Filmmaker explores agony of solitary confinement in Canada

Herman Wallace passed away from liver cancer on Oct. 4, three days after being released from a Louisiana prison after 41 years in solitary confinement. He would have turned 71 on Oct. 13.

It's a case close to Michelle Latimer's heart. The Toronto-based filmmaker and actor, whose previous documentaries include Alias and Jackpot, is working on a feature hybrid film examining the issue as it pertains to Renée Acoby -- a Métis woman from Manitoba who spent eight of her 13 years in prison mostly in solitary confinement.

Latimer called Wallace's case "tragic."

"I have to use a quote from George Bernard Shaw who said, 'A society can be measured by its level of humanity by opening its penitentiary doors,'" stated Latimer, who is collaborating on The Freedom Project with acclaimed Canadian documentarian Peter Mettler (Petropolis, Picture of Light, The End of Time). The film will be a treatise on the nature of solitary confinement, its psychological effects as well as probing concepts of freedom.

While in prison on a robbery charge, Wallace was sentenced to solitary confinement in 1972 after he and two other inmates were accused of killing a corrections officer. The conviction of Wallace and another inmate was based on testimony from other prisoners, including a rapist who was later found to have helped the prosecution in exchange for a reduced charge.

In four decades, Wallace was only allowed to leave his 6-by-9-foot Louisiana prison cell for only an hour a day a few times a week.

Soon after Wallace's release, Juan E. Méndez, the UN's special expert on torture, issued a statement calling all governments to abolish the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement: "I call for an absolute ban of solitary confinement of any duration for juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row."

One of four women named a dangerous offender in Canada

Renée Acoby is a mother and poet. The 33-year-old one of four women ever named a dangerous offender in Canada. Lisa Neve, the second one, had her sentence overturned and is free. The first one, Marlene Moore, committed suicide in Kingston Prison for Women. Most recently, Krista Walker, 37, of Toronto was given the designation in March 2012.

"She's extremely articulate and smart," said Latimer of Acoby. "I'm blown away by her ability to express how she's feeling. She speaks French, which she learned in prison, and she's curious. She has a great sense of humour."

When Latimer learned of Acoby's situation a few years ago, she was struck by the similarities between them -- Latimer is about the same age, also Métis and grew up in Thunder Bay, Ont., often visiting Winnipeg, the nearest metropolis.

"When I learned more about her, I was moved," said Latimer, whose 2011 Bravo short Choke -- an animated tale about a young man who leaves his First Nation reservation for the big city only to find isolation and loss of identity -- was nominated for a Genie.

"I read about her cycle of violence. Her father beat her mother to death when Renée was six months old. She lived with her grandmother and was in and out of foster care."

Acoby earned the DO designation for crimes done in prison -- everything from assault to hostage-takings of prison guards. That quick spiral seems to stem from an event early in her incarceration -- Acoby's baby was taken away from her when she was caught smoking marijuana with other female prisoners. It was 2001 and Jacoby, 21 at the time, was just a year into her stint at a healing lodge, serving a 3 1/2-year sentence for drug trafficking.

"They said to her, 'think about your baby, you have 15 minutes.' And then, they basically ripped her away from her and gave her to Renée's sister," explained Latimer.

Soon after, Acoby tried to escape the lodge. When a guard discovered her, she took the guard hostage and demanded to see her baby. Since then, Acoby has only seen her daughter once -- she was 8 years old. Her daughter doesn't know that Acoby is her mother, either.

"She's in a place where you can't reason," said Latimer. "You would think prison would harden you but she has a soft look and demeanour. She's very small and looks a bit like a deer. She's beautiful. She's also very intelligent."

Latimer says at every point in Acoby's imprisonment, where she has resorted to violence, Acoby is always trying to agitate for her rights.

"It's always about the prison system with Renée, when she acts out. She's taking power in a place where she is powerless."

Mind is like a 'Molotov cocktail'

Acoby's feelings about solitary confinement were posted on a blog last year. In it, she writes:

"Your mind feels like a Molotov cocktail was thrown into it. Sometimes it could be the scent of a shampoo that triggers an old memory, good or bad and sometimes both. You have tunnel vision some days, with every smile you see hiding an agenda and every tear lurks a crocodile. Anger and unbridled hostility permeate every fiber of your being like a virus…"

In her 13 years behind bars, Acoby has been in four institutions -- she is now in a maximum security facility in Abbotsford, B.C., out of solitary. At one point, she shared a cell next to Ashley Smith -- the teenager who committed suicide at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Waterloo, Ont. Acoby had been helping Smith file grievances against prison staff. After Smith took her own life, Jacoby took a guard hostage, demanding access to the media so that the world would know what happened.

Smith, 19, died after tying a piece of cloth around her neck and choking. Guards, who were ordered not to intervene, stood outside her cell door and watched. A coroner's inquest into her death began in September.

Latimer, and other critics, believe Acoby got the DO designation because she was a witness.

"Her sentence is now indeterminate. Not even Paul Bernardo has that!" Latimer notes. "Labelling her a dangerous offender is cruel. It takes away hope."

High number of Aboriginal women in jail

For Latimer, The Freedom Project isn't just about Acoby. It's about growing numbers of Aboriginal women who are imprisoned and often assessed as high-risk offenders.

"As a high-risk offender, you can't access programs such as education or psychological services. Their chances for re-integration after prison are minimal."

At issue, according to Latimer, is the level of "systemic violence in native people's history." It's something that was never taken into account when Acoby was deemed a dangerous offender.

"Renée was never interviewed by the psychiatrist at the hearing. He based it on school records and it's well documented that foster and educational records were racially biased during the time she was growing up."

At the heart of the matter is the Gladue Principle -- a 1999 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that said courts must take into account the circumstances around an Aboriginal person when considering a sentence. In Acoby's case, the judge said he felt she was so violent, the Gladue Principle was not applicable.

Acoby's DO designation is being appealed by the Elizabeth Fry Society. A hearing will be set for next year. Latimer is set to be a witness.

The filmmaker says Acoby remains a positive person but Latimer herself feels skeptical when she considers the big picture: the situation of Aboriginal women in prison.

"Our rates of incarceration echo that of the black men in the U.S. prison system," emphasized Latimer.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator, an ombudsman for federal prisoners, has reported that Indigenous women are the fastest growing prison population in Canada, accounting for 31.9 per cent of all females in jail. That's an 85.7 per cent jump over the last decade.

Latimer doesn't mince words about how she feels.

 "It's another step towards genocide."

June Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

 

                            Lifeline

Spend years behind walls the white man built,

indefinite solitary makes it hard to feel Guilt — 

a form of Residential School, ancestors blood spilled.

 

Searching, fasting ... praying to find

a shred of humanity, freedom with no binds  —                        

lift the veil of Revenge that renders me blind.                       

 

Petition the System for a sweat, a vision...

to release the negativity in my internal prison –

Where intentions and goals are tainted crimson.

 

Pledged faith, Revolutionary – convict Alliance;

left to endure, to stagnate in silence –

Mind and spirit plagued by violence.

 

Fighting a war dating back to Crazy Horse,

too ignorant to comprehend the System is the Source

of Revenge, Ruminating ... my lack of Remorse.

 

Spend years behind walls my heart has built,

feel the lifeline wither when my blood is spilled.

 

- Renée J. Acoby

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