Greg Weston | Justine's story offers hope for female inmates

There are 597 women doing time in Canadian prisons, many of them mentally ill with almost no facilities to treat them. But one inmate's story shows there may be a way toward a happy ending.
CBC's Greg Weston looks at what is being done to address the prevalence of mental illness in women's prisons 2:48

Justine Winder was only eight years old when she first heard the odious voices in her head, over and over, telling her to light a fire in her brother's bedroom.

So she did.

On that day, the little girl with a lighter and a deeply troubled mind had no way of knowing she had just set her own life ablaze.

For the next 18 years, Justine would ricochet from one miserable human warehouse to another, from group homes to youth detention centres to provincial jails and finally to federal prison after beating up her ex-husband.

Each stop only made her mental illness worse, her behaviour more uncontrollable, her re-offending ever more certain.

Once in the federal prison system, she was locked in solitary confinement, sometimes strapped to a wooden restraint board, her life reduced to dreaming of death — and regular attempts to kill herself.

Justine Winder spent 18 years bouncing around the corrections system until she got the help she needed at a mental-health facility. Now she has hope for parole and a new life. (CBC)
Justine, now 27, recently shared her remarkable story in an exclusive interview with CBC News.

"I tried to kill myself a few times; there were a few times I saved up my medication and took them …I cut myself … and when I did have the opportunity to have clothes, I would rip them up and tie them around my neck and, um, choke myself a lot."

On at least two occasions, she had to be revived.

"I felt like I wasn't getting the help I needed. I felt there was nothing better, and I wasn't going to get out, and I was going to keep getting in trouble … And I was always going to be by myself and never with people, so I was pretty lonely and sad."

Justine's story of psychiatric crime and punishment is tragically all too common.

Lack of secure psychiatric facilities

There are currently 597 women doing time in Canadian prisons, and experts say at least a third of them are mentally ill.

Problem is, the Canadian penal system has almost no facilities to treat them, and the country's secure psychiatric hospitals are already overflowing.

That much is hardly news: The plight of Canada's mentally ill women inmates came to light in 2007 after 19-year-old Ashley Smith strangled herself to death in a prison cell while her guards watched.

What is unusual about Justine's story is its potentially happy ending.

Prison psychiatrists, convinced that Justine was perilously close to being the next Ashley Smith, managed to persuade the already overcrowded Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre to take her as a live-in patient at its secure facility in Brockville.

That was a year ago.

Today, Justine says she is working toward a life that, until recently, seemed impossible — staying straight, getting married, having a family, a career, "maybe even a car."

Perched comfortably on a couch in the Royal Ottawa, this articulate, shy woman with clear eyes and a gentle smile utterly belies the horrific details of a life terribly lived behind bars. Clearly, proper psychiatric treatment in a hospital has changed her life.

Howard Sapers, Canada's independent watchdog of prisons and inmates, isn't surprised.

"The solution certainly isn't to respond to illness in the criminal system. I can't think of anything more expensive than that," Sapers said in a recent interview.

"The solution has to be to properly identify, assess and treat these individuals as being ill, and put them into a safe and therapeutic setting so that they can have their mental health issues addressed."

The problem is how to get the same treatment for the hundreds of women like her in prison.

There are only 12 psychiatric treatment beds for women in the entire Canadian penal system; the Royal Ottawa's secure facility that took in Justine only has five beds for women, and is already at over-capacity.

Experts call for action

The Royal Ottawa is now at the forefront of a campaign to build a new secure facility specifically for mentally ill women inmates such as Justine.

But so far governments are dragging their feet, a fact that confounds experts in the fields of both health and corrections.

The head of the hospital, George Weber, says treating inmates rather than just warehousing them in prisons makes sense both economically and practically in terms of making the streets safer.

Weber says what should worry Canadians about this issue are the mentally ill inmates who are being released untreated after their sentences are up — 90 per cent of whom, statistically, will re-offend.

The treatment programs offered at the hospital's secure mental health facility for male inmates, he says, have cut that recidivism rate by 40 per cent.

The hospital recently released an independent study showing that for every dollar invested in treating mentally ill convicts, taxpayers actually save three times as much in prisons, policing and other community costs.

Even Vic Toews, the federal public safety minister known for his tough-on-crime approach to just about everything, seems on board.

"I do not believe that people are best served in a penal institution. If mentally ill people need to be treated in a secure facility, it should be in a mental hospital or an asylum, and I use that in the best sense of the word," he said.

So what is holding up construction of a new facility that everyone seems to agree is a no-brainer?

Weber says bluntly: "Money and political will."

Thoughts of Ashley

One person who needs no convincing is Justine Winder. She breaks into a thin smile as she remembers the day she was transferred to a hospital bed at the Royal Ottawa from her jail cell: "It was the first time in a very long time that someone actually tried to help me."

She wishes someone had helped her former prison-mate, Ashley Smith.

"She was in the next cell to me. There were always guards constantly at her door telling her to take the string off her neck and stuff like that.

"I think the guards didn't know how to handle her because she had mental-health issues, and if she had been in a hospital, I don't think she would have died."

Justine is due for parole next year.

Greg Weston can be reached at greg.weston@cbc.ca