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B.C. society celebrates 85 years of helping incarcerated women

Elizabeth Fry's work began in 1813 when she began visiting female inmates at London, England's Newgate Prison. She was appalled by what she saw.
A non-market development run by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver at 8305 11th Ave. in Burnaby.

The B.C. branch of a global non-profit society helping vulnerable and disadvantaged women navigate the justice system is celebrating its 85th birthday in 2024.

In doing so, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Vancouver (EFry) carries on a legacy dating back 211 years to when Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) began visiting female inmates at London, England’s Newgate Prison in 1813. She was appalled by what she saw.

That experience drove her to work to improve the lot of incarcerated women.

The banker's wife and mother of 11 was a major driving force behind improving prison conditions for women — including jailed women with children.

Her work led to the U.K.’s 1823 Gaols Act mandating sex segregation of prisoners as well as female warders for women’s prisons.

Her efforts were supported by such people as Queen Victoria and emperors Alexander l and Nicholas l of Russia.

Her efforts were commemorated when she was depicted on a U.K. banknote between 2002-2016.

That legacy continues worldwide and in B.C.

It was marked by the City of Vancouver, which proclaimed May 6-10 EFry Week.

“Since 1939, our organization has been instrumental in challenging policies, breaking down stigmas, and promoting systemic change to combat gender-based discrimination within the criminal justice system,” EFry CEO Alison Dantas said.

Dantas added the concerns of the women who joined together in 1939 in B.C. were aligned with those of Elizabeth a century earlier.

Then, and now, she said, they are women who want to make a difference in the lives of women caught up in the often-confusing world of the justice system.

“We have 255 staff and 90 volunteers,” she said.

By the numbers, EFry has been busy in the past year. In 2023, it served a total of 12,689 clients, including 1,851 children.

“Women and children have very unique needs when it comes to incarceration,” Dantas said.

It provided support to 42 women navigating the Surrey Provincial Court, B.C.’s busiest court for women. The non-profit also works to assist women in other courts such as Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court.

“We find that the clients really benefit from having that support,” Dantas said. “Most people have no idea how the legal system works.”

She said the courts have a process and a language all their own and EFry representatives can help translate for clients. 

EFry’s Third Party Administration program works closely with the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction to ensure that marginalized individuals have equitable access to government services. In 2023, it supported 274 clients from EFry’s Surrey office, 103 from the New Westminster location and 125 from its Victoria office.

EFry’s Allouette Correctional Centre for Women Community Integration program in Maple Ridge is designed to facilitate a smooth transition for inmates preparing for release and provides an average of 88 inmate sessions per month.

The newly launched Pardon Me Program is aimed at assisting individuals who are eligible for a criminal record suspension, and has served 151 individuals across Canada to date.

Meanwhile, the non-profit provided no-cost virtual clinical counselling to 111 clients throughout B.C. in 2023.

Dantas said the society also makes videos of incarcerated mothers reading to their children so they can reconnect with their families.

To that end, the society also helps women re-enter society after incarceration and runs halfway houses. There are purpose-built buildings in both Burnaby and Surrey.