the inquiry into the death of Ashley Smith in a Federal Penitentiary five years ago has been shining a much needed light on policy and procedure at Correctional Services Canada, and on the behaviour and attitudes of some of the people it employs.
recently some people on my unit were discussing a newspaper article about the inquiry. this led to a conversation about the lack of proper care for people with physical and mental health needs here at Vanier, and the ways in which they're often neglected and mistreated. i asked if anyone would like to write their stories down for the blog and i got four back, to which i've added two of my own.
if you're not familiar with the incarcerated female population, there's one very important thing to know: the vast majority of inmates suffer from depression, trauma, and/or addiction, and many deal with illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe anxiety disorders. when you read about the conditions in jails and the way prisoners are treated it's especially important to keep that in mind.
Ashley Smith needed help, and instead was treated brutally by people she couldn't get away from -- this is the situation for so many others as well. this post concludes with a horrifying account of the ongoing violence at Grand Valley Institute, the federal penitentiary in Kitchener Ontario in which she died, which was beautifully written by an inmate there named Nyki Kish.
i'm getting out of here soon. i'll no longer be surrounded by stories of people being assaulted by guards, screaming and banging their heads against the wall, being held naked in segregation cells for far longer than is allowed. giving birth alone in a cell because the guards thought the woman was “faking”. overdosing. dying. but these things will still be happening, and we on the outside need to help put a stop to them.
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It was on Mon Oct. 29 when this certain incident happened. It was time for lockdown another day done when the women would go to their cells and shut their doors. Now let me begin with saying that there are people in here from all different kinds of background as well as a lot of trauma and abuse myself included. This one particular evening I was in my cell and I almost had a panic attack when all of a sudden a male guard came down the wing and yelled at the top of his lungs “SHUT YOUR DOORS NOW!” for me it made me live a past trauma, my heart rate was racing and I was shaking like a leaf. It was a really bad flashback. It's not right that we should be talked to like that especially when a person is trying to get well. Rehabilitation ya right. Far from it. I understand they have a job to do but how unprofessional on the guard's part. At least they could treat us as women and not trash. ~Anonymous
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The following stories are what i consider unjust accounts that happened in 2011 and 2012 at the Vanier Correctional Facility for Women. If staff at the institution were “just” and doing their job correctly, both situations could have been avoided and dealt with properly.
1. Aug. 2011
Sometime in August 2011 during afternoon lockup, my cell mate (who was coming off of heroin) was having extreme withdrawal symptoms. She was violently puking, and sweating profusely. Medical segregation was apparently full so they stuck her in general pop and into my cell. After a violent fit of puking she lay on the floor breathing heavily. I did all I could to help her including giving her water and placing a cold cloth on her forehead. Her breathing became louder and deeper, suddenly she stopped, slid across the floor close to my feet and said she felt like she was going to have a seizure. In each cell there is a button meant for medical emergencies. I began pressing it frantically and she began convulsing and shaking on the ground behind me. I didn't know what to do, before this I had never seen anybody have a seizure. I continued pressing the button and yelling as the guards looked at me from the rotunda window with their hands in the air as if to ask “what's the matter?” I then began kneeing my cell door in a panic since nobody seemed to respond to the so-called emergency button and the guards outside were in no rush to see what was the matter. I was shouting “SEIZURE! SEIZURE!” Soon after the whole range was making noise for the guards to come in. 15 minutes later when they finally decided to come in the range after hearing all the commotion my cell mate had peed and shit her pants. my cell was opened and I was put into another cell while guards called in nurses to deal with the problem. Only then was she wheeled off to the medical seg. This could have been avoided and dealt with more humanely if the guards properly responded to both the emergency button and my panicked cries for help.
2. Aug 2012
One evening in August 2012 around 6:30pm all ranges were out for their last bit of phone calls and showering before night time lockup. Out in the hall a young girl no more than 20 was walking stark naked, being escorted to the psych ward by female AND male guards while she waved and smiled at everyone in the ranges. She was obviously extremely mentally ill and has no idea what was going on. All guards in the rotunda found this embarrassing, horrific scene extremely funny began roaring with laughter while this young girl was wrongfully exposed and embarrassed for everyone to see. Mentally ill patients within the Vanier Centre are put into segregation for the time they are there and are usually transported in shackles, strapped to a wheelchair, with an object on their head to cover their face. They are laughed at and ridiculed by guards; and like the story of this young girl, treated inhumanely and unfairly. While in segregation these women are left alone with their thoughts and mental illnesses leaving them no chance at getting better. ~Anonymous.
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This happened I'd say about 3 to 4 years ago now. I was about to leave the Old City Hall courthouse when a wagon came back. It had been on its way back to Vanier Centre for Women. I heard this from the women who were on that wagon, but I don't have a lot of details because the officers didn't want us to talk.
There was a woman who was new at Vanier and hearing-impaired and could not communicate well. She needed her medication and did not receive it (see we come here and do not see the doctor if we are in court again the next day because we get here so late). She has a seizure in the wagon and the girls banged and banged and yelled but they did not stop the wagon.
The girl died.
The women were all brought back to the courthouse. Food was being ordered for them and they were being asked to give video statements. They were offered counseling and I found out that they were given Valium.
Nothing ever appeared in the newspapers and I don't know if there was a lawsuit filed or not.
Why wouldn't they stop the wagon and offer assistance? I don't understand. ~R.H.
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in early february i witnessed something that made me realize how dangerous it is to be sick in this place. an inmate had just come on to 2F and clearly wasn't feeling well. eventually she walked to the back of the range, where it's quieter, and leaned against the windowsill. another inmate went over to the glass and told the guard the woman was diabetic and needed the nurse. she was told the nurse wouldn't be available until evening meds -- not for at least a half an hour. thinking she needed sugar, a bunch of us scrambled to find fruit, juice, and juice crystals. luckily we had just gotten out of lockup and the guard hadn't come by yet to lock our cells. by the time i got back with my orange she was sitting, slumped against the wall. once again someone went to ask the guard to get the nurse and once again she was told the nurse couldn’t come until her regularly scheduled time. but by this point people were raising a bit of a stink so finally the guard relented and told us to "bring her over." which was easier said than done because she couldn't stand, let alone walk. another inmate offered up her wheelchair and she was lifted into it and brought to the door. by the time she was handed off to the guard on the other side she was unconscious. she didn't come back that night and no guard felt the need to let us know that she was okay. we didn't see her again until the next day. ~mandy hiscocks
back in the winter when i was in Unit 2F, an alarm went off one night after lockup. it sounded like an air raid siren -- my first thought was "did someone escape? wicked. good luck friend!" -- but it turned out to be the fire alarm.
it's pretty terrifying to be locked in a cell wondering if the place in on fire. luckily my cell was in a good spot and i could see through my window that within a few minutes the guards were smiling and laughing. okay, panic over. but the alarm was still going and it didn't stop for quite some time and more than half the range can't see the guards area from their cells so they had no idea what was going on. no guard thought to come in to tell us not to worry, that we weren't all about to die.
in a single cell at the very back of the range was on older woman who had trouble walking and used a wheelchair. she had a lot of health problems and was easily upset, she didn't know why she was in jail and when she might get out, and was generally frail and needed a lot of help. there was a language barrier on top of everything (she was on immigration hold) so all in all she was having a difficult time. she cried a lot. it didn't help that many of the guards as well as some of the inmates were impatient with her "neediness" and didn't treat her very nicely or take her requests very seriously. perhaps that contributed to her fear that everyone had been evacuated and she'd been left behind. she pushed the emergency button but no guard came which no doubt helped convince her that she'd been abandoned.
[guards not responding to the emergency button is a common complaint around here. you'd think if we're dangerous enough to be on maximum security, and we're forcibly confined with equally dangerous people we don't know, that if an emergency button was hit every guard in the vicinity would come running. . .but no.]
so there she was: a frail, elderly woman in poor health, prone to anxiety and feeling generally uncared for, alone in a locked cell with tears streaming down her face, panicking and pushing the useless button over and over again. take a moment to imagine it: being completely dependent on people who treat you like shit: your life in the hands of people who couldn't care less about you; believing you are about to burn alive in a locked cell. consider where your mind could take you in a situation like that.
how awful it must have been for her.
and how easy it would have been for just one guard to come on the range and reassure everyone that there was nothing to worry about. how telling it is that no guard even thought of it. ~mandy hiscocks
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The “Unempowerable” Prisoner
By Nyki Kish
As easy as I claimed writing this blog is, experience is proving otherwise. I have not been able to successfully put pen to paper all month, except for what I have to do to trudge through school. Sometimes weeks, even months go by, and I have only stared at the wall and wondered how the wall can be so hard. I try to think and theorize and make sense of all this, but be being stuck in the middle of it, too often all that I can do is hold on and hope that I can hold on tight enough, and for long enough, to survive.
But I am worried for two other women more than I am for myself right now. They are aboriginal women and they are being severely failed by this system. I am seeing on the news a lot about the Ashley Smith inquest, and I am thinking of the cell in the unit where she died just a few feet away, and I am worried for these two women here now who are being treated just as Ashley was. Both have been labelled “unempowerable prisoners” by CSC. The women do not know this; I am only just learning about CSC’s “empowerable vs. unempowerable” prisoner rhetoric. Indeed, it is the premise which legitimized this ‘secure unit’. The Max: a unit that was never suppose to exists but does and is expanding because of the growing amount of imprisoned people who CSC say dot not fit the general population’s ‘rehabilitate-domesticate’ style. Max: for the “problem” prisoner, the “unempowerable” prisoner and, thanks to the politicization of imprisonment, the lifer.
The lifer must serve at least two years in the max to prove they have suffered the worse of the system. The “problem” prisoner must serve at least six months as a punishment for misbehaving in general population. But the prisoner who cannot adapt to the conditions in max becomes the “unempowerable” prisoner, and to these imprisoned people CSC says: there is no hope.
Stays in max may as well be indefinite.
Neither of the two women I am worried for are lifers. Like Ashely Smith, both have been in max or worse — on management protocol, CSC’s permanent segregation status -- for the majority of their sentences. One woman is approaching 15 years on what was originally a seven-year sentence, the other has been here for three years and was set to be released next summer, however an incident between her and staff last Monday will likely extend her sentence. Sentence extensions are quite commonplace, unfortunately. The woman on her fifteenth year had her sentenced extended once already this year and now has new charges, for destroying federal property, which will most likely extend it again. Since I have been here I have seen property damage charges extend two women’s sentences, and I have seen two women receive additional time after fights erupted. Others have pending charges.
Both women are diagnosed and identify as sufferers of mental illness, both take varying psychotropics and one is also on the narcotic methadone -- she actually quit methadone just days before Mondays incident. Suffice it to say, almost every woman labelled here as “unempowerable” will be heavily medicated, and medications are switched and adjusted frequently. However when incidents occur the women are held solely and completely responsible; attention is neither given to the nature of a woman’s mental illness(es), or to the medication they were on at the time of the incident. And the incidents happen and often. The women are living in a constant state of trauma. We all are, but it is far worse for them, as the trauma causes them to panic and lash out, to which CSC responds with force and segregation, which only heightens the trauma. This is permanent for them. The secure unit has three max pods and one segregation unit and CSC’s solution for the women is to constantly move them from pod to pod, to seg and back: each move being a response to an incident. As a side effect this results in all of us other women being constantly moved, double-bunked, and moved again to accommodate CSC’s response to the traumatized, “unempowerable” prisoners.
The Nature of the Incidents:
Prisoner on prisoner violence occurs in the max. However in the majority of the incidents which perpetuate the permanent confinement that effects these women who I have come to know as peers, it is the women lashing out against the prisons: not against us. We do not get to go outside in the day time, the pods are small and overcrowded, we lack adequate nutrition, and the amenities are often locked or broken, and this leaves us in a permanent state of stress. The women hit the walls, attempt to break the toilets and sinks, and generally try to destroy that which confines them. Or they attempt to destroy themselves. Late nights accompany loud screams as women, in such anguish and pain, lose control and try to hurt themselves to make the pain stop. But whatever the type of incident, the result is always several guards rushing the involved woman with helmets and bulletproof vests and riot shields, and all to often forceful contact between the guards and the woman is made.
During last Monday’s incident, a canister of what I assume was tear gas was thrown into the woman’s cell, and women in neighbouring cells were threatened to be charged by the guards when they attempted to protect their faces by lying underneath their blankets. Guards said these were attempts to “conceal their bodies” and did not offer any remedy for their burning skin and eyes.
The woman had first attempted to flood her cell, then attempted to hurt herself, then an inevitable conflict arouse when the guards responded. And while she, in track pants and a t-shirt did not harm any of the armoured guards, what happened could add years to her sentence when she is eventually taken to court; years in which the same violent cycle will continue, and in which more time will be added to her sentence. Where does it end?
Will these two women ever be released? What will be left of them if they ever are? I laugh with these women, try to comfort them and tell them there is hope. But as I write this and think of them both, one in segregation, one in the pod across from this one, I do not know that there is hope. Here is the place where Canada hides and abuses its most victimized and its mentally ill, and I will not except that we keep these cages standing to keep women indefinitely captive, women who need only our effort and support and community to heal.
I know that with love and support, both women could flourish. Both are kind, and both write so well that I get chills, and one makes art that could be hung in galleries. The other is a talented indigenous craft maker, her dream catchers really do keep the nightmares away. But both, like so many others, will likely never leave this system and I ask you -- how many must perish in women’s federal prisons before you demand change?