Corrections Canada says it is not ready to discuss the details surrounding the weekend medical emergency and death of an inmate at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon.

Kinew James, 35, died in hospital early Sunday morning after an apparent heart attack, according to her mother who says her daughter suffered from Type 1 diabetes. Inmates in neighbouring cells allege that guards ignored her calls for help for at least an hour, even turning off her distress alarm triggered by a button in her cell. 

The Correctional Service of Canada won’t discuss the case, citing various ongoing investigations. In an email, CSC senior media relations adviser Christa McGregor would not answer specific questions about whether guards were delayed in their response to James’ medical emergency or whether staff disabled the inmate’s distress alarm.

"All cell call alarms are treated seriously and designated staff are expected to respond to these alarms," McGregor told CBC News in an email. She added that "in all cases where an individual dies while in custody, the police and coroner are called in to investigate."

Rights groups demand answers

Prisoners’ rights groups are now calling for an independent inquiry into the death.

"What kind of staffing component and complement was on at the time?" Shaun Dyer executive director of the province’s John Howard Society said in an interview with CBC. He said he's requested responses from prison officials.

"Were they well equipped to deal with the medical emergency? Were Ms. James’ calls for assistance ignored? Did CSC staff mute her emergency alarm?"

Dyer told CBC News this isn’t the first time he’s received "allegations of unresponsive staff to needs of inmates."

'She was just a caring soul, how could this happen. I was waiting, I've always been waiting, every year she gets into mischief in there and I tell her, Kinew, you said you wouldn't do anything.'—Grace Campbell, James' mother

Kim Pate, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada, says her team is also looking into the matter.

Pate told CBC News she received a number of calls related to James’ final hours and that she had reached out to Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers, to look into the death and potential delays in getting her help.

"She was both calling out and pushing her call button for assistance," Pate says of the inmates’ reports. "She was not getting any assistance."

Neither CBC News or the Elizabeth Fry Society have verified the inmates’ claims.

Sapers says he is investigating James’ "unexpected death" and looking into the circumstances around it.

"We're trying to get a clear picture of the nature of the emergency response," Sapers told CBC News. "Our investigation is proceeding."

He added the situation would be under review whether there was heightened concern or not.

"In any unexpected death where there is any medical intervention, we always look at the timeliness and the quality of that intervention," he says.

Mother raises questions

James’ mother, Grace Campbell, says her daughter had been in good spirits during a Saturday afternoon phone call.

"We [were] talking normal, chatting and laughing," she said.

Campbell says she was shocked when the prison chaplain called on Sunday to tell her Kinew had died.

"He said, ‘I'm sorry to inform you that your daughter Kinew James has passed on.’ He said she had complained of stomach pain later on in the evening, and at the hospital she had a heart attack at one o'clock," Campbell says.

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Kinew James spent half of her life behind bars before her death over the weekend. The 35-year-old died in hospital of an apparent heart attack. (CBC)

James was born in Portage La Prairie, a small city in Manitoba. After what her lawyer, Craig Perry, described as a "tragic upbringing," James was sent to jail at the age of 18 to serve a six-year sentence for manslaughter, arson and uttering threats.  But her sentence was repeatedly extended following a number of convictions for crimes committed inside prison. At the time of her death, she had spent 15 years, four months and 29 days — nearly half her life — in prison. 

James was known to be a difficult inmate and spent long periods in solitary confinement for assaulting guards and damaging prison property. Her story is similar to that of teen inmate Ashley Smith whose 2007 death behind bars is now the subject of an inquest. James, like Smith, admitted to self-harming behaviour and had threatened to hang herself while incarcerated at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., the same prison where Smith died.

Comparison to Ashley Smith

According a story by the Waterloo Region Record newspaper, during a 2011 court appearance in Kitchener for mischief inside Grand Valley Institution, Justice Colin Westman told the court that James’ situation reminded him of Smith’s.

"I have a lot more strength than [Smith] did," James reportedly said. "I have my Grade 12. I want out of jail. I know I will get out."

With her release date slated for August 2013, James told CBC News last fall that she was looking forward to life outside prison walls. Her mother says she was taking correspondence courses through Athabasca University and preparing for her new life.

"She wanted to take law," Campbell says. "She had, I think she told me about 60 credits or something. I know she talked a lot about school, school, school, university."

Campbell describes her daughter as an ambitious and spiritual person. "Kinew means eagle. Her name is Ke-She-Ba-Nodin-Nuke-Kinew, that means Eagle in the Whirlwind," Campbell says.

"She wasn't idling in there, she was doing whatever she could so she could come out and be ready to tackle whatever she needs to do to get her education and to work."

Campbell says she wants answers. "I need an inquiry. I want the whole truth."

"She was just a caring soul. How could this happen. I was waiting, I've always been waiting, every year she gets into mischief in there and I tell her, Kinew, you said you wouldn't do anything," Campbell recalls.

"But she would do something, and then she'd get another charge and she'd have to stay there. Every year, I don't know ... something got a hold of her, or somebody, another force."

Prison watchdog Sapers says James’ death brings to light important issues.

"Without drawing a direct parallel between the two deaths," he says of the Smith and James stories, "I think what these situations underscore is the constant challenge that correctional service faces to be vigilant and to provide safe custody and care for some very very difficult to manage individuals."

"It really does then beg the question whether or not any correctional service is the right service to provide that kind of care and custody for men and women with significant mental illness."

With files from Sean Kavanagh