The story of Kinew James, an indigenous woman who died in a Canadian prison

It was a cold winter evening on January 20, 2013, and inside Saskatoon’s Regional Psychiatric Centre, many of the inmates were sleeping.

But one inmate, Kinew James, was moaning and shouting out for help.

She frantically pressed the distress button in her cell, pleading for assistance. Women housed next to her soon joined her calls for help.

This continued for an hour or more until Kinew grew quiet.

When help finally arrived, Kinew was unresponsive.

By early the next morning, she was declared dead.

Kinew James was just 35 years old and months from being released.

Indigenous women are Canada’s fastest growing prison population

According to Statistics Canada, just four per cent of Canada’s population is indigenous peoples. Yet indigenous peoples now account for 21.5 per cent of the country's prison population.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator, an ombudsman for federal offenders, warns that in the near future one-in-four inmates will be an indigenous person. Currently, Canada’s indigenous women are the fastest growing prison population and account for 31.9 per cent of all incarcerated females -- an 85.7 per cent increase over the last decade.

According to documents obtained through an access to information request, as of April 15, 2012, there were 196 federally sentenced indigenous women.

Access to information documents show that of the 196 indigenous, federally sentenced women, 18.3 per cent are designated as maximum security, 48.4 per cent are medium security and 19.9 per cent are designated as minimum security. No data was available for the remaining 13.3 per cent.

Inmate advocates and women’s organizations have argued sustained marginalization of indigenous women has created a crisis. Indigenous women are more likely to experience higher rates of violence and die due to violence than non-indigenous women. They also experience higher rates of spousal abuse and sexual assault. Experts see a clear link to the fact as children, many of these women went through the child-welfare system.

“When you’re dealing with aboriginal women, you’re dealing with huge traumatized lives,” said Tracy Booth, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba.

According to reports, Kinew had a “tragic upbringing,” eventually landing her in child protection services. She was sentenced when she was just 18 for charges that include assault, uttering threats, arson and manslaughter.

According to experts, indigenous women are often over-classified with Correction Service Canada’s Custody Rating Scale; a scale that determines where an inmate will be housed (minimum, medium or maximum security facilities) and how staff should interact with them. Security classifications can influence an inmates’ access to core programs, parole and re-entry into the community.

"Most classification tools are not taking into consideration socio-economic factors and historical context of aboriginal peoples and tend over classify aboriginal women," said Kelly Hannah-Moffat, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.

Life in segregation

The legislative framework that guides CSC's work is called the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA). According to section 31 of the CCRA, "administrative segregation" is used to maintain the security of the prison or safety of a person.

In 2011-2012, the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported 8,700 offenders were placed in segregation. That's 700 more than five years ago.

31 per cent of all segregation cases involve indigenous offenders, and access-to-information documents show as of April 15, 2012, there were four indigenous women in segregation.

Kinew James was no stranger to solitary confinement. In fact, she had spent more than 15 years in several prisons.

Janet Ritch was a close friend of Kinew’s for several years. The Toronto woman recalls asking Kinew what “seg” was like.

“She said she couldn’t talk about. It was too awful,” said Ritch.

According to Ritch, Kinew would find ways to sustain human contact.

“They had to get down to that slit in the door to speak through it," she said.

Administrative segregation is a polarizing topic. Prisoner advocates call it cruel and unusual punishment, but some prison staff argue there is no alternative.

“When you have high-risk, high-needs women offenders in our system, we technically have no place to put them other than administrative segregation,” said Jason Godin, the Ontario regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“The institution doesn’t know what to do with [them], so it resorts to what it does know, which is to separate and contain,” said Hannah-Moffat.

Although now rescinded, the Management Protocol program was operated by CSC to confine high-risk female offenders. The program allowed for prolonged and indefinite use of solitary confinement.

Before the program ended in spring 2011, a total of seven women were on Management Protocol and all were indigenous.

Kinew James was one of them.

Her sister Cheryl James, from Winnipeg, said she talked about how hard it was and how she could only get 30 minutes outside each day.

After shelving Management Protocol, CSC stated a new approach would be implemented and used for “high risk” women.

Documents obtained through access to information requests reveal CSC’s new approach involves two existing policies, including administrative segregation and a strategy called progress against correctional plan.

These two policies mean segregation is still used, but CSC is supposed to take a more individualized approach to each prisoner.

It’s not enough for Lisa Kerr, a lawyer and prison activist, who said the new approach doesn’t include time limits on solitary confinement or any sort of independent oversight.

“Management Protocol lacked those things woefully, and the current scheme, which is just an old scheme, also lacks those features,” said Kerr.

Marginalized outside, many indigenous women enter the prison system with a host of mental health needs that require services and programming, but many are put in segregation, where some begin self-harming.

In 2008-2009, it was reported 78.2 per cent of the total number of self-injury incidents were indigenous women.

Janet recalls seeing Kinew’s scars one day in the summer 2012.

“When she was in solitary she was doing it,” said Janet. “I saw all the scars up her forearm up to the elbow.”

Janet asked Kinew why.

“She was just afraid.”

When offenders self-injure it can not only influence their security classification, it can also limit their access to programs -- and human interaction.

High-risk and high-needs inmates may also face "use of force interventions" to manage their self-injurious behaviour.

That means prison staff, often in protective gear, physically prevent an inmate from harming themselves or place them into segregation.

In 2010-2011, there were a total of 814 use of force interventions, most in maximum security institutions. Of those 814 interventions, 28.4 per cent involved indigenous inmates.

If an inmate is harming themselves, physical restraints can sometimes be used, but the Office of the Correctional Investigator cautions it should only be as a last resort.

The most common method is the four-point or six-point Penal Restraint System (PRS), where an inmate is literally strapped to a table. In some cases, inmates are strapped to modified wheelchairs.

“Penal restraints are not new, in fact, they are used every day in psychiatric hospitals in Canada,” explained Godin.

Godin said officers apply the PRS based on the CSC’s National Training Standards. The PRS is carefully applied to avoid positional asphyxia or when used on pregnant inmates.

Additional physical restraints are applied toward high-risk, high-needs offenders and include locking wrist and ankle restraints, medical restraining devices (limb holders), straight jackets, medical restraining devices and restraining chairs.

“When there’s [an] use of force incident, usually officers are holding your hands and your legs, and sometimes they’ll sit on you and when you’re sat on, you can’t breathe,” explained Booth. “With First Nations people, we have a high rate of sexual assault, so that can be very triggering,”

Institutions also use chemical restraints, a serious concern for both Kim Pate, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and for the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

Kinew's family and friends said they had concerns about the medication she was given.

“I noticed a couple of times when she phoned me that she was really heavily drugged,” said Kinew's friend Janet.

Janet said Kinew had serious concerns about her diabetes medication upon arriving at RPC.

“She would panic on the weekend and ask for me to help her because there wasn’t medical staff that she could access on the weekend,” said Janet.

According to the Office of Correctional Investigator’s 2011-2012 annual report, indigenous offenders made 81 health-care related complaints during that time.

Institutional charges

When an inmate doesn’t follow prison rules and conditions, it can lead to an internal prison disciplinary process. But for serious offenses, CSC can involve police and charges may be laid, leading to longer sentences for inmates.

Many federally incarcerated indigenous women deemed high-risk or high-needs have incurred these “institutional charges.”

“When you’re non-compliant in a military system, you get institutional charges,” said Booth. “They need it to be explained. This is a military system, how military works is that you say, ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ and if you don’t do that, they have consequences.”

Kinew’s family wished more could have been done for her.

“I have a lot of questions. My sister was only supposed to be in jail for six years, but she picked up charges in jail and ended up being there for 15 years,” said Cheryl James.

It’s been reported Kinew committed several offences while in prison.

Her mother Grace Campbell wishes her daughter had opportunities to stay out of trouble while she was in prison, perhaps through some form of community service.

The following is the number of charges that ended in convictions against indigenous women offenders over a five-year period;

2008-2009: 586

2009-2010: 642

2010-2011: 653

2011-2012: 605

Total: 3012

Lisa Kerr said she wondered whether institutional charges were necessary in each of those cases and if Correctional Service Canada took all reasonable steps to resolve the matter informally.

Alternatives to warehousing indigenous women

Margo Rivera is with the department of psychiatry at Queen’s University and has done work in the prison system. She said she knows the system isn’t working for indigenous women, especially those deemed high-risk or high-needs.

“I think these people have a need, but within the context that they have now, which is segregation in the institution or general population or send them to a psychiatric centre, they don’t solve those problems,” said Rivera.

But at the end of the day the institutions are still prisons, said Hannah-Moffat.

“Healing is a process, and it’s one that goes through stages, such as anger. Expressing anger in prison is not all that welcomed,” said Hannah-Moffat.

Although the CCRA mandates inmates shall be sentenced close to their community, often women are serving their time far from family and loved ones.

Grace Campbell, who lives in Winnipeg, said visiting her daughter Kinew was difficult.

“I can’t afford to go anywhere,” said Grace.

Adding to the financial difficulty was the difficulty of raising two youth with FASD.

Recently, the Office of the Correctional Investigator tabled a report to Parliament, urgently addressing the disproportionate number of indigenous people in prison.

The report cites section 81 and 84 of the CCRA, which allows for transfer of an indigenous inmate to an indigenous community.

Pate said that isn't happening.

“It should be a placement for women to be diverted from the process. There should be options for women to be in community-based settings, definitely not corrections-run,” said Pate.

The report also said under section 29 of the CCRA, women with mental health issues should also be transferred out of prisons.

Booth said the problems begin long before these women ever step into a prison. She said many of the problems in prison have their roots in the child welfare system.

“Canada has to step up to the plate and start addressing children’s mental health in a good way because if not, we’re going to be spending $210,000 per year, per woman to be federally sentenced,” said Booth.

Officials from Correctional Service Canada said they are addressing the over-representation of indigenous women through a string of strategies, but it still may not be enough. CSC admits they're facing unprecedented challenges.

The federal government's new tough-on-crime legislation means even more indigenous women could end up incarcerated in the coming years.

“Unfortunately, I’m not very optimistic. I see many cases like Kinew James and many cases we don’t know about because we as outsiders have very little access to the institution itself,” said Hannah-Moffat.

“It wasn’t that long that she went in there,” said Grace Campbell, about her daughter's transfer from Ontario's Grand Valley Institute to Saskatoon's Regional Psychiatric Centre. “She was talking about it and then she told me that it wasn’t a good place for [her] and, ‘I wanted to go back to Kitchener.’”

When they spoke on the phone, Grace felt Kinew was trying to communicate something to her without actually saying it.

Listen to phone messages recorded the day Kinew James died »

Despite her suspicions, she went about readying herself for the summer, when her daughter would finally be home. Grace was going to make Kinew a jingle dress so it would be ready when she was released.

Now, Kinew’s death is the subject of a CSC investigation, one of eight such investigations of female inmates since 2008-2009.

Pate is not only concerned about the number of women who die in custody but also those who die in a hospital while in custody. She said far too many women are released only to die shortly after.

“That was my baby,” Grace said. “She was my daughter."

Keshebanodinnuke Kinew James was born on March 25, 1977 in Portage la Prairie, Man. The family took their new baby girl to an Ojibwe Elder who gave her that traditional name, which means eagle in the whirlwind.

No one can deny Kinew had problems that eventually landed her in prison.

Despite her past, Kinew’s family still remembers the young girl who enjoyed being around her friends and who could easily make people laugh. People close to her said Kinew was ready to reintegrate into society, and she confessed to one friend that she was tired of being anonymous.

And as tough as prison was, and despite mental health issues and a history of self-harm, Kinew had managed to get her high school diploma while incarcerated. She also looked forward to university when she got out.

Up until the day she died, Kinew would call her friend Janet from the Regional Psychiatric Centre on weekends, asking for help to reach her goals.

By: Martha Troian

Martha Troian is a multi-media/investigative journalist. This project was part of her graduate degree at the University of King's College.