Women struggle with stigma of prison

Susan Arai with Grand Valley Institution for Women sign.

Uncertain Futures: Women Leaving Prison and Re-entering Community, a report co-authored by Susan Arai, explores the “importance of building relationships to bridge the chasm between women and their community” after they are released from Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener.

A recreation and leisure studies professor, Arai worked with colleague Alison Pedlar and two PhD students interviewing inmates and drafting recommendations to help “redevelop social policy and design community and social structures to support the reintegration of incarcerated women.”

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded report focuses on the social determinants of health, says Arai, including women’s access to housing, education, income, health care, social support, leisure, and social justice.

“There’s a lack of recognition of systemic issues that play a role in a woman’s path to prison: poverty, a history of abuse, racism and discrimination — the outcomes of what happens when oppression is not addressed.”

In-depth interviews conducted with 69 women at Grand Valley reveal the complexity of rebuilding a life after prison, says Arai.

“Some return to family and jobs; others are struggling with addictions, healing from trauma, and working with mental health and disability issues. Many return to poverty. All will struggle with the stigma of incarceration.”

Arai, who earned two degrees in Recreation and Leisure Studies at Waterloo, brings to her research an understanding of issues of difference and social justice and an emphasis on the importance of relationships, community, and leisure in healing and transformation.

Since completing the Uncertain Futures report Arai worked with Amber Zimmerman, from Drama and Speech Communication at UW, to run the Women’s Leisure and Performance Project at the Grand Valley Institute for Women. This project explored ideas of autonomy, freedom, risk, hope, identity and difference, power and agency through women’s engagement in the performance of spoken word, poetry, songs, and drumming.