A Smiths Falls woman, who spent more than 200 days in segregation over the course of a year of custody at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre is taking her case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
The tribunal has agreed to hear the story of Christina Jahn, who claims she was segregated in order to deal with her mental illness.
The case alleges Jahn was discriminated against based on both her mental illness and her gender, since a treatment facility has existed for a decade serving male inmates, but not for women.
Jahn had been diagnosed with a number of illnesses over the years including schizophrenia, depression and borderline personality disorder. She was also diagnosed with breast and bone cancer.
Arrest happened at Ottawa Hospital
Jahn's last arrest took place at the Ottawa Hospital as she awaited treatment for cancer.
Calls for women's facility
A 2011 report from the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group called for a separate women's facility to deal with inmates with mental health issues.
The report suggested the province would save over 275 million dollars over 25 years, or 27 million dollars each year, by diverting inmates from the regular system leading to a reduction in future costs to health care, psychiatric care, and the justice system.
Those future costs evaporate, according to the report, because fewer inmates with mental illness end up back in the system.
The union representing Ontario's provincial jail guards supported the plan to build a woman's facility in Brockville, modelled after a men's facility called the St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre.
"Smokey" Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said he personally warned the Ontario Minister for Community Safety and Correctional Services, Madeleine Meilleur, that the province was vulnerable to such a suit if it did not act to change the situation.
The charges included causing a disturbance and resisting arrest when she became agitated about a man who left his car running, according to the police report.
Jahn was taken to the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre where she was placed into segregation, despite a police recommendation that Jahn be diverted to a treatment centre.
Jahn's sister Angelique helped launch the case after getting a number of disturbing letters from Christina while she was in custody.
"My mother and I read them all with disbelief. We had no idea that it was that terrible, but she wrote it all out," said Angelique Jahn.
Letters to family revealed conditions
The letters detailed small cruelties; lights left on all day and night, water cut off to her cell and phone calls denied. She said she was forced to wear hand-cuffs inside the cell, missed appointments with health care professionals and even missed a surgery date for her cancer treatment.
Angelique Jahn said she was scared for her sister.
"I mean we were very scared that she wasn't going to get out alive, really. Luckily we were able to have her hang on, because it was getting worse and worse."
Human Rights lawyer Paul Champ, who is representing Jahn, said they have documentation suggesting Christina Jahn was being kept in isolation to deal with her mental illness.
"Basically in the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre and other provincial facilities, if you have a mental illness, the default treatment is to place you in segregation. It makes it easier for correctional staff to deal with you," said Champ.
Province should take action, lawyer says
Champ said what happened to Christina Jahn could have been avoided if the province had acted.
He said he was surprised by the revelations contained in the Royal Ottawa report, because it recognized there's a problem of discrimination, but also showed the benefit to taxpayers.
"Its shameful that this has to go before the tribunal and the province isn't taking the action that it should," said Champ.
It costs Ontario Taxpayers more than 250 thousand dollars a year to keep a female inmate in segregation according to an analysis by the Correctional Investigator Canada, almost 100 thousand dollars more than housing a regular inmate.
Jahn's sister Angelique says most women in her situation do not have strong family supports to advocate for her on the outside.
It took several complaints to the Ontario Ombudsman, she said to get the guards to finally turn the lights off in her cell at night.
She said her sister is having difficulty now reliving her experiences within segregation, but she's determined to take on the province at the tribunal.
"We're doing this because we feel the public needs to know that this stuff is happening."