The stories of Tona Mills and Ashley Smith show Canada's prison system still has a long way to go to properly assess and treat women who are mentally ill, says Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"Women in prison are the fastest growing population, particularly women with mental health issues," Pate says.

She blames cuts in health and social services in the community that let women such as Smith and Mills fall through the cracks.

"Every single person is paying for this, millions of millions of dollars," she said. "Unless you have the political will, the public will, and obviously the resources to do it, it’s not going to change."

The federal corrections system says in the past five years, it has injected nearly $80 million into improving mental health services for inmates.

But Pate, whose organization is a non-profit advocacy group for federally sentenced women, and others say they see little evidence of it. She says the prison system is not equipped with professional or trained staff to handle those those with psychiatric problems.  

Pate says what's needed is to move those who are mentally ill out of the prison system and into hospitals where, as in Mills' case, they can be properly diagnosed and treated.

"It's no less serious than if someone requires cardiac surgery and nobody would ever believe you would do heart surgery in prison."

'They need help'

Helen Mills says her daughter and family should not have gone through what she calls "hell" to get proper help. At times, she doubted her daughter would make it out alive.

Helen and her husband, Tona’s father, Rick, spent every Christmas in prison with Tona, travelling across the country to be with her.

"We love her and she's our family. We couldn't throw her away," she said. "They need help, they need to be understood and they need to be looked after.

"They're humans, they're not dogs. You need to treat them with respect."

But she said she was powerless to do anything about how her daughter was being treated inside.

"Prison is the last place they need to go," she said. "They just want to be made normal. They're not criminals."