April 1, 2021 Editor

Former inmate taps into her prison experience for ‘groundbreaking’ PhD research

CBC Radio ·

photo above: 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)

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

This episode is part of an 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.

WN: This kind of research is so essential!

Esther, my partner, co-facilitates (with Kathy Moodie) Respectful Relationships for Survivors of Trauma at Fraser Valley Institution (FVI) in Matsqui British Columbia, a sister institution (one of five in Canada) to that in which the researcher served time. Esther constantly references the amazing resilience of women whose life circumstances–so often from birth–were stacked against them. She readily acknowledges where she could have ended up–with similar life experiences. Celebration of their resilience and hope for a better future are key. . .


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.

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)

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.

“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.”

‘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.”

Please click on: Groundbreaking PhD Research on Women’s Prisons

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.