Why are Bras Causing a Commotion in Ontario's Criminal Justice System?
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Why are Bras Causing a Commotion in Ontario’s Criminal Justice System?

Yes, women in the GTA are still being policed over their breasts.

Women in Toronto explores the issues that women in the city face.

In October 2013, Jeannette Tossounian, then in her late 30s, was placed in solitary confinement at the Vanier Centre for Women, a women’s jail in the GTA. She was serving time for arson, convicted of having burned down her own art gallery (a charge she still disputes). Locked in the isolation room with little more than “toilet paper and a bible,” according to the Toronto Star, Tossounian went on a hunger strike, citing gender discrimination. She was objecting to the facility’s requirement for inmates to wear a bra.

After 10 days of lonely protest by Tossounian against the jail’s “strap-in policy,” the Vanier Centre caved: it allowed her to re-enter her cell, braless, and it later removed the requirement from its policies. Tossounian’s years-long fight for bralessness in prison (which ended when she was released in December of 2013) sparked provincial change, too. In 2014, Ontario banned mandatory bras across all correctional institutions for women.

Ontario’s ministry of community safety and correctional services never confirmed Tossounian’s story, citing privacy concerns. A spokesperson explained that, though bras in jail are optional under the law, many facilities had internal policies before 2014. Tossounian says her experience was “traumatizing,” but she considers the policy change a victory. As she walked back to her cell that day, strap-free, other jailmates cheered. “Everyone! Take off your bras!” someone yelled.

Three years later, Tossounian’s battle—described in her self-published book about her time in jail—reads like a successful push for progress. It’s easy to follow the digestible narrative of a strict, old-fashioned administration being put in its place as Canada moves closer and closer to a society free of harnessed breasts. (Annoyingly enthusiastic articles about the “bra-free trend” come to mind.) But the story of breasts and law enforcement is much more complicated than that.

Earlier this summer, Chatham-Kent police came under fire for forcing a woman to remove her bra during her arrest and detention—just the opposite of what Vanier Centre was criticized for. The woman called the experience a “nightmare,” while police officers cited an unofficial policy of confiscating things that could cause potential harm; bras’ underwire could apparently become some sort of weapon. (In fact, such policies were condemned for being sexist in 2013 by the Ontario Supreme Court, after a similar case in York.) It later came out that the same police station was also forcing women to go braless during bail court hearings.

And in January, a Toronto woman was cleared of drunk-driving charges because her breasts were exposed under her see-through bra during a roadside strip search. The judge who cleared her described the woman’s experience as humiliating, stating that whatever clothes she was wearing under her zipped sweater were “not for public eyes.”

Women make up a small fraction of those who have run-ins with the law; in Ontario correctional facilities, only 10 per cent of inmates are female. But when women do cross paths with the criminal system, they face an all-too-familiar challenge: dealing with a structure that was originally built by men, for men, and that is still struggling to adapt for everyone else. While the situation has substantially improved, female undergarments slipped through the cracks. Even female lawyers have been asked to remove their bras while visiting inmates in prison—allegedly because of metal-detector sensitivity.

Legally, bras aren’t a necessity. A woman can, in theory, walk through the streets of Toronto topless without it becoming a criminal matter. And while wearing or not wearing a bra (or even burning a bra) could be considered a political statement, we’re past that today. Aren’t we?

For some reason, not all in charge of correctional institutions, criminal courts, or police stations agree. Bras seem to be foreign, scary, intimidating. Imagine a lone prison guard, sitting at his desk and biting his nails, fearing the day when female inmates will band together, attack him, and restrain him with rope fashioned out of wired undergarments. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what some are warning against. (To be fair, it did happen once.)

Ban bras, however, and other problems arise. Tossounian was allegedly told to give her breasts underwired support because, if she didn’t, “male guards could get aroused.” Not wearing a bra can be considered indecent, risqué—something pulled off by celebrities, not an option for laywomen.

The Vanier Centre was exceptionally harsh in its requirement for inmates to wear bras. Federal prisons don’t have a similar policy, nor do many other provincial jails. Most police stations in the GTA don’t have specific guidelines, either. They handle the issue on a “case-by-case” basis, which seems to be the general philosophy. That means that, at any time, a woman may be forced to wear one or she may be forced to remove it. And, so far, there hasn’t been much discussion around the matter. We talk about specific issues—a Chatham bail hearing, a York drunk-driving charge—but we fail to ask the obvious question: why does there have to be any kind of regulation in the first place? Why, in 2016, are bras still so ridiculously confusing?

I want to be confident that, if and when I’m arrested in Toronto, I can wear whatever kind of fabric or wire (or nothing) I want around my breasts—without anyone else getting involved.