Sask. woman found frozen was released from correctional centre 3 days earlier
Kimberly Squirrel was a mother of 6 who struggled with addiction and mental health
Kimberly Squirrel, a 34-year-old mother of six could have been alive today if her family had been told she was being released from prison in January, according to her sister, Kara Squirrel.
Instead, Kimberly's frozen body was found in a residential area of Saskatoon the night of Jan. 23, just three days after she'd been released from the Pine Grove Correctional Centre, near Prince Albert, about 160 kilometres northeast of the city.
Kara hoped her sister's time in jail might have helped her find balance in her life. Kimberly turned to drugs and was depressed in 2014 when a brother she was close to died. Crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug, had Kimberly, who was from the Yellow Quill First Nation, about 250 kilometres east of Saskatoon, tight in its grip.
Still, Kara had hope. Kimberly had tried going to jail to get sober before, and her recent stint at the only women's prison in Saskatchewan started in late October.
But despite Kimberly's history of addiction and mental health issues and the fact that she had previously been living with Kara on the reserve, no one in the family was notified of her release. If she'd known, Kara said, she would have picked Kimberly up and made sure she had a place to go and the support she needed, she told CBC News in an interview.
"She was like my best friend ... I should have been the first person to get notified, because I was the person taking care of her."
The death is now with the Saskatchewan Coroner's Service. The family is waiting for autopsy results. And the provincial Ministry of Corrections said it won't comment on individual cases for privacy reasons.
Concerns about Pine Grove
The issues at Pine Grove go far beyond Kimberly's case, said Aleida Oberholzer, a criminal defence lawyer with Pfefferle Law in Saskatoon. She's represented inmates from the institution in the past.
Due to the fact there is only one facility for women in the province, those incarcerated — no matter their social standing — are already put at a major disadvantage, Oberholzer said. In many cases, women are taken to the facility and away from their communities and families without notice.
Oberholzer's been advocating for changes in the system that would ensure women have more access to their cellphones to retrieve their contacts. She said she has heard numerous stories about women who have been forced to hitchhike once released from prison because buses from the facility only run twice a day and some women don't want to wait.
Kara said she feels the government should be responsible for notifying a family member when someone who may be in a vulnerable situation is released from provincial care.
"They need to give more information out to the families ... About when they got picked up — they don't have to say why they got picked up — but they need to know when they're getting released and what type of programs they're involved in when they're in jail, so that way, they can continue those programs after."
She said all she wanted to do was get her sister the help she needed.
Her family was mourning the recent loss of their parents, as her mother had died just as Kimberly was going to jail, and her father died a month earlier.
Asked if she felt her sister was in any mental state to be released without care, Kara Squirrel said: "No. Not at all."
CBC News requested an interview with Saskatchewan's Corrections Minister Christine Tell, but a statement was provided instead.
Release plans developed with some inmates: Ministry
The Ministry of Corrections is unable to speak to specific inmate releases, due to privacy reasons, but is keeping Kimberly's family in their thoughts during this difficult time, the statement said.
It noted that release conditions are outlined by the courts and while it's possible to offer programming to sentenced offenders, it's "extremely challenging to schedule and provide consistent, effective programming" due to what could be the unpredictability of a remanded prisoner's stay.
"Corrections works with sentenced offenders to provide them with a release plan to support their successful reintegration into their community," the statement said. "That preparation may include assisting offenders in securing safe and supportive residency, accessing relevant programming, employment networking, and connecting with community supports."
It's not clear at this time if Kimberly was serving time at Pine Grove as a remanded or sentenced prisoner, but the ministry statement said it's up to individuals "to decide what level of involvement their family may have in their release."
The ministry also said while it is an offender's responsibility to obtain transportation, they will offer assistance if all other options are exhausted, noting they had spent about $25,000 helping offenders return home as of Aug. 31 in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
What exactly happened between the time Kimberly was released and when she died is not clear, but Kara said when her sister was found, she was wearing thin clothes. She said it's her understanding Kimberly looked like she "just laid down and fell asleep." The family's understanding is that Kimberly "froze to death."
More support needed
Oberholzer said most of her clients aren't expecting to be arrested.
"Most of my clients aren't prepared for an arrest. So they don't have phone numbers written down. They don't have ways to notify their supports if they've been arrested, because you're not prepared for it, and then you're displaced."
Oberholzer said there are times when a person's cellphone and personal property is seized as part of their arrest and the court process, so even when a person is released, they may not have the ability to contact family.
"You don't have a cellphone. You don't have your ID or anything like that. You're sort of stripped of everything."
Oberholzer said sometimes newly released prisoners miss the bus and don't want to stick around.
"They'll leave, and most of the time, you don't blame them. They're struggling from mental illness, and they're not thinking straight, and they'll hitchhike. It's shocking how often I have clients that will hitchhike successfully."
Women become disconnected while incarcerated
On Twitter, Oberholzer recently shared a story about one of her clients walking about 140 km from Pine Grove Correctional Centre to Saskatoon — a journey that would take about 30 hours according to Google Maps.
She said women are forced to hitchhike or walk because they can't connect with family, and that is putting people who are already at-risk in an even more dangerous situation.
Had a female client who was arrested in Saskatoon. She’s transported to the only female correctional we have which is in Prince Albert. When I asked her how she plans on getting back home once she is released she said she’ll probably walk “like she did last time” 😢—@TheOnlyAO
There are steps the province could take to help ensure women who are getting out of jail have the support they need, Oberholzer said.
She pointed to the provincial government's Community Alternatives to Remand program, which offers mandatory residential, social and mental health support for men who are getting out of jail.
She said the program also exists for women, but doesn't have the same level of support.
"That program saves a lot of male lives, and I think that it could have saved Kimberly's life as well."
Both Kara and Oberholzer said they understand that a person has to be ready and willing to take advantage of the supports in place, but both agree it's also important for inmates to be allowed to notify their family members that they are incarcerated. Oberholzer said this could be as simple as giving a person supervised access to their phone for just a few minutes.
That program saves a lot of male lives and I think that it could have saved Kimberly's life as well.- Aleida Oberholzer, criminal defence attorney
"Sometimes, they're in there for a full weekend or a week at a time. and the family has no idea where they are."
The loss has been difficult for Kara and her family. Kara said she's remembering the time she spent with her sister fondly.
"She was just a really great person to be around ... You could be down and out, and she would be right there bringing you back up to where you need to be."
She stressed that although Kimberly struggled with addiction, she'll never forget the woman Kimberly was when she was clean.
"She was my protector in school. She was my rock and she was a very great person. If you knew her when she wasn't on her stuff, you'd see that she was a really great person. I loved being around her."