Young Women Keep Killing Themselves in Canada’s Jails
Now the families of two women who died are suing the government
Last summer, 22-year-old Camille Strickland-Murphy died face-down in her jail cell with a sweatshirt and plastic bag over her head and a shoelace around her neck.
Her jailer, Corrections Service Canada (CSC), knew she had attempted suicide a week earlier, and was aware of her history of similar suicide attempts and self-harm, including once setting herself on fire—but still they classified her as a low-risk for suicide, her family alleges in a recently launched lawsuit.
Camille is one of four women since 2007 who died in Canada's federal prisons in what their families and prisoners' advocates believe were preventable deaths.
Terry Baker is the most recent woman to kill herself in a federal jail. The 30-year-old woman hung herself in solitary confinement in an Ontario jail on July 4, prompting calls for the prime minister to act immediately to stop additional deaths.
Baker died in the same segregation unit as another woman, Ashley Smith, by the same means.
In 2007, the death of 19-year-old Smith, who strangled herself in solitary confinement while guards watched, placed a spotlight on how Canada treats the mentally ill in jail, prompting an inquest that recommended more than 100 reforms and ruled her death a homicide.
It's an eerily similar pattern that prisoners' advocates say "screams out for investigation": young women with mental health issues are abusing drugs and killing themselves—and the CSC isn't doing enough to help them, their families and advocates say.
That's what prompted Strickland-Murphy's family, and the family of Veronica Park — who died three months before Strickland-Murphy at the same jail — to sue the CSC for negligence. They also want the federal government to declare the prisons violated the women's constitutional rights.
Read More: What It Is Really Like in Canadian Prison
The lawsuits come at a time of increasing scrutiny on the federal prison system, which was slammed last week for its lack of compassion toward families of inmates who die. In some cases, CSC will courier the ashes of the prisoner to their next of kin without notifying them first that their family member has died, according to a report from the prison watchdog.
The lawsuits also come as more women than ever before are being jailed in Canada. Though Canadian crime rates have reached a 30-year low, the number of women sentenced to hard time in federal jails has shot up by 40 percent in the last five years. And it's even higher for Indigenous women, whose numbers have increased by 85 percent in the last decade.
Citing privacy and ongoing litigation, a CSC spokesperson refused to comment or give details about the deaths of the two women in Nova Scotia.
"I can tell you that we take the death of an inmate very seriously," the spokesperson told VICE News. "As in all cases where an individual dies while in federal custody, the police were called in to investigate." Each case is investigated and analyzed, he said, and the CSC does "all we can" to prevent future deaths, including reinforcing to staff "the importance of preventing deaths in custody."
Details of prisoners' deaths rarely reach the public eye. The events outlined in the two suits paint a disturbing picture of how a Nova Scotia jail allegedly exacerbated existing mental health issues in the two young women—leading to their deaths.
The details below are from the statements of claim from their families. CSC has not yet filed a statement of defense, so it's not yet possible to know their side of the story.
Veronica, a 38-year-old Aboriginal woman from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, was a member of Canada's fastest-growing prison population: Aboriginal women.
After growing up in a tight-knit family of 12 siblings, she was in a series of traumatic relationships in which her partners sexually and physically abused her. As a result, she developed mental health issues, and used drugs to cope.
Following a string of criminal convictions for theft, mischief and assault dating back to 2001, Veronica began her time at the Nova Institution for Women on August 14, 2014. She was serving a three-year sentence for mugging an 82-year-old woman who was walking home from playing the slots at her birthday party in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Park pushed her to the ground and stole her winnings. At her sentencing, Park apologized to the victim, who was also Aboriginal, saying she was desperate and had no money.
Although her family insists Veronica wasn't a risk to the public, she was classified as a medium security prisoner. The statement of claim says this is consistent with the over-classification of Aboriginal women as higher security risks, and alleges CSC imposed "harsher discipline on Veronica than accorded to other prisoners of European or Caucasian descent for the same or comparable misconduct."
Although CSC says it assesses inmates for mental health issues upon entry, her family alleges the jail didn't immediately assess her mental health or give her treatment. Instead they used solitary confinement and discipline to respond to her mental health issues. She was placed in solitary on three different occasions in 2014 and 2015.
Veronica bartered for pills and medication in the internal prison trade as a way to cope with mental illness and separation from her 20-year-old son. She crushed the pills and inhaled them, which, according to the lawsuit, lowered her immunity and weakened her lungs.
Eventually she was treated by a psychologist who prescribed anti-depressants, and began taking methadone, which stabilized her condition.
But in April 2015, her jailer denied her a visit from her son, which "aggravated Veronica's deepening depression and created in her feelings of despair and hopelessness," the claim states.
On April 21, according to documents obtained by her family, she was transferred to the jail's mental health unit. Two days later, she complained of a sore throat, cough and body aches, but a nurse in the health centre said her vital signs were normal and her chest was clear. She was told to return if her symptoms became worse.
Less than four hours later, Veronica returned, complaining she was having a hard time breathing. A second nurse said her vital signs were normal and her lungs were clear, but gave her a puffer and sent her back to her cell.
The next morning, staff found the woman in her room "gasping for breath." Her lips and face were white. "She was incoherent and unable to stand or sit," the claim states.
At 9:30 am she was taken to the ER at a nearby hospital where she was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia. ER staff gave her antibiotics and put her on a ventilator—but at 4:18 pm on April 24, Veronica died.
The cause of death was acute necrotizing bronchopneumonia, a type of pneumonia, which is inflammation of the lungs caused by an infection. She also tested positive for MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a bacteria that's hard to treat because it's resistant to many antibiotics. In a post-mortem, the medical examiner said chronic substance abuse contributed to her death.
Her family believes CSC could have prevented her death if they had diagnosed her early and properly, provided her with critical health care, and if they had not aggravated her mental health condition by segregating her and denying her a visit from her son.
Camille died three months after Veronica.
Also from Newfoundland, in the provincial capital St. John's, Camille grew up in a close, loving family who remember her as a girl who loved to run, skateboard, ski and sail.
As a teenager, she was diagnosed with a long list of mental health conditions, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), ADHD, panic disorder and social anxiety. Similarly to Veronica, she used drugs to cope with her mental illnesses.
At 19, she was sentenced to federal prison—given a two-years for theft over $5,000 and armed robbery.
Her jailer soon became well aware of her mental health issues.
During her first sentence, she attempted suicide twice, her family says. Throughout her time in jail, her self-harm and suicide attempts would include banging her head repeatedly, strangling herself in her cell, and, once, setting herself on fire.
She was also attacked twice in prison by unidentified people. In the first assault in July 2012, her head hit a wall and she was knocked out. After the second assault in February 2013, in which staff found her convulsing on the floor, she was diagnosed with minor head trauma, which served to aggravate her already severe mental health condition.
Her ongoing symptoms included seizures, fainting, loss of consciousness, headaches, dizziness and nausea, which led officials to hospitalize her on seven occasions through 2012-13. According to the lawsuit, her symptoms went untreated and undiagnosed for more than six months. Finally, she was diagnosed with chronic non-communicating moderate hydrocephalus, which means the fluid around her brain that normally acts as a cushion was accumulating and compressing her brain, causing convulsions and pain, and contributing to her mental health issues.
She was sent to solitary for four days following the second assault — one of five separate occasions between 2012 and 2014 that she was placed in isolation for periods of one to seven days. The federal prison watchdog has demanded that no one with a diagnosed mental illness be placed in these conditions, calling it a "dangerous" strategy — but it still happens.
Normally, segregated prisoners are kept in a small five-metre-by-six-metre cell with bare walls for 23 hours a day, with one hour of "exercise" a day, usually in a cement yard with 10-foot walls topped with barbed wire.
In the solitary cell, there's a steel-frame bed that doesn't always have a mattress. A nurse and guards observe the inmate through a small window in the door, and food arrives through a small slot. A camera in the corner watches the prisoner. The lights are on all day and night. The UN has declared more than 15 days in solitary a form of torture.
"Despite Camille's complex mental health and neurological care needs, CSC failed to fulfill their obligations to provide any or adequate psychological intervention, treatment or assistance to Camille," the lawsuit states. "Instead CSC used segregation as a means of controlling and disciplining Camille for her behaviour."
Not long after she was released from jail, Camille was convicted of armed robbery again and of breaching her probation in November 2014. A court sent her back inside, for about 30 months.
Her mental health issues and chronic symptoms from the head injury continued. CSC knew this, Camille's family says, but her jailer provided her only "limited psychological treatment" initially. As a result, her family believes she turned to self-injury to cope with her pain.
On February 10, 2015, staff found her in a pool of blood with cuts on her neck and under her eyes after she took a razor blade to her own face.
CSC transferred her to the mental health unit. Not long after, on March 22, she set her room as well as her own leg on fire.
After the incident, CSC reclassified her as maximum security and put her in solitary where her family says she was "denied the ability to follow her correctional treatment plan."
In May, following the death of her friend in jail, Camille's OCD ramped up and she constantly washed her hands, making her skin raw. The claim does not say whether the friend who died was Veronica.
Her self-harming behaviour escalated, and on July 20, 2015—a week before her death—Camille hung herself in her cell. Staff found her unconscious, and she was rushed to hospital, where she was diagnosed as suicidal.
Despite this diagnosis, her family says, "CSC concluded that Camille was a moderate risk for self-injury and a low risk for suicide."
Back at Nova, she was placed in "clinical seclusion" with mental health monitoring and checks every 15 minutes. Staff refused to give her any personal items from her cell.
Over the next week, the frequency of mental health checks decreased, and she was returned to her cell.
On July 28, 2015, staff found her face-down on the floor of her cell, unresponsive, with a plastic bag and sweatshirt over her face and a shoelace around her neck.
Staff performed CPR, but it was too late. She was pronounced dead at 7:04 pm. The cause of death was asphyxia by suicide.
CSC says it has taken "significant action" since Ashley Smith's death, both in operational and policy issues that it identified in internal investigations and independent reviews.
It has updated its Mental Health Strategy to improve care, and says timely interventions are a "corporate policy." In 2014-15, it spent $85 million on mental health services "to meet the needs of the offender population."
When they enter jail, inmates are screened for mental health issues. This happened to 93 percent of new inmates in 2015-16, CSC says. Once the inmate is living in the jail, there are three levels of mental health care available, depending on the needs and consent of the prisoner.
The federal prison regulator says it is continuing its work in tracking and reporting on issues in its jails.
But not enough has changed since Smith's death, according to an advocate who has raised the alarm on systemic issues within Canada's prison system. According to a report by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, CSC's response to the inquest into Smith's death "failed to address the recommendations; and notably, amounted only to a promise to contract two treatment beds and examine the possibility of other contracts with provincial/territorial health departments."
Kim Pate, the executive director of the CAEFS, says the issue of women dying in jails"screams out for investigation."
"Unfortunately, too frequently this happens, and when it happens there are few answers [provided] to families, too few answers."
Although the number of suicides in Canada's federal jails are generally on a downward trend, suicide rates in these prisons are still seven times higher than the general population, according to a 2013-14 report by Canada's prison watchdog — and 22 percent of prisoners who committed suicide did so in solitary confinement. And according to the watchdog's report, although CSC policy does not permit the use of solitary to manage suicide risk—solitary is frequently used in this way.
Prisons are security-driven, not therapeutic, and so are inherently bad for people who are mentally ill, explains Howard Sapers, the federal prison watchdog.
The CSC has made changes since Smith's death, Sapers said, including policy changes around the treatment of mentally ill women, and new protocols for responding to mental health needs, and new policy changes for the use of segregation—and should be given credit for these positive changes, he said.
"But the bottom line, however, is that women too often are still held in segregation, women too often are still held in maximum security, the overrepresentation of Indigenous women is more pronounced than it is for men—a third of all women in federal custody are of Indigenous heritage, and the higher the security level, the more likely you are to find an Indigenous woman," Sapers added.
Federal prisons can be overcrowded, chaotic, and lack psychiatric support, he said. And there is still only one single national resource for significantly mentally ill women—and it's inside a men's prison in Saskatoon.
Women experience prison differently than men, as female prisoners are much more likely to enter jail with a previous history of sexual or physical abuse, and are more likely to feel anxiety or stress due to separation from their children, as they are more often the primary caregivers.
"There's still much to be done in terms of adequately meeting the needs of these women once they're in federal care," Sapers said.
In most cases, mental health issues are not recognized as such because "the behaviour is most often seen through the lens of criminality," Pate explains. As a result they're seen as trouble-makers, and punished with solitary or other disciplinary measures.
"In all cases, they appear to be preventable deaths. One of the challenges is, because we can't get information about what happened, it's challenging to identify exactly what occurred and whether it was, in fact, preventable."
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