We all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith died by self strangulation while seven prison guards in a Canadian women’s prison, Grand Valley Institution for Women, followed orders, watched and did nothing. By doing nothing is meant committed homicide. That was a decision of a coroner’s jury, December 19, 2013, six years and two months later. As a result of Ashley Smith’s murder, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, issued Risky Business: An Investigation of the Treatment and Management of Chronic Self-Injury Among Federally Sentenced Women – Final Report. This also appeared in 2013. Risky Business focused on eight federally sentenced women prisoners “selected for this investigation because they were deemed to be the most high risk and chronic self-injurious women in the federally sentenced women population.” Kinew James was one of those women. Kinew James was in and out of solitary confinement. Kinew James was interviewed in the middle of 2012. In January 2013, Kinew James died, in custody, because nobody answered her pleas for help. An inquest into Kinew James’ death was supposed to start in April 2016, but it’s been indefinitely postponed. Terry Baker was another of the eight most high risk and chronically self-injurious women. On Monday, July 4, in Grand Valley Institution for Women, Terry Baker killed herself. She was pronounced dead on Wednesday. Canada claims to be shocked, and yet for nine years now the State has “done nothing”, killing woman after woman with absolute impunity. What happened to Terry Baker? Kinew James? Ashley Smith? Absolutely nothing. After scathing reports and damning juries, the murder of women living with mental illness continues unabated. Despite sincere, or not, expressions of concern, suicide among women prisoners is part of the plan. It’s the new normal, and it’s too late to protest shock or concern. Shut down the segregation units, once and for all.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said: “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 … It’s a terrible tragedy for her family, her friends, the women she served time with. It’s a tragedy all around and it’s a travesty, and it should not be happening in this country. It needs to stop. I hope the minister pays attention to this and makes a decision very quickly to end the use of segregation. Terry was a very sweet, gentle young woman except when it came to herself. She had been very self-destructive and self-harming for a number of years,” said Pate. “She’s someone who, when I last saw her in Saskatchewan, she was actually doing quite well. She was involved in a dog therapy program. From our perspective, [this] underscores exactly why we have the position of no women in segregation, particularly those with mental health issues.”

Other prisoners said she was kind and courageous, but in need of help.

The week before her death, Baker had complained to prison advocates about being forcibly bound to her bed for prolonged periods of time. She had a history of self-harming, and a revolving door relationship with solitary confinement. Rosemary Redshaw, former chaplain at Grand View, remembered Terry Baker: “I really liked her. She had a childlike sense of humor and was great to get along with. In the midst of her struggle, she seemed to get help in the time I was there.” Redshaw added that Baker should not have been in prison or in isolation.

None of this matters. Terry Baker is dead, and nothing will bring her back. Her planned death will now be desecrated by a series of reports and recriminations, just like the deaths of Ashley Smith and Kinew James. Remember this: we all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet. Close segregation units. Don’t send people who need help to prison. Invest in mental health and wellbeing. It’s not magic.

Terry Baker’s birthday would have been July 15. She would have turned 31

 

(Photo Credit: Office of the Correctional Investigator Canada)

Kinew James? Maureen Mandijarra? Just more Aboriginal women’s deaths in custody

Kinew James

Kinew James and Maureen Mandijarra were two Aboriginal women who went into custody and never came out. They are part of the Commonwealth of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. Canada killed Kinew James; Australia killed Maureen Mandijarra. And the abuse of these two women doesn’t end with their death. Kinew James died in January 2013, and her inquest is finally going to take place in April 2016. Maureen Mandijarra died in custody in 2012, and her inquest is only now taking place. The State honors Aboriginal women with brutality.

Kinew James was a “troubled” young woman. She entered prison at 18, sentenced to six years. That doubled to twelve, thanks to “misbehavior” and to her deteriorating mental health. Subsequent years were a blur of self harm and attempted suicide; frequent relocation as one institution after another failed to help her; and long and frequent periods of solitary confinement.

But she was improving. Kinew James succeeded in graduating from high school while in prison, and, at the age of 35, was looking forward to getting out and moving on. On Saturday, January 19, 2013, Kinew James talked with her mother, and all seemed well. By evening, she was complaining of pains. That night, moaning and crying, she pressed the distress button … five times. The guards ignored her pleas, and are reported to have turned off or muted her alarm. After an hour, a nurse finally went in, and found Kinew James unresponsive. The nurse then waited 12 to 15 minutes to declare a medical emergency.

James died in the hospital, but she was killed long before the ambulance took her away.

Maureen Mandijarra was arrested for public drinking on the evening of November 29, 2012. She died in police custody the next day. Mandijarra was 44 years old. The police brought her in and dumped her on the floor in a police cell. She lay there perfectly still for at least six hours. She never moved, and no one, other than a cellmate, noticed, because no one ever checked. Over three years later, the inquest is now taking place. It’s taken so long because provincial and local police dragged their feet for years, and never provided any reports until recently.

Kinew James’ and Maureen Mandijarra’s stories are not the same story. What is the same narrative is that of State abuse of Aboriginal women. Like the United States, Canada and Australia have invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying. Since the 1990s, the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia has skyrocketed, through one Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after another.

State practices and policies generally criminalize mental illness, alcohol abuse, and poverty; and add additional punishments if the subjects at hand are women. For Aboriginal women who live with mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, poverty, the sentence is death.

(Photo Credit: CBC News