Canada’s Conservative government has a “tough on crime” agenda. They are building more jails, putting more people in jail for minor offenses and imposing minimum sentences that don’t always fit the circumstances. This has resulted in overcrowding, increased violence, and now a seeming inability to protect the human rights of women in the prison system. Two recent cases, one where a female prisoner committed suicide while prison guards watched and another where a woman gave birth — feet first — in her jail cell, demonstrate the horrific disregard for the human rights of young women in Canada’s prison system.
Ashley Smith — Killed Herself While Guards Watched
Ashley Smith was first incarcerated at the age of 15 for throwing crab apples at a postal worker. She was sent to a juvenile detention facility, where her behavior in custody led to additional charges against her, and more jail time. When she turned 18 years old and was still in custody, she was transferred into the adult prison system where she spent time in 17 different prisons over a period of 11 months, all in solitary confinement. Then, as Shannon McCarney wrote on Care2 last year, she ended her life:
On October 19th, she tied a strip of cloth around her neck in full view of 7 prison guards. They watched through her cell bars as she turned purple, waiting to intervene until whatever arbitrary line was crossed before their intervention appeared “necessary.” They waited too long. Ashley died.
An inquest into Smith’s death is now underway. In the course of the inquest, video footage was released (despite objections from Corrections Canada) that showed the type of abuse Smith endured in custody. According to the CBC:
The videos were made public Wednesday. One shows Smith being duct-taped to her seat on a plane while being transferred from an institution in Saskatchewan to one in Quebec. Another shows her being held down by a guard in full riot gear while she was injected against her will with a tranquillizer.
Discussions of the inquest in the Canadian Parliament earlier this week demonstrated the lack of regard and understanding of the minister responsible for Canada’s prisons. Responding to questions from the New Democrats (NDP), Justice Minister Vic Toews said: “I would note that the NDP, while consistently speaking on behalf of prisoners, never speaks on behalf of the victims of these prisoners.” NDP leader Tom Mulcair replied: “Is that minister capable of understanding that she (Ms. Smith) was the victim here”. Toews continued with his misguided line of reasoning and was later criticized by both the NDP and Liberal leaders for turning Smith’s horrible treatment and tragic death into a partisan political issue.
Julie Bilotta — Gave Birth, Baby’s Feet First, Alone in Her Jail Cell
As the inquest into Smith’s death has been unfolding, another horrible incident occurred in the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, a facility that is under the jurisdiction of the Ontario government (unlike the federal correctional facilities where Smith was incarcerated).
On September 29th, Julie Bilotta went into labor in her jail cell. She told guards she was in labor and asked for help, but they ignored her. Eventually, irritated by her cries, they transferred her from her shared sell to a segregation cell, but still didn’t get her any help other than two tests from prison nurses who decided it was just false labor. Around nine hours after Bilotta began complaining of the pain and four hours after she had been moved into the segregated cell, prison guards finally called the paramedics when she showed them the baby’s feet hanging out of her body. Bilotta delivered the breech baby, feet first, almost entirely on her own in the floor of her jail cell. Paramedics arrived at the very end of the delivery and there was no doctor present when the baby was born.
Bilotta was hospitalized after the birth and returned to jail shortly afterward. Other than the short ambulance ride to the hospital, she didn’t get to see her baby again until three weeks after the birth.
Tip of the Iceberg
According to Dawn Moore, a criminology professor at Carleton University, “the Julie Bilotta case is the tip of the iceberg in terms of a real crisis that we’re not paying attention to in the incarceration of women in the province and really in the country.” Bryonie Baxter from the Elizabeth Fry Society says that women in jail should receive the same services as women in the community when it comes to pregnancy and birth. “How can it be, that in a civilized society, women can give birth under those conditions in jail,” Baxter pondered in a conversation with CBC.
In a letter to the Globe and Mail about the Ashley Smith inquest, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies wrote:
It’s not like we need more evidence that prisons are a brutally ineffective and costly default for people with mental health issues. In his most recent report, Canada’s Correctional Investigator makes this clear, while urging that suffering prisoners at risk of serious self-injury not be placed in prolonged segregation.
Here at home, more Canadians with mental health issues occupy prison cells than mental health facilities. Like Ashley Smith, most of these serve their sentences in isolation, which – not surprisingly – often exacerbates their conditions. And although Corrections Canada is the single largest employer of psychologists in this country, most professionals are hired for risk assessments, not treatment. The programs that do exist have long waiting lists.
Canadians need more mental health programs and facilities, not bigger jails and tougher sentences. Canadians need a prison system that not only keeps Canadians safe — both those outside the prison, and those inside it. While some civil rights are suspended while incarcerated, human rights are not. Or at least they shouldn’t be.
Canada has an obligation to ensure that it isn’t depriving prisoners of their human rights. That is an obligation it is currently struggling to keep.
Photo credit: DubyDub2009 on flickr