Along a busy street in Kitchener, tucked between a local history museum and a former auto parts plant, sits the only federal prison for women in Ontario.

Grand Valley Institution for Women opened in 1997. It wasn’t without controversy. For years, dating back to when the eventual site for the institution was revealed, concerns were expressed about why it was being placed so close to residential neighbourhoods, and why it was being placed in Kitchener at all.

In the two decades since, though, whatever fears may have existed before the prison opened have not come to pass. There have been no escapes. There is little interaction between GVI, as it’s known, and the outside world. Even people who live nearby rarely give the prison’s presence a second thought.

“It’s not a prison full of bad people, and it’s not a prison where people are going to forever,” says Nyki Kish, who has been incarcerated at Grand Valley since 2011.

“It’s, for most people, a short period of time you’re coming here -- and then you’re going back into the community.”

CTV News has spent several years trying to get inside the prison. This summer, in advance of the facility’s 20th anniversary, reporter Abigail Bimman was allowed in for an exclusive look. It was the subject of a feature series you can watch by clicking here.

She saw the places where inmates live, work and learn, talked to them about their experiences, and asked the prison’s wardens about some of GVI’s more controversial practices.

Grand Valley Institution for Women

At the time of the tour, Grand Valley had 168 inmates and 208 staff members. The majority of inmates were serving sentences of four years or less. (To be sent to a federal prison like GVI, you must receive a sentence of at least two years.) Thirty-five were serving life sentences.

Depending on their behaviour while in custody, prisoners can be classified as in maximum security, medium security or minimum security.

Maximum-security inmates are housed in GVI’s secure unit, along with prisoners who are under administrative segregation.

Otherwise known as solitary confinement, administrative segregation is a controversial form of temporary punishment.

Inmates in segregation have their own showers and their own exercise yard, although they’re not allowed to use those facilities without a guard escorting them.

Unlike maximum security inmates, who live in five-cell “pods” and may interact with the other women in their pod, prisoners in segregation are kept apart from all other inmates.

Click here for a photographic tour of the Grand Valley Institution for Women

Women in maximum security -- there were 13 of them when we visited -- are allowed outside for one hour of exercise each weekday, and two hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Having that little stimulation, prisoners say, can be mentally taxing and lead to fights between inmates.

All other prisoners are expected to be moving about the facility for most of the day, attending work, school classes, and programs from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.

After that, outside groups like Community Justice Initiatives and the Mennonite Central Committee arrive with programming focused on social reintegration. At 9:30 p.m., an alarm system is activated to ensure all inmates are back in their living quarters. (That’s also when knives, which many prisoners are allowed to use in their kitchens, are locked up.)

Each woman has a personalized correctional plan, which details their risks, their needs and their expected levels of participation in those activities. A prisoner who lives up to those expectations is more likely to be approved for parole than one who seems less interested in participating in the community.

Grand Valley’s wardens say they’ve been increasing their focus on preparing women so they can be ready to leave the prison -- and are seeing that approach pay off.

Warden Liz Vitek says GVI inmates are being granted parole more often than in the past, and typically earlier in their sentences than before.

Here, she explains why she calls that a “good news story” for both the prison and the wider community:

When Grand Valley opened in 1997, it was an experiment in more ways than one.

There was the geographical element. For decades, the Prison for Women in Kingston had been the only federal prison for women in Canada. GVI was part of a new wave -- a series of five facilities in different parts of the country.

More intriguing than the location, though, was that all five new prisons were designed to be different from what had come before. Less hostile toward their inmates. More respectful of them.

One of the most visible signs of this new concept was along the edges of the property, where a three-foot white picket fence was installed in place of the more typical barbed wire.

Eight of Grand Valley’s bedrooms were specifically designed for women with children. Most inmates were given what are now referred to as “cottages” -- detached buildings in the prison’s yard, where they were responsible for making their own food and keeping the property tidy.

GVI cottage

In other words, it was a very different atmosphere than the dark cells of the Prison for Women. (Another example: It was several years before Grand Valley had any maximum-security space at all.)

It’s worth noting that this notion of a more rehabilitative environment received its share of criticism. When the Correctional Service of Canada asked Kitchener residents for their thoughts on Grand Valley, before it opened, a common refrain was that they didn’t see how a “country club” atmosphere would discourage people from committing crimes.

Still, a few years later, when a reporter from a Kingston newspaper asked a recently-transferred inmate to compare the two facilities, the inmate replied that she preferred the Prison for Women.

It wasn’t the living quarters she took issue, with, she said. It was a lack of vocational training and educational programming.

“There’s nothing to do here [except] wash floors and cut grass,” she told the newspaper.

Nearly two decades later, the activity calendar has evolved -- but the sentiment hasn’t really changed.

“There’s only so much that you can do in here, and then it becomes idle time,” says Kish. Six years into her sentence, she’s experienced plenty of that idle time for herself.

GVI rec yard

In prison, most inmates are paid $5.80 per day. Prisoners can earn higher rates, although it tops out at $6.90 per day, and the scale hasn’t changed since the 1980s.

There’s even a miniature manufacturing sector, as inmate-produced jackets are used by federal agencies like the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Other inmates may get paid for groundskeeping, tutoring, or even babysitting.

Grand Valley’s mother-child program, heavily touted before the prison opened, has only ever operated in fits and starts. It was most recently resurrected in 2016. Four prisoners now have children with them full-time. If those women are taking classes or otherwise apart from their children, another inmate must act as the child’s caregiver.

Whatever money inmates earn, about a third of it goes right back to the Correctional Service of Canada for room and board. More is put toward mandatory expenses like cable fees and an internal welfare program.

Inmate Shay Field says inmates are typically left with about $15 per week after doling out all the mandatory expenses.

While prisoners are able to purchase clothing, snack food and other items, they are typically only available at prices significantly inflated from real-world costs. The result, Field says, is that inmates need to rely on friends and relatives if they want to have anything beyond the bare minimum.

When you’re in prison, though, keeping up relationships with people in the outside world can be difficult.

There are the practical obstacles – strict visiting hours, friends and relatives who live far away, and a complete lack of internet access. There are also less obvious issues that can complicate those relationships. Visitors might leave prisoners with unwelcome feelings about what they’re missing, for example, or might simply not be able to relate to life behind bars.

For some inmates, the solution is to build new friendships with other people in the same situation.

Shay Field and Nyki Kish

Nyki Kish was convicted of murdering Ross Hammond in downtown Toronto. Hammond had been stabbed repeatedly after running into a group of panhandlers. Kish has long maintained that she is innocent. An appeal court disagreed, upholding her second-degree murder conviction in 2014.

Kish’s stay at GVI began in 2011, in the maximum security wing.

For two years, she says, she saw little evidence of the more fulsome, rehabilitation-oriented approach Grand Valley was supposed to provide.

“The first guards and women who I interacted with gave me the impression that the prison system is a place where you were supposed to be harmed and punished and made to feel bad about yourself,” she says.

In 2013, Kish was moved to medium security. For the first time since her stay at Grand Valley began, she was able to spend more than an hour a day out of her cell.

When thinking about the transition from maximum security to medium security, Kish says one of the biggest changes was that she found her fellow inmates to be much more supportive -- particularly one inmate, Shay Field.

Field, who now identifies as male, has been in and out of prisons since he was young. He’s currently serving a six-year sentence for robbery. He says he committed his crimes because he needed money to feed his drug addiction.

Field found the same support in Kish that Kish found in him. Here’s their story of how they met:

Kish and Field now call themselves partners. They feel they’re starting to be accepted by the prison community, although getting to that point required a long journey down a difficult road. Each of them were punished for refusing to stay apart from the other – Field with fines and extra time in segregation and maximum security, and Kish with two years in medium security.

They hope their experience will make it easy for other inmates to reveal relationships of their own. They’ve started an LGBTQ support group at the prison, overcoming internal barriers and resistance from prison staff.

Click here for an in-depth look at the experienced faced by transgender inmates like Field

Prison officials say they changed their inmate handbook earlier this year to no longer explicitly prohibit intimate relationships between female inmates. They say factors of “risk and need” are now used in determining whether to permit such relationships.

Cathy makes a jacket

Indigenous Canadians make up less than three per cent of Ontario’s population. At Grand Valley, they make up about twenty per cent of the inmate population.

It’s a fact prison administrators are well aware of, and one they’ve tried to address through specialized programming.

Pathways, which is designed for Indigenous women and others interested in following that path, is one such program. (It’s also the name of the cottage where those women live.)

The woman pictured above, an inmate who asked that she only be identified as Cathy, says many inmates are skeptical about Pathways until they try the program for themselves.

“This isn’t just something to take for granted,” she says.

“It works if you want it to work.”

Warden Liz Vitek describes Pathways as “our aboriginal intensive healing program.” It includes elder-led sharing circles, smudging ceremonies and other activities designed to reconnect inmates with their Indigenous roots.

“This is really important for us,” says Vitek.

“We feel that it’s these sorts of programs that ultimately better prepare our indigenous population for release into the community.”

Here’s Vitek giving a tour of the area outside the Pathways cottage:

To be accepted into the program, an inmate must have a record of good behaviour and must undergo what Vitek describes as a “rigorous” assessment.

“Once the women are in Pathways, they are expected to be very much engaged in their aboriginal journey,” she says.

Pathways is considered something of a luxury by many inmates. The vast majority of GVI prisoners, including Indigenous ones, will never be part of it.

Ashley Smith

In its 20 years of operation, Grand Valley has been home to some of Canada’s most notorious criminals.

Elizabeth Wettlaufer, who killed eight seniors by giving them lethal doses of insulin while working as a nurse, is in custody there. So is Terri-Lynne McClintic, who is serving a life sentence for her role in the murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford.

But if you ask someone to name an inmate at Grand Valley, the first name that comes to mind for many people is that of Ashley Smith.

Unlike some of GVI’s more infamous inmates, Smith was no murderer. She was arrested several times as a teenager, for crimes ranging from harassment to assault.

In-custody incidents led to her being transferred between prisons regularly and kept in segregation for long periods of time.

By Oct. 19, 2007, Smith was 19 years old and on suicide watch at Grand Valley.

She choked herself with a strip of cloth as guards watched on from outside her segregation cell, videotaping the incident but under orders not to intervene as long as she was breathing. By the time they moved in, she was dead.

Charges of criminal negligence causing death were laid against multiple guards and a Grand Valley supervisor. In the end, all of the charges were dropped.

Following a 107-day inquest, a coroner’s jury deemed Smith's death to be a homicide. They issued 104 recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths.

The recommendations included redirecting female inmates with serious mental health issues to specialized facilities, bringing an end to indefinite segregation, and that the prison system work toward phasing out all use of restraints.

In 2016, while the Correctional Service of Canada was mulling over those recommendations, GVI inmate Terry Baker strangled herself to death in a segregation cell.

Grand Valley’s wardens call segregation an “important tool,” but acknowledge that it’s not always the best tool for the job -- particularly when dealing with inmates with mental health concerns.

Statistics show that the majority of female prisoners in Canada have been identified as dealing with some sort of mental health issue.

Here, deputy warden Angie Legacy talks about how Grand Valley has changed its approach to treating those inmates:

The attempt to be more aware of mental health issues is just one part of what inmates and prison staff alike describe as a brighter atmosphere around the prison over the past year or two. Another is that segregation is being used less. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, there were 49 admissions to administrative segregation – a decrease of more than 50 per cent from each of the previous two years.

Everyone at GVI seems to think the change in federal government, with Liberals ending nearly a decade of Conservative tough-on-crime measures, is responsible for the shift.

Kish suggests the change in government has filtered down through the government to prison administrators, allowing them to do things they wouldn’t have suggested in the past.

“People who didn’t want to cause harm or use the system as a source of punishment … are trying to make things better and repair the damage that was done,” she says.

Vitek agrees that there have been positive changes, aimed at making Grand Valley a “fair, humane place” – something more in tune with its original mission.

In one prominent way, though, Grand Valley will never return to its kinder, gentler roots. The white picket fence that attracted so much attention when the prison opened is long gone. In its place stands eight feet of chain-link fencing, topped off by barbed wire.

With reporting by Abigail Bimman