Incarcerated Indigenous women devastated after prison stops them from selling beadwork

A woman who relies on selling beadwork she makes in her cell at a Manitoba women’s prison to support her family is devastated that she’s no longer allowed to do so.

Lori Sinclair, who has been on remand at the Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley, Man., for the last 18 months, says the program was recently shut down, leaving her and a number of other inmates feeling disconnected from their family and culture.

“What if my family members need me and I can’t help them? I can’t be there for them like I used to do. It’s really frustrating,” she said in a Monday interview with CBC News.

Sinclair is one of roughly 35 Manitoba-based Indigenous women, both incarcerated and previously incarcerated, who are members of a beading collective that she said gives them pride, purpose while selling their wares with the help of a friend on the outside.

Up until this month, Sinclair was selling her wares through her friend Sandra Burling on her Instagram page, Women Helping Women Beadwork.

Eight multicoloured beaded lanyards are seen againt a concrete backdrop.
These lanyards are just one example of the kind of beadwork Anderson and the other women have been making. (Submitted by Sandra Burling)

She used the money to help her family in emergencies, and send gifts to loved ones.

“I feel good. I can help my family out and not through crime like how I used to do it,” Sinclair said.

It also feels like therapy, she said.

“When I’m beading it takes me away from here and I’m happy. It’s relaxing and I’m proud of what I do. It gives me a purpose.”

Sinclair said she and the other inmates received a letter from Supt. Margo Lee recently that explained why they wouldn’t be allowed to send their beading out of the prison any longer.

“The production of beading craft items has been the cause of many issues. At this time we will continue to sell beading craft supplies through [the] canteen, however, if there continues to be problems associated with them being available, we may discontinue it altogether,” Sinclair read from the letter, which CBC News hasn’t been able to verify.

“I’m a strong proponent for being able to offer productive activities for our inmates to participate in, especially those that teach skills and have a cultural influence. At this time, I’m unsure if the unintended consequence of allowing beading craft at Women’s Correctional Centre make it safe to continue.”

A purple, pink and gold beaded necklace lies next to a pair of diamond shaped earrings in the same shades.
Sandra Burling says she’s very angry the women will no longer be able to sell their beadwork. She says earning the money, which they used to support their families and purchase necessary things like glasses, gave them a sense of purpose and hope for when they are inevitably released from prison. (Submitted by Sandra Burling)

Sinclair believes ending the program, and potentially not allowing people to bead at all, is deeply unfair and in reaction to the behaviour of a “couple bad eggs”.

“It makes me happy to be alive. It makes me so proud of myself, of being Anishinaabe. I can’t believe they’re trying to take that away from me,” she said.

Burling says she’s been trying to get in touch with the prison management to try to reinstate the beading program.

“To me, it’s really disgusting. I believe what we do together is about providing somebody with just a little bit of hope for when they get out,” she told CBC News on Monday.

A provincial spokesperson said the Women’s Correctional Centre is moving to a new model and the beading craft will be continued in the facility in a way that increases access for inmates free of charge while alleviating concerns associated with the previous program.

They wouldn’t expand on what those concerns were.

However, women won’t be allowed to sell their beadwork through Burling any longer.

The work will only be allowed to be sent outside of the prison on special occasions such as Mother’s Day, Christmas and birthdays, the provincial spokesperson said.

Burling, who doesn’t make a profit from the beadwork but returns all the money earned to the artists, says the income means a lot to the women

“They’re devastated because this is just a little bit of money. One lady finally got a pair of glasses. She hasn’t had any in years and that’s $200 that she would never have had to buy herself glasses,” Burling said.

“It’s just simple things like that. It’s devastating for them.”

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