tenacity in that battle. We assisted Julie Bilotta in her fight for justice after she gave birth to baby Gionni on the floor of a segregation cell and have seen some positive changes to policy regarding pregnant women and new mothers after that travesty. We have also assisted Transgender prisoners in their fight to be assigned a cell based on their gender identity rather than their gender assignment at birth.
And in between all that, we help women and youth with the daily challenges they face in reintegrating post incarceration or post conflict with the law and avoiding further criminalization. We help them get identification and medication. We help them get schooling and reading glasses in jail and out support for those things are funded entirely out of donations. We help them find housing they can afford (or almost afford) and help them stabilize that housing when they find it. We help them successfully complete diversion programming to avoid a jail term where possible. We help them with trauma counselling, anger counselling, theft and fraud prevention counselling. We help youth feel better about themselves, communicate better with parents and caregivers, find alternative and better ways to problem solve and manage conflict. We help people with mental health and addictions issues with a range of programs from DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy) to addictions counselling and relapse prevention programming as well as getting their “tools” done so they can be accepted into residential treatment programs. We help women prepare for court, prepare for prison, prepare for the parole board, prepare for community, prepare for a crime free life. We help them with financial planning and budgeting, stabilizing their incomes. We help find ways to leave abusive and violent situations. And sometimes we just help them stay safe – with harm reduction supplies and bad date lists and a peer support supper club for women in the sex trade.
And you help us help our clients. By showing up here today you are demonstrating your support for our mission and vision. Whether you are here representing a Ministry, a community agency, a social advocacy group or just representing yourself; whether you are here as a volunteer, a Board member, a staff member, a client or ex-client or just an interested member of the community – the fact is you are here, learning about what we do, where the need is, and where we must continue to push for change to create a justice system predicated on justice rather than punishment. We need to make a cultural shift away from a Law and Order Agenda, a Tough on Crime Agenda, to a Justice agenda. And I guarantee that when we successfully achieve that, we will see further reductions in crime across the country as people are supported in their attempts to turn their lives around rather than punished for being poor, being racialized, being socially disadvantaged, being victims of violence, having mental illness…
I want to thank you for coming. We have here today with us a woman who can tell us what it is to experience incarceration first hand and I want to acknowledge and thank her for her bravery in speaking publically about her experience. And we also have with us today many other women with first-hand experience – clients of our agency – here to hold us accountable to the standard we have set for ourselves and also celebrate those small achievements we have been able to make.
To our Board, our staff, our volunteers, our supporters…thank you for all that you do to help us in our mandate and help our clients in their goals. You are an amazing group of people with huge hearts and we could not achieve any of it without you. I know that I am so often caught up in our destination that I sometimes forget to appreciate the journey, especially the goodness of the people met on the way, so let me take the opportunity to remedy this now and say again thank you for the gifts of your time, your talents and your commitment to the agency’s mission. This current year is proving to be a tough one for us financially and a year. But it is important that we remember that if we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: and if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, success would not be so welcome. In this, my seventh year with the agency, I look forward to learning and growing through the tough times together so we can better appreciate and celebrate our future success.
Thank you and enjoy the rest of the evening.