CTV Investigates: Behind Prison Walls
Part 1: Questions raised over conditions inside Kitchener prison
Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for Women has been making headlines recently for the in-custody death of Ashley Smith in 2007.
But aside from the details pertinent to Smith’s death released at a public inquiry, little is known about what actually goes on inside the ominous-looking building on Homer Watson Boulevard.
“What happened to Ashley Smith is horrific, but it’s not as unusual as people would like to think,” says Ann Hansen, a former inmate.
Opened in 1997 as one of five facilities designed to replace the Kingston Prison for Women, Grand Valley was – and still is – the largest women’s prison in Canada.
It was originally designed to be different from its predecessor up the 401.
In the Kingston prison’s 66-year history, it was subject to 13 commissions and inquiries relating to its treatment of prisoners – a legacy Grand Valley was determined to avoid.
Rev. Con O’Mahony was at the prison the day it opened, a day he recalls as hopeful and reflective.
As both a volunteer chaplain and the man tasked with hiring the prison’s full-time chaplain, O’Mahony has made many return trips to the prison, and now says the hope and reflection have long since dissipated.
“Most residents of Kitchener-Waterloo, if they saw the current housing conditions in the institution, would be horrified,” he says.
Overcrowding is an issue broached repeatedly by those who have been inside the prison, either visiting one of the approximately 200 women housed there or behind bars themselves.
One of those women is Ann Hansen, who was sentenced to life in prison for her role in the “Squamish Five”, a group of B.C. activists who were responsible for multiple Canadian bombings in the 1980s.
She spent eight years at the Kingston Prison for Women, otherwise known as P4W, before being released on parole.
Parole breaches led her to two stints in Grand Valley, where she says the biggest difference was the Kitchener facility’s maximum security unit – something that had never been part of the Kingston prison.
“When you have a maximum security unit, it ends up that you have all the people who have sort of emotional and mental health issues also in the max security unit,” she tells CTV.
“Every pod you’ve got, out of five people, maybe two of them have very extreme emotional and mental health issues and aren’t really being treated.”
The warden of Grand Valley Institution for Women, which is run on an annual budget of $30 million of taxpayer money, refused repeated requests to allow CTV cameras inside the prison and to answer questions on camera.
Part 2: Maximum security inmates report 'tension' in Kitchener prison
Tucked inside the largest women’s prison in Canada is a series of hallways never seen by outsiders and dubbed “the prison within a prison” by the few who have lived within.
The maximum security unit at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for Women houses murderers, rapists, abductors and the rest of society’s most dangerous women.
Inmates placed in the unit are locked in their cells, monitored 24/7 and only allowed to leave the area – for visits, medical reasons or their one hour a day in the prison yard – if wearing shackles.
The cells, which contain nothing more than a bed, a toilet and a window, are often double-booked. There are currently 15 women housed in maximum security at Grand Valley, but the number regularly fluctuates.
“You’ve got all these people compressed into this little place with the guards watching constantly,” says Ann Hansen, one of the few women to have spent time there.
“It’s very difficult to describe the level of tension that goes on in there.”
Hansen was one of the “Squamish Five”, convicted of a string of politically motivated bombings.
She was handed a life sentence, but after spending eight years in the old Kingston Prison for Women, was released on parole.
When she breached the terms of the parole – by screening a political film at a library – she was arrested, shackled and taken to Grand Valley’s maximum security unit.
The former prisoner describes the unit as an ecosystem where guards are given ultimate power, irrespective of legality.
In one instance, she recalls an incident where a guard charged at an inmate.
“The guard thought one of the prisoners had swore at her using the F-word,” she says.
Everyone was ordered into their cells, but the situation quickly escalated to the point where an emergency response team was called in.
“I think there could have been many other ways for the situation to be de-escalated than calling the ERT and pepper spraying,” she says.
Other concerns are voiced by another inmate, who cannot be named. She and her sister were convicted of drugging and drowning their mother in a bathtub 10 years ago.
“I hesitate to complain about food because you’re not supposed to have luxuries while in prison, however I went anemic when I was in maximum security, which to me really shows there was a deficiency,” she tells CTV.
Another inmate, Nicole Kish, has been shedding light on what happens inside the maximum security unit through a blog her family is posting for her as Kish serves a life sentence for second-degree murder.
Kish calls the unit an “incubator of human suffering” where guards mock her for attempting to pursue an education while behind bars.
“Never does a week go by where I am not made fun of or condescended for attempting to take university-level courses, which I am neither financially nor structurally supported in doing,” she writes.
“I am what they consider a ‘low-maintenance prisoner’. ‘High-needs prisoners’ hear far worse from staff regularly. I have even heard staff tell women to commit suicide.”
Part 3: Kitchener prison's 'cottages' not immune to problems, former inmates say
Most inmates at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for Women never see the prison’s maximum security wing, but that doesn’t mean they’re particularly happy about the conditions in the rest of the facility.
Former inmates talk about easy access to drugs, overbearing guards and little of the mental health assistance many inmates desperately need.
Many of the 150 prisoners residing in minimum and medium security areas of the prison live in housing units known as “cottages”.
The cottages don’t have the bars or shackles of the maximum-security wing, but do come with their own problems – including overcrowding.
New units are being built to help deal with the problem, but currently, as many as 12 women can share one cottage.
Given the women have no say in their living conditions, says former prisoner Ann Hansen, issues are bound to crop out.
“You have a group of women living in a small area, and they didn’t choose to live together,” she tells CTV.
“You start having fights and problems.”
Another former inmate – “Petey”, who cannot be named as she was a teen when she and her sister were convicted of drugging and drowning their mother – says substance issues are a major problem at the prison.
According to Petey, drugs meant to sedate prisoners often become a source of addiction for prisoners that continues even after the sentence is served.
“They’re just dependent on these medications that they can’t afford once they’re out,” she says.
Other drugs, not prescribed nor allowed in the prison, are often smuggled in by guards or employees, Petey says.
But not all prisoners fall victim to substance abuse.
The prison provides rehabilitation programs for inmates, helping them upgrade their education or learn job skills in an area like a hair salon or Corcan, an on-site factory for linens and textiles.
In exchange for working at Corcan, inmates receive up to $6.90 per day, which they use to purchase phone time, food and stamps.
Purchasing food is especially necessary because sharing it with a fellow inmate is a chargeable offence.
“If someone from a neighbouring living unit or quote-unquote cottage doesn’t have a cup of flour and you give them a cup of flour, you get thrown into the hole or segregation,” says Petey.
That’s not the biggest problem at Grand Valley, Petey says – the biggest problem, in her estimation, is a lack of oversight.
“Canadians are told there is a complaint process in the prison, ‘If anything happens, all they need to do is fill out a form,’” she tells CTV.
“It’s bogus. The women are punished for filing grievances.”
While at Grand Valley, Petey says she filed a grievance against a guard to told her to “get (her) Indian shit out of here.”
She says the guard sent to deal with the grievance was the same one who Petey had filed the grievance against; the guard didn’t remember saying anything and the grievance was judged to have been “informally resolved.”
Amy Reier chairs the board of the Waterloo Region Elizabeth Fry Society. She’s represented many women charged with internal offences at the prison, and says she’s seen recent changes for the better in how the prison deals with internal infractions – but there’s still a way to go.
“You’re very much subjected to red tape, guard’s discretion,” she says.
Interview requests were sent to the Grand Valley Institution for Women and the union representing guards at the prison, but both organizations declined to be interviewed.
Part 4: Prisoners have few ways to stay in touch with families, outside world
It costs the federal government $211,000 per year – nearly $600 per day – to keep a woman in a prison like Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for Women.
To keep them in the community, in a halfway house, costs closer to $30,000 per year.
But the costs to the offenders are often immeasurable – in some cases, a stint in prison costs them their families.
“There’s a very, very high percentage of women in prison that have children. Many of those women have children while in custody,” says Amy Reier, chair of the Waterloo Region Elizabeth Fry Society.
Sometimes, children are able to live with their mothers in prison – but there’s not much of that happening these days at GVI.
“That’s something that’s not happening because of overcrowding,” says Reier.
Sometimes, as happened to Marie Pelletier’s daughters, children of prisoners are shuffled between family members.
In Pelletier’s case, her daughters were cared for by their father while their mother spent time in jail for assault.
But when family members aren’t willing to take care of the children of imprisoned relatives, they often end up in foster care – which is how Pelletier herself grew up.
An aboriginal Canadian, Pelletier says she was placed with a non-aboriginal family that wasn’t sensitive to her background.
“We had to grow up with a lot of bullying. My culture was taken from me,” she says.
Aboriginals make up nearly half of Grand Valley’s population. Studies show aboriginals are overrepresented in prison populations across the country.
Aboriginal support centre Healing of the Seven Generations runs healing circles every week in Kitchener. Inmates sometimes join in, escorted by a prison staff member.
Centre officials says the circles make a huge difference in allowing aboriginal inmates to reconnect with their culture.
But for the majority of aboriginal inmates at Grand Valley, home is somewhere other than southern Ontario, and their culture is something other than the Ontario-based traditions evident at Healing of the Seven Generations.
“When we talk about our own medicines and our own traditions, that’s not Saskatchewan Cree and that’s not Mi’kmaq Newfoundland. They’re missing their culture,” says program co-ordinator Rosie Chrisjohn-Weiler.
Chrisjohn-Weiler says she’s trying to launch a halfway house in Kitchener specifically for aboriginal women.
For prisoners of any background, having contact with the outside world is a challenge.
Nicole Kish, who is serving a life sentence for what was dubbed the “Panhandler Murder”, considers herself one of the luckier prisoners at Grand Valley, as her family is able to pay her visits twice a week – the most the prison allows.
“We stick together, and they know just because Nyki’s not with us on the outside doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stick with our family meetings,” Kish’s aunt, Wendy Green, tells CTV.
Still, family members note that the visits aren’t without their own heartbreak, including guards listening to the conversation and strip searches of Kish at the end of the visit.
For a while, Kish was able to communicate with the wider world by maintaining a blog. She would dictate entries word-for-word to her mother, who would post them online.
But the blogging stopped several months ago, with Kish telling CTV News through her mother that she faced a “backlash” from prison staff.
“Every time we speak out, every time we ask for answers, Nyki pays the price,” says Christine Lews-Bivens, Kish’s mother.
Blogging can lead to backlash, visits require visitors and phone calls cost money – which leaves letter writing as the only option for many women to stay in touch with those outside Grand Valley’s walls.
Part 5: Programs inside GVI an aid for rehabilitation, so why are they being cut?
From her own account, Missie Poirier has not had an easy life.
“At an early age I started using drugs and abusing drugs, which went on and on and led to me selling drugs”, recalls Poirier.
Those actions got her arrested. In 2007, she began a three year sentence at Grand Valley Institution.
Poirier participated in programs at the prison run by the Correctional Service of Canada. She says the best program is one called Stride Night, run by the Community Justice Initiatives. “It’s a choice and when you go there, you kind of lose all that freedom.”
Stride Night has been a weekly activity at GVI for more than 15 years. Essentially, inmates pair with each other and volunteers in any number of activities; be they sports, arts or crafts.
Julie Thompson, the Director of Programs for Community Justice Initiatives, says Stride Night isn’t a series of make-work projects, rather an opportunity to form bonds with others. “Those relationships can then form into a circle and support women as they go back into the community.”
For Poirier, her friendships helped her navigate housing and Children’s Aid issues, while also providing sounding boards for advice on finding a home for her two older children. “I used to look at these volunteers like they’re mad scientists,coming in to see what we're all about… but once you start going and the same women keep coming in every week it shows you that people do care.”
Women like Cindy MacRae, who has been volunteering with Stride Night for more than two years. “It’s just a real privilege to be able to walk along with these women at this time in their life and it’s very rewarding.”
The Elizabeth Fry Society also contributes through programming aimed at helping inmates acquire various forms of identification, social insurance cards and health cards. Board Chair for the Elizabeth Fry society Amy Reier says getting inmates reconnected to society can often be a long, drawn out process. “It’s not necessarily something that the institution can accommodate or does in any expedient manner.”
GVI does, of course, run much of its own programming. One that has been very successful is chaplaincy. There were two and a half staff chaplain positions here until this week, but cuts to funding slashed the program down to just one full-time position.
“It’s impossible. It’s asking for the impossible”, says Con O’Mahony, pastor of St. Michael’s Church. Father O’Mahony’s parish holds the contract for the Roman Catholic chaplain. That chaplain lost his job. O’Mahony and members of Interfaith Grand River say there’s no way one person can help up to 200 women. “Not enough staff time to have men and women coming in and out of the prison for worship services, for activities, things where the women get to come out of the prison and go back in”, says Brice Balmer, a member of Interfaith Grand River’s steering committee.
Simply put, Balmer says inmates need better services if they’re going to rehabilitate. “The women have a chance to see what’s happening in the outside world.”
The Mennonite Central Committee is trying to keep the half-time chaplain working through alternate funding methods. MCC Ontario’s Program Director, Wendy Adema, says 80% to 90% of women working with the MCC don’t end up back behind bars. “[We] get to know them when they're in the institution. Get a sense of who they are. What their needs are. What their desires are for when they return to community.”
Former inmate Missie Poirier can’t believe the chaplain’s role is being reduced. Now remarried, with her own house and the proud mother of a toddler, she says the chaplain is one of the few people most inmates can talk to and trust. “They're taking away your church. Whether you're in prison or whether you're in the community, I think that would infringe on people's rights.”