Disabled inmate was forced to sleep on cell floor for 3 weeks, lawsuit alleges

An Indigenous inmate in a federal women's prison who uses a wheelchair is suing the attorney general of Canada for $10 million because she says she was forced to sleep on the bare floor of her cell when she couldn't be moved from her wheelchair to her bed.

Correctional Service Canada declines to comment but has said facility has ‘accessible options’ for bathing

Kitten Keyes is serving a six-year, nine-month sentence for manslaughter at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont. She says she accepts her punishment but feels the prison could do more to accommodate her disability and make the facility accessible for inmates like her. (John Chipman/CBC)

An Indigenous inmate in a federal women's prison who uses a wheelchair is suing the attorney general of Canada for $10 million because she says she was forced to sleep on the bare floor of her cell when she couldn't be moved from her wheelchair to her bed.

In the lawsuit, Kitten Keyes said she slept on the floor of her maximum security cell for 21 days straight in April at the Grand Valley Institution for Women (GVI) in Kitchener, Ont. She also said she was left to defecate on herself on the first night when no one came to help her get onto the toilet.

Her statement of claim, which was filed last week in Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Brampton, is seeking $5 million in general damages plus $2.5 million under Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. 

The claim seeks another $2.5 million under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, of which Canada is a signatory. Article 15 of the convention states that: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

"It's torture," Keyes, 54, said in an interview in August, before the suit was filed. "The guards have told the warden that you need to come up with a solution and make this prison wheelchair-accessible."

The attorney general of Canada has yet to file a statement of defence and declined to comment. 

The Grand Valley Institution for Women in Waterloo, Ont. is shown  on Thursday, May 1, 2008. The number of COVID-19 cases in prisons is rising, prompting Canada's criminal lawyers and an inmate advocacy group to call on the federal and provincial governments to reduce the number of people in the institutions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins
CBC interviewed several prisoners at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., for the podcast Life Jolt. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Correctional Service Canada (CSC), which oversees federal prisons, declined to comment on the lawsuit or the specifics of Keyes's living conditions at the prison.

Keyes's claim said that the cell where she was held for three weeks in April was not wheelchair-accessible and she was unable to walk to the bed.

Her wheelchair, which was issued to Keyes by the prison, could not reach the bed or the toilet in the cramped cell and there were no grab or safety bars installed to help her manoeuvre between them. She suffered "severe pain and suffering, psychological trauma, depression, weight loss, illness, nightmares, anxiety, fear, humiliation, degradation and a loss of personal security and self-esteem" because of her living conditions, the claim said.

Moved to different cell

Keyes, who is serving a six-year, nine-month sentence for manslaughter, said she was eventually moved to a different cell where she was able to sleep on a bed and had access to a help button to call for assistance in using the toilet.

But Keyes said in the interview that she faces other daily obstacles because of the prison's lack of accessibility. 

The lawsuit states that Keyes has only been able to take a bath or shower four times in her three years at the federal prison because she says the bathrooms she has access to do not have showers she can access from her wheelchair.

Keyes's sister, Shari Keyes, said she has called the warden's office at Grand Valley four times since learning of Kitten's living conditions, but he has yet to return her phone calls. 

Keyes was born with clubfoot and developed post-polio syndrome as a child and has been in a wheelchair her whole life. (John Chipman.CBC)

"The way these people are treating the inmates is just inhumane. It's ridiculous. It makes me sick to my stomach because I am afraid she's not even going to wake up one day," Shari Keyes said.

Kitten Keyes struggles with a number of medical conditions, including asthma, obesity, high blood pressure and colon cancer. She was born with clubfoot and developed post-polio syndrome as a child, which is why she's in a wheelchair. 

"It's scary," Shari Keyes said. "She's got all these health problems and they're not doing a damn thing to help her."

Kitten Keyes said she applied for a compassionate early release last year but her application was denied. "I'm going to die down here. I'm very sick."

Refused medical treatment

She said she finds going to the hospital so traumatizing that she has refused medical treatment several times despite her failing health. 

"[The] guards are always in the room. They hear everything the doctor tells you. And [once] when I was in the hospital, the guards had to be there even while I sat on the toilet to have a bowel movement watching me. It's just so degrading."

Shari Keyes said her sister started a hunger strike on Sept. 8 and is refusing to take her medication. 

Kitten Keyes is one of 15 current and former inmates whom CBC spoke to over the course of three years for Life Jolt, a podcast that focuses on women's experiences in Canada's federal prison system.

She said in the interview that she accepts her prison sentence and is not looking for special treatment.

"I want to be able to do my time like any other woman in here. This is important. Like, I'm not going to be the only one here in a wheelchair," she said. "I'm not asking for anything more than what I'm entitled to, and that's to be in a wheelchair-accessible environment."

Kitten Keyes has a list of other grievances — from initially being placed in an inappropriate wheelchair by GVI to difficulty getting around the prison to intermittent access to a personal support worker. She made an earlier complaint through the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which led to a settlement in September 2020. 

'No words for this,' advocate says

Bonnie Brayton, national executive director of the Disabled Women's Network of Canada, said she was disturbed but not surprised by the allegations laid out in Keyes's lawsuit. 

"There are no words for this," she said in an email. "We like to believe we have strong commitments to human rights in this country, but we've got a strong commitment to some people's rights and a complete disconnect to others, including the rights of people in prisons."

Brayton said that research has found an over-representation of women with disabilities in prisons, and that more than half of all human rights complaints in Canada for more than a decade have been disability-related.

"There is an the urgency in … demanding answers about how [Kitten Keyes's] situation could possibly be going on, when in fact it is already known by far too many that [her] story does not exist in isolation," Brayton said. 

While Correctional Service Canada refused to address Keyes's specific allegations about her living conditions, it did send a statement earlier this year about general living conditions at Grand Valley, saying that it has "accessible options for bathing in all levels of security, including use of ramps, access to roll-in showers or tubs with grab bars and bathing stools. GVI also offers the option of bathing with assistance from a registered nurse (RN) or personal support worker (PSW)."

Keyes said she has had intermittent access to a personal support worker during her incarceration, but access has worsened since the pandemic began 18 months ago. She estimates that she is now seeing a PSW for 30 minutes per month. 

Correctional Service Canada won't say how many people in federal prisons have mobility issues or how many require a wheelchair or walker. Disability advocates say that lack of transparency makes it difficult to gauge how closely the agency's general accessibility standards are being met. 

Keyes said she was moved from another unit in the medium security section of the prison to the maximum security unit after she complained about her living conditions.


John Chipman is a CBC radio producer with the Current and the podcast Life Jolt.