There is No Justice at Grand Valley

By Tammy Lee

On the early evening of January 28th protestors gathered outside of the Grand Valley Institution for Women (GVI), a federal prison in Kitchener, ON. Approximately 30 people came out to show their support for the women inside, and to draw attention to the ongoing abuse at the institution, which in recent months has garnered substantial media attention in the wake of a drugs-for-sex scandal.

A little over a week before the protest, Kinew James was found unresponsive in her cell at a psychiatric prison in Saskatoon, and later died in hospital of an apparent heart attack. Kinew, 35, had been serving a 15-year sentence, and was set to be released this August. Fellow inmates had heard Kinew shouting for help from her cell, and repeatedly pushing the distress call alarm. Despite the calls for help, guards ignored the alarm and allowed over an hour to pass before responding with the health care unit. A prompt response to the distress alarm could have been the difference between life and death for Kinew. Her family and several prisoner rights’ advocate groups are demanding an inquiry into her death.

Observers have been quick to draw parallels between the experiences of Kinew James and that of Ashley Smith. Both Kinew and Ashley had histories of struggling with mental illness and self-harm, had their sentences extended for charges incurred while in prison, were routinely placed in solitary confinement, and died while incarcerated. In 2007 Ashley who was 19 and an inmate at Grand Valley Institution, died of asphyxiation after tying a cloth around her neck as guards watched, but did not intervene. An inquest into her death is ongoing, and continues to reveal exceedingly disturbing facts about the practices and conditions at Grand Valley.

Kinew up until only a few months ago was also an inmate at GVI, but was transferred to Saskatoon after coming forward with allegations that a guard at Grand Valley Institution was exchanging drugs and cigarettes for sex with inmates. Kinew was not the only person to make such an accusation. According to Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, at least 3 other women had made similar claims. These allegations hit the media in early November, and the guard in question (a relative of a senior manager at the prison) was suspended, and an internal investigation launched.

Only days after the death of Kinew James, the findings of the investigation were released. The Correctional Service of Canada and the Waterloo Regional Police announced that their investigation had concluded that the drugs-for-sex accusations were unfounded. Several outside groups raised concerns throughout the investigation that evidence would be difficult to gather due to the fact that inmates, having no protection from the potential reprisals of guards are too afraid to speak up of abuse and offer testimony. This concern was dismissed by investigators who claimed that it had no basis. The accused guard, who had been suspended with pay, has since returned to work and the investigation closed.

To say that GVI and the prison system in general failed both Ashley Smith and Kinew James would be a massive understatement. However, to view their tragic stories as exceptional would also be a mistake – their experiences are not an exception to the rule, but rather the brutal norm of a system that fails all incarcerated women. No internal investigation or inquiry will address this. The formal complaint mechanisms of guards investigating guards, of police investigating prisons, will never favour these women. There is no justice, and there is no accountability at Grand Valley. Isolation, deprivation, abuse, and sexual exploitation are inherent to the violent institution.

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