Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW) is one of ten provincial correctional facilities and the only all-female centre in the province. Correctional Health Services (CHS), a part of BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, provides wrap-around health care services to women at the 188-bed facility, including medical, dental, mental health and substance use care, the latter of which are particularly important for this client population.
Shannon Petovello, the mental health and addictions supervisor at ACCW, explains why.
"There is so much complexity completely unrelated to their involvement in the criminal justice system. We see evidence of domestic or physical violence, sexual assault and involvement in the sex trade or trafficking. Providing a safe space for these women is our priority.”
“Many of the women here come to us with complex histories and challenges,” said Petovello. “One of the biggest issues being that they have been separated from their families, specifically their children. Of course, there is involvement in the criminal justice system with our clients but there is also a human aspect. There is so much complexity completely unrelated to their involvement in the criminal justice system. We have a disproportionately high population of Indigenous clients with histories of intergenerational trauma. We also see evidence of domestic or physical violence, sexual assault and involvement in the sex trade or trafficking. Providing a safe space for these women to get the help they need is our priority.”
All frontline healthcare staff at the facility are women—an intentional decision that is trauma-informed and patient-centred. Upon intake, the first point of contact is with a mental health screener and nurse, both of whom are women.
“Clients are in a vulnerable place when they come to us. They may have privacy concerns when speaking about their past traumas,” said Petovello. “We provide lots of wraparound services and it is often the first time our clients have access to this kind of health care. As well as their physical health, we assess their current mental health state, their history and their medications so we can understand them and make placement recommendations to BC Corrections.”
Several programs at ACCW help women manage their own mental health and substance use issues.
The Matrix program, led by concurrent disorders counsellors on each unit, is a group program for substance use recovery. Seeking Safety is an emotion-focused group that focuses on stability by giving clients opportunities to talk about topics that are ordinarily difficult to address. There are also a number of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) groups that teach skills such as distress tolerance, managing strong emotions, mindfulness, and more.
“We often hear clients using the metaphor of thawing out. They have been so numb from using drugs over the years and all of a sudden, when they come to us, they are awash with feelings. We are here to help them learn how to process that.”
“We are teaching these women ways to cope with being in custody, the loss of children, moving away from substances,” said Petovello. “We often hear clients using the metaphor of thawing out. They have been so numb from using drugs over the years or blocking out various traumas in their own ways. All of a sudden, when they come to us, they are awash with feelings and we are here to help them to learn how to process that.”
At the heart of care at ACCW is a deep understanding of what it means to be a woman. According to Petovello, that is what makes it such a special place to work.
“Because of that female aspect, we are deeply relational,” she said. “We get it; we know what it’s like to have a maternal bond with our kids, to be pregnant, to have these deep feelings of love, loss and longing. This relational component plays out in practice with compassion and reciprocal openness visible between clients, CHS staff and correctional officers.”
Staff at ACCW are notably supportive to one another, as well as to clients.
“It’s the type of place where people go out of their way to help each other, whether that is by taking on additional work or doing a quick coffee run to Tim’s when the team needs a boost,” she said. “We encourage openness. Our daily morning huddles are important check-in points for us to share how we’re doing. There is so much care here; it truly is an amazing place to be.”
Nancy Desrosiers, provincial executive director at Correctional Health Services has great admiration for all the staff supporting clients in corrections. “I am constantly in awe and so thankful for to the healthcare providers at all our centres, men and women. Our colleagues and teams are the ones teaching us how to be strong and courageous everyday,” she said. “I also have great admiration for our clients. Their perseverance is what drives us all to come to work day after day, to help support them through their journey and learn from them along the way.”
Correctional Health Services provides services and space for clients to stabilize, recover and heal, and a platform from which they can safely and successfully reintegrate into the community when the time comes. A big part of this stabilization, according to Petovello, is helping clients rediscover their sense of self-worth.
“I see our clients as a phoenixes rising from the ashes,” she said. “We pick them up, they dust themselves off, straighten their crown and go back into the community with more skills and confidence to manage what comes their way. My hope for all the women in our care is that they get back their sense of self-respect and dignity and can hold onto that."