Tough on Crime, Weak on Human Rights: Canada’s Prisons Failing Women

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.

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Photo credit: DubyDub2009 on flickr


Tammy Baxter
Tammy B4 years ago

how awful for both of those ladies and the many others that suffer the same thing

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago


Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago

Many thanks to Jill M. for pointing out the major contributory cause to a horrible situation, where some of the most vulnerable among our population were thrown out onto the streets without the resources to cope.

I'll never forget my mother and I watching a parliamentary procedure where Harper was cutting funding to women, to people without resources to legally fight, to the vulnerable - Harper having that trademark smirk on his face all through the arguments...

Aaron B.
Aaron Bouchard5 years ago


Jill M.
Jill M5 years ago

Since the funding cutbacks and closure of mental health facilities in Canada, known as de-institutionalization, more and more people with mental health vulnerabilities have ended up homeless and inevitably drifted into the corrections system. People like Ashley Smith, who was treated cruelly and died horrifically. This is a systemic issue as a consequence of conservative cutbacks that needs to be recognized and addressed on a policy level. Good luck with that until we have new government at the helm willing to put vulnerable people before money.

Aletta Kraan
Aletta Kraan5 years ago

Thanks , noted !

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago


Together, we know we can beat the worst of Harper’s brutal agenda. Last year, more than 100,000 Canadian Avaazers came together to defeat an attempt to set up a “Fox News North” and protect balanced reporting in Canada. With thousands of Canadians already speaking out against this sovereignty fire-sale to China we can stop Harper and safeguard our democracy again.

With hope,

Jeremy, Emma, Ari, Ricken, Melanie and the rest of the Avaaz team


Canada-China investment deal allows for confidential lawsuits against Canada (Toronto Star):

14 reasons why Canada-China investment deal needs more time, debate (Vancouver Observer):

'Flawed' investment treaty with China on fast track to ratification (Canadian Business):

Canadians are nervous about China trade pact. They should be (iPolitics):

China Treaty Uproar Signals Growing Rift Between Ottawa, Grassroots Conservatives (Dogwood Initiative):

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago


The treaty, known as the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA), is a bad deal for Canada: China keeps way more exemptions for national subsidies, protects more industries from Canada's investors and it creates a secret tribunal that's unlikely to do any good for Canada if China breaks the terms of the deal -- in the last 15 years, no country has successfully sued China under one of these agreements!

This is also a desperate attempt by Harper to ramp up exploitation of our natural resources. The treaty could drastically hamper our ability to legislate to protect our environment. Big business in China has already spent $13 billion on the tar sands and want a large stake in the Northern Gateway pipeline -- and this deal could mean any attempt to stop or regulate those projects could cost billions in Canadian taxpayer dollars.

Belgium signed a similar deal with China and it’s already being sued for billions. We can make sure this doesn’t happen here. For once, Harper’s been genuinely thrown by the depth of opposition to this deal, and we have to keep up the pressure. Sign now and share with everyone:

Together, we know we can beat the worst of Harper’s brutal agenda. Last year, more than 100,000 Canadian Avaazers came together to defeat an

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago

This is Harper, destroying Canada in every way he possibly can, turning the country into an abusive, corporate-run prison.

Hey Avaazers,

Harper’s about to sign Canada up to a crazy deal that allows China's companies to sue us if we pass laws protecting our health and environment that effect their profits. But massive public opposition has thrown him, and if we crank up the pressure we can actually stop this disaster. Join the call now:

Sign the petition
Harper is about to sign a crazy deal with China that would set up secret courts where China's companies can sue Canada if we pass laws to protect our health and environment that effect their profits.

But Harper’s been thrown by the growing public opposition to his plan -- even among conservatives -- and we actually have a chance to kill this disaster. He’s already delayed signing the deal, and if we can crank up the pressure we can force him to back down.

We need to show just how many people oppose this thing if we’re going to win. Join the campaign now and forward this to everyone you know -- when we’re 50,000 strong, we’ll take our voices to Ottawa with a message Harper can’t ignore:

The treaty, known as the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA), is a bad deal for Canada: China keeps way more exemptions for national subsidies, protects more industries from C

No B.
Nancy B5 years ago

Horrific, but how much better are women's prisons.