Advocating for women in the criminal justice system

By Pamela Johnson,
Program Officer, International Centre for Women’s Leadership at Coady Institute
 

Katherine Alexander

For Katherine Alexander, seeking justice for women in the prison system is more than a work obligation. 

Alexander, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society in Whitehorse, was one of 24 women chosen for the 2015 Canadian Women’s Foundation Leadership Institute at Coady.

Spending at least one day a week at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre and once a month at the Abbotsford Institution, she works to build relationships with the incarcerated women. She advises them of their rights, helping to amplify their voices both inside and outside of the prison. She also works with other women’s services in the territory that help inmates transition back into the community. 

I was privileged to visit the Whitehorse Correctional Centre with Katherine on a recent visit to the territory.  It was clear that the same broad smile, intelligence, compassion, and wit that we saw in the classroom are characteristics she brings everywhere.  Alexander was greeted in a friendly manner by prison guards, other staff and the women prisoners alike. In addition to meeting with the women individually, she also works with inmate committees.  Committee members are elected. They act as information gatherers – bringing inmate concerns to prison staff and communicating information back to the other women. More serious issues or abuses are communicated to the national executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society and to the correctional investigator for Canada. 

“It is hard to have an impact when you are an advocate and you don’t have teeth,” says Alexander.  She is speaking about the mandate of the society, which places staff like her in prisons, who can address concerns, but lack the ability to enforce any regulations or legislation. They must trust that someone else will enforce Charter rights and other human rights, but it doesn’t always get done.
 

Whitehorse Correctional Centre

As a part of her studies in the Canadian Women’s Foundation Leadership Institute, she is working on an organizational capacity-building project, jointly funded by the foundation and Elizabeth Fry Society. Related to that is her decision to take conflict resolution training in Victoria, British Columbia so she can apply those skills in her daily work and share with women in the prison system.

"I applied to the Leadership Institute at Coady not entirely sure what to expect. It was apparent right away that I'd struck gold. The Coady faculty and staff  from CWFLI created an atmosphere of rich discussion, creative problem-solving and innovation for women working in community economic development. I feel incredibly privileged to have been selected for the 2015 cohort. The participants come to the table with 'mad skills', and I'm enjoying being a part of an inclusive, dynamic and impactful group of 'lady leaders'”, says Alexander. She and her colleagues use the title “lady leaders” a bit tongue in cheek, but do so intentionally, believing it is a way to reclaim the word “lady" and define it with power.

She plans to graduate in May 2016, and with her certificate in conflict resolution just two months later.