Edmonton group demands justice for prison inmates

A small crowd gathered at Alberta's legislature building for the 40th annual Prisoner Justice Day in Edmonton.

'He didn't want to die alone and I just couldn't be there,' says wife of man who died in custody

A small crowd gathered for Prisoner Justice Day in Edmonton on Wednesday. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

If you're lost, you can look and you will find me. Time after time.

Donna, who asked CBC not to share her last name, listened to the Cyndi Lauper song on repeat during her two-hour drive home from Bowden Institution on June 25.

Her common-law husband, Thomas, was serving a two-year sentence at Bowden for sexual assault. He also had terminal cancer and Donna said he was barely coherent that day.

"This song reminds me of the importance of love and hope and those were the things that Thomas valued," she said. "It was a hard day."

But Thomas wasn't able to find her when he died the next night. Donna said she didn't learn about her husband's death until the morning after, when she phoned from her home in Edmonton to check on him. 

"He didn't want to die alone and I just couldn't be there," she said. "When he found out he had terminal cancer, he said, 'Please be with me when I die. Don't leave me alone.' "

Thomas was supposed to make an appeal that week so he could die in hospital, Donna said.

"He never lived to that point. He was gone."
"How our loved ones are treated has a profound effect on us," says Elizabeth Leenheer, whose brother is serving a life sentence. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Sixty-five people have died in federal custody since 2015 according to an Aug. 2 report by Howard Sapers of the Office of the Correctional Investigator. More than half those deaths were attributed to natural causes.

Even though the Correctional Service of Canada is required to investigate these deaths, there is no legal obligation to share the findings. 

"Families often face a difficult and protracted process to access information following the death of a family member in federal custody," Sapers wrote in his report.

Donna said her inability to find out more about her husband's death is making it difficult to move on from grief. She's calling for better communication with the families of prisoners.

"I don't want anybody to be like me and suffer this feeling of being powerless to do something for your loved one as they're dying in an institution like that," she said.

Donna joined a handful of people gathered outside Alberta's legislature building for Prisoner Justice Day on Wednesday. Others in the crowd have had similar experiences, on both sides of prison bars.

"I feel like my feelings don't matter," said Elizabeth Leenheer. "Like the pain that I go through, that my family goes through, isn't socially acceptable because someone I love did something wrong."

Her brother is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
Ronald Mah says he rarely talks to his family about his experiences in prison because he doesn't want to upset them. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Leenheer organized Edmonton's 40th annual Prisoner Justice Day, which advocates for changes such as better access to healthcare in prison and an end to solitary confinement.

Ronald Mah has served more than two decades in prison for various robberies, and remembers the numbing loneliness of solitary confinement.

"Once you're released from segregation you go back into a cell because that's what you're used to," Mah said. "You don't want visits, you don't want to see people, you just want to cocoon yourself."

Mah said he struggled with the impact his imprisonment had on family members, even after he got out. There are many experiences he still hasn't told them about.

"You don't want them to feel the hurt that you feel," he said. "You don't want them to feel the pain that you feel, so you kind of soften it down so that they're not feeling what you feel." 

Mah toyed with the idea of adding his voice to Wednesday's speeches, he said, so he could thank Leenheer and her fellow advocates. 

"To bring awareness to the public about those kind of issues, I think it's important because it affects so many people other than the person that's incarcerated."

@ZoeHTodd