Poor treatment of Indigenous women and inmates with mental illness is behind the growing tension at the Edmonton Institution for Women, prisoner advocates say.

The prison has reached a breaking point, warns the local Elizabeth Fry Society after touring the facility in northwest Edmonton last week.

The same day in Ottawa, Sen. Elizabeth Pate attended a presentation by the prison's former warden.

Pate said she believes the institution could be spiralling into crisis.

"It's the institution that first implemented some of the most regressive and repressive security regimes for women over the years," Pate told CBC News after the presentation.

Pate, a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, which launched a study on prisoners' rights in February, is a long-time advocate for vulnerable inmates.

She retired as executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies in 2016, after her appointment to the Senate.

Kim Pate

Senator Kim Pate is a long-time advocate for Canadians in prison. (Senate of Canada)

"Indigenous women and women with mental health issues have been the fastest-growing prison population in this country for some time and we see the impact of that in a very real way at the Edmonton Institution for Women."

At the Oct. 4 committee meeting, former EIFW warden Janet-Sue Hamilton gave a presentation about the prison to Pate and her colleagues. Hamilton retired seven years ago. 

In a written brief submitted to the committee before her presentation, Hamilton said the principles on which the Edmonton women's prison were founded have "been watered down to the point that the facility is like any male facility now."

Hamilton emphasized the growing number of Indigenous inmates as a pressing concern.

Indigenous people make up about three per cent of Canada's population, yet account for a quarter of inmates in federal penitentiaries.

At the women's prison in Edmonton, more than half the inmates are Indigenous.

"I prided myself on the women's facility being different and offering a safe environment for women," Hamilton wrote, adding that union pressures have since chipped away at the prison's mandate.

"The institution now struggles with many issues and one of the most significant ones is the treatment of First Nations women offenders within this context." 

'Exceptionally harsh' conditions

Indigenous women are particularly over-represented in federal segregation and maximum security units, according to a 2017 study by the country's correctional investigator Ivan Zinger.

Roughly half of the 386 women placed in segregation between 2015 and 2016 were Indigenous.

On average, Indigenous women remained in segregation nearly nine days while non-Indigenous women spent 6.3 days in segregation.

Edmonton Institution for Women

The Edmonton Institution for Women is designed to accommodate 167 women in minimum, medium and maximum security settings. (Google Maps)

Indigenous women also accounted for 42 per cent of women inmates in maximum security.

Zinger identified the demographic as one of his top priorities as Canada's correctional investigator.

He toured Canadian women's prisons in March, including the Edmonton Institution for Women where 61 per cent of the inmate population is Indigenous.

Ivan Zinger

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger visited the Edmonton Institution for Women in early 2017. (Carleton University)

"At EIFW, it's probably the most crowded [women's] institution in the country," Zinger said in an interview with CBC News Thursday.

"The most problematic area for our office, currently, with respect to women's correction, is the conditions of confinement of the secure units," he added.

"Those are, in our views, exceptionally harsh and we know that, for example at EIFW, they are overcrowded in maximum security and they also house women who have complex needs."

More than half of women in Canadian prisons suffer from poor mental health, Zinger said. Mental illness is twice as prevalent in female inmates as it is in male inmates.

In the last fiscal year, eight per cent of federally-sentenced women self-harmed in more than 200 documented incidents.

Zinger's office recently singled out the Edmonton prison in an letter to Kelley Blanchette, federal Deputy Commissioner for Women.

"More partnerships for beds at outside psychiatric hospitals are urgently needed," states the letter, dated Aug. 21.

"The secure units should be rarely relied upon, and certainly never be used for women with serious mental health issues."