Locking Them Up to Keep Them "Safe": Criminalized Girls in British Columbia

This report provides a unique glimpse of young women’s experiences of criminalization, presented in their own words. Four girls (aged 15-19) with first-hand experiences of being arrested, appearing in court, and spending time in prison share their stories through conversations with the author, and their words serve as a foundation for outlining the many injustices experienced by girls whose actions are criminalized by the state. The report also offers an overview of the history of girls’ imprisonment in Canada. Through reflection on this history, along with the girls’ experiences with the police, the courts, and the prison system, the author concludes that nothing less than abolishment of the practice of imprisoning girls will allow young women to escape the many human and equality-rights abuses they are currently subject to. Abolishment of girls’ imprisonment represents an important step towards achieving the broader social justice, dignity, and equality that girls are entitled to under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, substantial changes in social attitudes and structural inequalities are also urgently needed: instead of investing significant economic resources into forcible means of protection or behaviour change, we need to begin to directly address the circumstances that compromise girls’ safety (such as substance abuse and sexual exploitation) and invest in voluntary programs and supports that facilitate girls’ development. The young women’s testimonies reinforce the findings of Joan Sangster1 and others which suggest that girls are indeed being criminalized in the interests of trying to control their behaviour, including substance use, and/or to keep them “safe” from men who are deemed to be dangerous to them. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is seldom, if ever, a “safe” place for girls, as sexual harassment from police officers, male guards and inmates is common in these young women’s experiences, and violence, segregation, strip-searches and invasive psychological assessments combine to put girls at as much if not greater risk within prison walls. Young women are also resisting and challenging all aspects of their criminalization and speak poignantly about the transformative potential that lies in knowing and defending their rights.

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