COLUMN

When women do men’s work

Barbara Amiel October 12 1987
COLUMN

When women do men’s work

Barbara Amiel October 12 1987

When women do men’s work

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

Last February a Canadian human rights tribunal in Vancouver handed down a decision in the case of four female prison guards who had accused the RCMP of discrimination. The women had been working in RCMP lockups guarding both male and female prisoners, but in January, 1981, the RCMP reactivated its long-standing policy that prisoners must be guarded by persons of the same sex, arguing that the right of male prisoners to privacy in such intimate matters as using the toilet took precedence over the women’s need for absolute equality in employment. Since there were not many female prisoners in the lockups, the female guards soon found themselves reduced to part-time work. The Human Rights Commission agreed with the women and took up the case against the RCMP, all the way to the tribunal stage.

The tribunal hearing was lengthy— the evidence alone took 17 days to present. Still, I could find virtually no significant reference in the national media to the 118-page judgment. But even though the decision went against the women and the RCMP was upheld, the issues remain with us. Problems of tension at Kingston Penitentiary have been linked in the past to the resentment by male inmates of female guards, according to James Atkinson, chairman of a citizens’ group set up by the penitentiary service to monitor the prison. For both utilitarian and moral reasons, the Vancouver human rights case seems to me of fundamental importance to this country.

“Cross-sex guarding” began in the mid-1970s when the push to get women into “nonstereotypical jobs” started in earnest. By 1983 all federal penal institutions, from minimum to maximum security, were fully integrated with women. Female guards do exactly the same job as men with the exception of body searches, although they do frisk inmates. Not surprisingly, this raised problems.

The job of a guard is to watch an inmate —most especially when he does not expect to be watched. Evidence at the tribunal indicated that a guard, for ' example, may have to make sure that a prisoner’s hands are not concealing weapons or drugs even when he appears to be performing a perfectly normal function like excretion. Suicidal prisoners are stripped of all clothing

and may be denied a blanket to cover themselves. Male prisoners have been complaining to the Human Rights Commission since the early 1980s about the use of female prison guards. They argue that it is unfair since women prisoners in Canada are specifically protected from having male guards by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners resolution, to which Canada gave its support.

The Human Rights Commission seems to have been disinclined to respond to the men’s complaints. The HRC did do a 1981 study on inmate privacy and recommended the use of socalled “modesty barriers” to permit male prisoners to use toilets without being in full view of the female guards—while conceding that this might harm prison security. Only one complaint from male prisoners has been processed by the HRC so far, and

It is a nightmare to find the Human Rights Commission against human dignity and the RCMP trying to defend it

it has yet to come to a tribunal.

Evidence at the Vancouver hearing was fairly consistent, and the tribunal judge agreed that it was likely that women guards would normally come upon men on toilets or in undress during their work. In their defence, the HRC argued that the women would only glance briefly at men if they were on toilets, that nurses routinely saw men in a state of undress and that women guards had a positive effect on decorum in prisons.

Reading the judgment, I found the cavalier attitude of the HRC to this issue of male privacy—and another important aspect of the matter, sexual tension —in prisons incredible. I remembered the poignant letter in The Ottawa Citizen after the brutal rapemurder of 21-year-old female criminology student Celia Ruygrok by an inmate of the John Howard Society’s halfway house. Miss Ruygrok was working a night shift in the halfway house, and the letter, from a convicted murderer who had also once stayed in halfway houses, deplored the tensions and difficulties experienced by male

prisoners when women are put in position of authority over them. I remembered the bitter frustration in a quote in The Toronto Star from an inmate watching a female guard: “They just put them in here to bug us. I mean, you see a good-looking officer going by, and you know you can’t do nothing about it.”

Most of all, I remembered my own brief time in prison in Mozambique with male guards who could look at me through a peephole at any time. You didn’t have to be touched or assaulted to feel the indignity.

The RCMP’S success in the Vancouver case ought to have ended the whole idea of female guards. But in Canada’s federal male penal institutions—where there were 522 female guards as of May, 1987—the practice of crosssex guarding continues. Nothing has changed. Why?

Canada has long recognized the force of the human need for personal privacy. The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed it; Parliament enacted The Privacy Act in 1982. Prisoners may rightly forfeit many things, but we have never believed that their last shred of personal dignity should be stripped from them—which is why we agreed to the UN resolution. We understand that there is some delicate mechanism of self-esteem that every man and woman, convict or not, has when it comes to the nakedness of their body and the privacy of intimate acts.

But in our insane drive for equality that has now passed all bounds of common sense, humanity and decency, we have thrown the dignity of human beings to the wind. In this Kafkaesque Canada, it is the Human Rights Commission that is arguing against human dignity and trying to take away the last modicum of self-worth a prisoner may have, and it is the RCMP alone that is trying to retain it. Could we have believed, in our worst nightmares, that the Human Rights Commission would sacrifice decency on the altar of ideology to this extent?

If a woman wants to be a prison guard, why can’t she be one in a woman’s prison? Must every ambition of the protected and favored group be at the expense of the dignity and modesty of others? Nothing need prevent women, if their hearts are set upon it, from rising up through the hierarchy to become wardens or administrators in men’s prisons. But on their way up, let them watch women—not men.