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Another Young Woman Has Died Suddenly Behind Bars — This Time in Canada

The death of Camille Strickland-Murphy, in a Nova Scotia prison, is the latest case that is raising urgent questions about why women are dying behind bars.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jul 31 2015, 9:20pm

Photo of Camille Strickland-Murphy by the CBC.

Four months ago, Camille Strickland-Murphy stuffed paper down her pant legs and set them on fire while incarcerated in Nova Scotia. Prison guards were able to tamp down the flames, but not before the inmate suffered second degree burns.

The 22-year-old's case had already attracted headlines on Canada's east coast by then.

She was first locked up after robbing a woman at knifepoint in 2012. She later asked for a longer sentence so she could access the federal system's higher quality mental health programs. When she was released, she was convicted of another hold up, this time at a drugstore.

This week, Strickland-Murphy died after she was found unresponsive in her cell. It's unclear whether her burns months ago had anything to do with her death and the results of her autopsy have not yet been released.

Her story is the latest in a string of deaths on both sides of the Canada-US border that are raising urgent questions about why women are dying in custody.

Earlier this month, a Canadian woman was found unresponsive in an Alberta holding cell. She later died in hospital. And in the US, at least five black women have died behind bars this month alone, Think Progress reported. The most high-profile among them was 28-year-old Sandra Bland.

Strickland-Murphy's death has prompted officials in her home province of Newfoundland to call for an overhaul of the justice system.

"There were incidents prior where Camille was clearly crying out for help and she didn't receive it," her friend Christa Fisher told CBC.

For those who work with female prisoners, and advocate on their behalf, the deaths — whatever the cause — are an indication of a broken system that lacks oversight on both sides of the border. Too often, experts say, women with mental health issues are dying behind bars.

Related: Sandra Bland 'Previously Attempted Suicide,' Jail Documents Littered With Discrepancies Say

According to the University of  British Columbia, the suicide rate for Canadian inmates is significantly higher than in the general population.

In the decade between 1999 and 2008, 533 federal inmates in Canada and 376 provincial inmates died in custody. Suicides in this time period made up almost 19 percent of federal inmates' deaths, and nearly 40 percent of provincial inmate deaths.

The suicide rate for the non-incarcerated Canadian population is about 10 suicides per 100,000 people.

In the 2007/2008 year, about 30 percent of female inmates compared to 14.5 percent of male inmates had previously been hospitalized for mental health issues, according to the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Earlier this month, a 35-year-old Alberta woman died in police custody. Police said she was involved in a domestic violence case, though it was unclear exactly how. Her name has not yet been released.

Bland's name and story, on the other hand, has made headlines around the world. She was found dead in a Texas holding cell on July 13. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her family questioned whether that was really the case. A new video released Wednesday to counter conspiracy theories shows she was alive during her booking. Her story has prompted a Texas House of Representatives committee to investigate the conditions that led to her death.

In another case that has garnered far less attention than Bland's, a 24-year-old indigenous woman died earlier this month. Sarah Lee Circle Bear was found unresponsive in her South Dakota jail cell and later died in hospital on July 6. According to Indian Country Today, prison staff told the woman to "knock it off" and "quit faking" when she called for help.

Related: This Lawsuit Claims Canada Has Been Abusing Mentally Ill Prisoners

Meanwhile, Strickland-Murphy is the second woman this year to die at the Nova Scotia institution. Veronica Park, 38, died in April after complaining of a sore throat and chest pain. Her family is still looking for answers in her case.

"It's tragic and infuriating to see so many women dying in what is referred to as 'the justice system.'" Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, told VICE News. "They're symptomatic of a bigger problem."

She worked tirelessly on the case of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old who strangled herself while on suicide watch at an Ontario jail in 2007. The coroner's inquest into Smith's death ruled it was a homicide because Smith didn't intend to kill herself, but staff failed to intervene.

A few months ago, Pate was perched at another young woman's bedside after the inmate nearly succeeded in killing herself. At the time, doctors didn't think the woman would make it, but she eventually pulled through, Pate told VICE News on Thursday.

While suicides and deaths of women in jail are often perceived as the fault of the woman, Pate said it's important to look at the role the prison environment plays in those deaths. Isolation, in particular, can lead to an increase in inmates' feelings of desperation, she explained. Inadequate staffing, poor oversight and lack of access to systems of support can also lead to increased deaths in jail, she explained.

The bottom line is, jails are now holding centers for people with mental health issues, she told VICE News.

"We should not be pretending that prisons are a substitute for shelters for battered women, for treatment centers, for accommodation for people who are homeless, or a substitute for supports for people who have been victimized or have other types of addiction or mental health issues, and increasingly it's always been the most vulnerable who are easiest to detect and detain and incarcerate."

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont