Elizabeth Fry Societies denied standing at Sask. inquiry into aboriginal woman's death

A Saskatchewan coroner has refused to allow the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies to participate in the upcoming inquest into the death of Kinew James, an aboriginal woman who died in a federal prison hospital in Saskatoon.

Coroner says advocacy group does not have 'substantial interest' in the Kinew James inquiry

Kinew James, shown here in an undated photo, died of an apparent heart attack near the end of her 15-year sentence. She had been transferred from one prison to another and spent months in solitary. (CBC)

A Saskatchewan coroner has refused to allow the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies to participate in the inquest into the controversial death of an aboriginal woman in a federal prison hospital.

The inquest into the death of Kinew James is set to begin in January, but the agency, which advocates for female prisoners, has been denied standing by coroner Timothy Hawryluk.

In a letter he wrote: "I have concluded that your clients do not have a substantial interest in this inquest.… It is difficult to identify any circumstances where the jury in this stance would have any recommendations directed to either the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies or EFRY Saskatchewan."

Hawryluk declined to comment further to CBC News.

"This is beyond shocking to us," said Kim Pate, executive director of the association, adding that it's the first time the group has ever been denied standing at an inquest.

"Certainly we have a substantial interest in these issues. We're the only organization that works exclusively with women. We go into the prisons on a regular basis. We are some of the first in the prison to meet with the women."

Pate said her agency is considering appealing the coroner's decision.

James died on Jan. 20, 2013, in the Regional Psychiatric Centre, a prison hospital in Saskatoon. The 35-year-old was from Winnipeg and nearing the end of a 15-year-sentence. She had been transferred to Saskatoon from the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Ontario after speaking out about guards who she said were smuggling in goods in exchange for sexual favours.

James, a diabetic, died of an apparent heart attack. Pate said she received several reports from other inmates at the time saying that James had repeatedly pressed her emergency call button for help but was ignored.

James was mentally ill and known to act out. In prison she was charged and convicted of acting out and assaulting staff. She had been transferred around the country from one prison to another and spent months at a time in solitary confinement.

Similarities to Ashley Smith?

Don Worme, lawyer for the James family, called it "extraordinary" that the group had been denied standing. "It's unfortunate. I think the Elizabeth Fry Society is an organization dedicated to standing with marginalized women and would have very important information and insight to be able to bring to this inquest, and I think that decision should be reconsidered."

"I expect that it would have something to do with other very high-profile deaths of female prisoners while in federal custody," he said.

"I refer specifically to the Ashley Smith inquest and others which have exposed the Correctional Service of Canada to some very serious shortcomings in terms of how to deal with female prisoners."

Smith and James served time together.

The Elizabeth Fry Societies had been the driving force behind exposing the conditions that led to the 2007 death of Ashley Smith. The 19-year-old choked herself to death in the Grand Valley Institution for Women near Kitchener, Ont., while guards stood outside her cell and watched. The lengthy inquest into Smith's death resulted in 104 recommendations, many concerning the treatment of inmates who are mentally ill. 

Calls continue for Nova Scotia inquiry

In the meantime, calls are continuing for a public inquiry into the suspicious deaths of two other female inmates from Newfoundland and Labrador at Nova Institution, a federal prison in Nova Scotia. Veronica Park died in April and Camille Strickland-Murphy took her own life in July. The families of both women are demanding answers about the quality of health care the women received. 

Marian Mancini, a member of the Nova Scotia Legislature and NDP justice critic, is among those calling for an inquiry. "I really want to know what services are being provided at Nova. I want to know and the families want to know what kind of attention was being paid to their health issues and what kind of treatment they were getting," she said.

So far the Nova Scotia government has refused to hold an inquiry.

"Clearly we have at least three deaths where the authorities seem to be resisting intervening or exposing what happened to these women," said Pate, of the Elizabeth Fry Societies. "There certainly seems to be people sticking their heads in the sand perhaps hoping this will all go away."