Former inmate taps into her prison experience for 'groundbreaking' PhD research

The prison system amplifies and perpetuates the systemic disadvantages that incarcerated women are up against, argues University of Ottawa PhD student Rachel Fayter. She was incarcerated for more than three years and draws from her experience in jail to inform her ‘groundbreaking’ research into the resilience of criminalized women.

Rachel Fayter's work focuses on the resilience of criminalized women

Prison For Women, or P4W, in Kingston, Ont., opened in 1934 and was shut down in 2000 after decades of reports about prisoner mistreatment. (Google Street View)

*Originally published on September 24, 2020. 

Listen to Ideas from the Trenches: The Resilience of Incarcerated Women

This episode is part of our on-going series, Ideas from the Trenches. PhD students sacrifice years of their lives in pursuit of answers to the world's unanswered questions. IDEAS shines a light on the work of these emerging scholars 

While crime rates in Canada are among the lowest they've been in 50 years, the number of women in federal prisons continues to rise. 

PhD student Rachel Fayter hopes her work will contribute to shifting that trend.

Fayter spent just over three years serving time at the Grand Valley Institution for Women (GVI) for breach of bail and possession for the purpose of trafficking charges. During her time in prison from 2014 to 2017, she got to know dozens of her fellow inmates. Her experience with them inspired her criminology PhD work at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on how women in prison build the resilience they need to survive.

Rachel Fayter's says her time in prison led to her criminology PhD work at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on how women in prison build the resilience they need to survive. (Nicola Luksic/CBC)

"I want to show that criminalized women, despite all the trauma and negative things that we've been through, we have a lot to offer," says Fayter.

"I want to shift public consciousness about who we are."

The vast majority of women who receive federal prison sentences are victims of abuse and poverty. According to a 2003 Canadian Commission of Human Rights report, 85 per cent have suffered physical abuse and 70 per cent have suffered sexual abuse. Indigenous women are vastly over-represented — they're just 4 per cent of the female Canadian population, but they constitute nearly 40 per cent of incarcerated women in federal prisons.

"If you're taking somebody who's been traumatized and grown up in horrible circumstances, many times they commit a crime out of just survival," says Fayter.

"And many of these women are single mothers too. They're losing their children. So all of this trauma on top of trauma. And then they're going back out to the community and then we don't have enough support. It ends up being a revolving door."

Focus on women's resilience

Fayter, who will soon start her official field research, will be looking at how friendship bonds among incarcerated women help them survive their sentences and even thrive outside the prison walls after serving their time.

Fran Chaisson helped found the P4W Memorial Collective — a group working to create a permanent memorial garden on the grounds of the former Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont. (Lisa Kannakko)

"Relationships are central to surviving prison and trauma," says Fayter. "Having the connection and support of people who have been through similar traumas in challenging circumstances, it really gives us strength. It can give our lives meaning and purpose and is a form of healing."

Fayter plans to analyze how these relationships grow and what benefit they provide, as well as looking at how systems and policies within correctional institutions can threaten these bonds.

Fran Chaisson served 18 years at P4W. She tells IDEAS it was her friends that helped her get through her time in prison.

"Most women who end up behind bars are mentally abused, sexually abused, physically abused, or all of the above. Most women you're dealing with are broken before they even get behind the wall," says Chaisson.

"What people don't understand is that women don't need to be punished, women need to be healed."

Chaisson is one of the founders of the P4W memorial collective. Since the prison for women closed in 2000, former prisoners have been fighting to create a memorial garden and a gallery within the former prison to share art, poetry, and testimony from prison survivors. 

'Nothing About Us, Without Us'

Jennifer Kilty is a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. She met Rachel Fayter inside GVI in 2015 as part of a "Walls to Bridges" course, which brings university students together with inmates to study in the same classroom.

Kilty is now Fayter's PhD supervisor. 

"It's absolutely central to involve individuals [in research] who have lived experience," says Kilty. "It's this idea of 'nothing about us without us.'" 

She says that by focusing on community relationships and resilience, Fayter's work will be "groundbreaking in Canada."

"Our ability to empathize with people is a source of strength," says Kilty. "Especially when you're thinking about criminology in the context of the prison, developing relationships can be a survival technique on the inside."

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Rachel Fayter is a PhD student in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa. Since the original broadcast of this episode she is also now an active member of the P4W Memorial Collective.

"Paula" is a formerly incarcerated woman who served 15 years in federal prison.

Fran Chaisson is a former inmate and member of the P4W Memorial Collective.

Jennifer Kilty is professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and chair of the department. 

Patti Pettigrew is the founder and executive director of the Thunder Woman Healing Society Lodge Society.

Kelly Potvin is the executive director of Elizabeth Fry Toronto.

* This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.

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