Inmate's death in Kitchener prison calls for new approach with mentally ill offenders, says senator

Senator Bob Runciman says the death this week of a woman at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., shows Corrections Canada has learned nothing from the case of Ashley Smith, who killed herself in her cell at the same facility in 2007.

Bob Runciman says Corrections Canada learned nothing from Ashley Smith case

Senator Bob Runciman says, 'We need real change at correctional services — a change in leadership and a new approach to handling mentally ill offenders.' (Dave Chan/Canadian Press)

The death of an inmate at a federal women's prison in Kitchener, Ont., shows the need for a new way to handle inmates with mental health issues, Senator Bob Runciman says.

"The suicide of Terry Baker at the Grand Valley Institution has remarkable similarities to the Ashley Smith case," said Runciman, chair of the Senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs, in a statement Thursday.

They've been given plenty of opportunities to change their ways and they haven't done it.- Senator Bob  Runciman

"Disturbingly, it shows correctional services has learned nothing from Ashley's death or the inquest into it," he said.

"It is a further demonstration that we need real change at correctional services — a change in leadership and a new approach to handling mentally ill offenders."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told CBC News on Thursday that the practice of segregation in women's institutions needed to be addressed.

"It's an issue that is serious and it needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible. It's not an issue sadly where you can simply snap your fingers and produce a magical solution. It's one that takes a good deal of work and effort; that work and effort is underway," he said.

"This tragedy again underscores how important that work is. We're determined to get it right," he said.

Terry Baker died Wednesday

Baker, 30, was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. She was found unresponsive in her cell by staff Monday evening, Corrections Canada said in a statement. Staff started CPR immediately and she was transferred to St. Mary's Hospital in Kitchener. She died Wednesday at 12:06 p.m.

The correctional service did not give a cause of death, but Kim Pate with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies told CBC News Baker took her own life. She had attempted suicide Monday night after recently being in segregation and had been on suicide watch at some point over the past few weeks.

"We know that she was in restraints a number of times; we suspect there were uses of force, but we don't know that for certain and we have asked the correctional investigator to also look into it," Pate said.

'We have another suicide'

The case echoes that of Ashley Smith, who was 19 when she killed herself while in a segregated prison cell at the same facility in 2007.
Ashley Smith was 19 when she killed herself at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007.

Smith had tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards stood outside her cell door and watched. The guards had been ordered by senior staff not to enter her cell as long as she was breathing.

A coroner's jury ruled Smith's death was a homicide. The jury also made dozens of recommendations to improve the quality of care for inmates.

"We are going on three years since the jury delivered its recommendations, and it's been nine years since Ashley Smith's death. Yet we still haven't had a comprehensive, itemized response to the inquest recommendations, let alone concrete action," Runciman said. "And now we have another suicide, in the same institution, by an inmate who had been held in restraints and in segregation, just like Ashley Smith."

Time for change

Runciman, a Conservative, was appointed to the Senate in 2010 by then prime minister Stephen Harper after a long career in Ontario politics. He  said officials "fought the Ashley Smith inquest" and have "failed to respond to its findings."

He called on the public safety minister to "clean house" at Corrections Canada.

"They've been given plenty of opportunities to change their ways and they haven't done it," Runciman said.

Goodale said, "We are working on that very issue now. As you know there are a number of outstanding legal cases that are currently underway. And [Minister of Justice] Jody Wilson-Raybould and I will be coming forward with specific recommendations in due course to address these issues about the proper function of our correctional service."

Kyle Lawlor, the communications manager for Corrections Canada, said staff were aware of Baker's mental health concerns.

"A tremendous amount of work was undertaken with this inmate, including by mental health professionals and front-line staff, and there have been many interventions with her over the past few months," Lawlor said in an email.

Rob Finucan, regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers told CBC News that the union will co-operate fully with the investigation into the death of Baker.

"We are confident our members did their jobs and followed all the procedures necessary," said Finucan, who offered his condolences to Baker's family on behalf of the guards union.