October 14, 2011 10:18 am

Canada’s only female dangerous offender

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EDMONTON – The most dangerous woman in Canada emerges from a prison segregation area, slender and stoic.

It
takes three guards to lead her in handcuffs to a visiting room. As the
fortified door shuts behind her, she slides her hands through a
rectangular slot.

A guard unlocks her wrist cuffs.

Wearing a
knitted cap almost as dark as her jet-black hair and pencil-lined eyes,
Renee Acoby sits behind a wall of protective glass.

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“Thanks for coming,” she says softly. Acoby is Canada’s only female dangerous offender.

The title is afforded to only the most violent killers and sexual predators, handing them a prison sentence with no end.

She
joins a list of notorious criminals such as Paul Bernardo, serial child
molester Gary Walker and, most recently, HIV killer Johnson Aziga.

The difference is most of Acoby’s crimes took place while she was already incarcerated. And she’s a woman.

“She
comes across as sort of spiritual, she’s pleasant, nice, bright. And so
she really has that sort of demeanour to her. Quite likable actually,”
says Mark Poland, the assistant Crown prosecutor who had Acoby
designated a dangerous offender in March. “But she’s also quite vicious
and quite quick to turn.”

Jason Godin, Ontario regional president
of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, is more blunt. He calls
her “extremely violent and dangerous.”

Acoby has been inside for
more than a decade and there is no end in sight, the result of a string
of crimes perpetrated by the 32-year-old mother while in jail.

During her 11 years in prison, she has been convicted in five hostage-takings and numerous assaults on staff and other inmates.

“Looking back at it, it is self-defeating. It’s wrong, completely wrong to do that,” Acoby says.

Her
compelling case lies at the crux of a key question in women’s
corrections today: what happens to the country’s most difficult
offenders?

In a system that purports to focus on rehabilitation, should these women be treated as victims or callous criminals?

“Somebody
who has committed a crime, a violent crime, against somebody else – how
are they less dangerous because they are female?” asks Kevin Grabowsky,
Prairie regional president of the guards’ union. Prison guards like
Godin want Acoby and a handful of other dangerous women moved out of
regular female institutions into their own special unit. But those who
know Acoby suggest it was overly harsh treatment that provoked her
attacks in the first place.

“Renee is incredibly articulate,
incredibly bright, and given other opportunities could be in
postgraduate school,” says Kim Pate, executive director of advocacy
group the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Acoby,
only the third female dangerous offender in Canadian history, has spent
the better part of her lengthy sentence in solitary confinement. For the
past four years, she says she has been virtually cut off from other
inmates at the Edmonton Institution for Women, stuck in a segregation
cell for up to 21 hours a day.

“It’s horrible, and that’s not easy
for me to say because I don’t like to think of myself as a victim, I
really don’t,” says Acoby.

Acoby was 21 when she started her first federal prison sentence on Feb. 17, 2000.

It was a three-and-a-half-year bit for a variety of crimes, including drug trafficking and assault with a weapon.

She
held a butcher’s knife to her former Big Sister’s throat and threatened
to kill her if she didn’t get a ride – an incident Acoby claims she was
too drunk to recall.

Born in Manitoba, Acoby grew up in Winnipeg
and the small Prairie city of Brandon with two siblings and the woman
she thought was her mother.

But she became angry and defiant as a
preteen upon learning her real mother had been murdered and she’d been
raised by her grandmother.

Her father beat her mother to death
with a tire iron when Acoby was just six months old, according to
testimony at the dangerous offender hearing.

“Her difficulties
appear to have escalated significantly after Ms. Acoby became aware of
the circumstances of her mother’s death,” says a 2008 report from a
psychiatrist.

Acoby, who was diagnosed with conduct disorder as a
child, was removed from her grandmother’s home a number of times. She
bounced around between foster care.

As a teenager, Acoby began to
drink and get into trouble with the law and spent time in youth jail
before her adult sentence began at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

Acoby was sent to the female unit in Prince Albert. For Acoby, the move came with trouble.

Just
two months after arriving, she participated in her first
hostage-taking, aiding in the confinement of another inmate in the
exercise yard.

It tacked on a year on to her sentence. In a little
more than three years, Acoby’s sentence ballooned to 21 years because
of the violent hostage-takings and assaults.

At the time of the first hostage-taking, Acoby was pregnant.

When
her daughter Anika was born on Oct. 20, 2000, Acoby was transferred to
the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge on the Nekaneet First Nation reserve in
southern Saskatchewan. Acoby responded well to the aboriginal prison,
where she established a good relationship with an Ojibwa elder “who
reminded her of her grandmother,” according to her testimony. Then, a
life-changing mistake.

A year into her stint at the healing lodge,
the young mom smoked marijuana and took Valium pills while her daughter
was in the prison daycare.

She refused a drug test. Correctional officials took her baby away and sent Anika to live with Acoby’s sister the next day.

“They
could have tried to mediate with me . . . the whole point of being
there is that it’s supposed to be about holistic healing.”

She
recruited another inmate and plotted her escape to Winnipeg to see her
child. The two inmates escaped into the remote reserve, but were
arrested the next morning.

Acoby has not committed a major crime
such as a hostage-taking in four years, but uttered death threats as
recently as March 2010.

According to a unit supervisor at the
Edmonton prison who testified at her hearing in March, the longest
period she has not acted out has been 35 days.

Acoby has 15 minutes to chronicle her tumultuous decade inside prison.

She explains how she passes time by reading correctional policy and Correctional Service of Canada documents.

She’s
had few visitors, feels isolated and seems haunted by what’s happened
in her life, rarely making eye contact through the glass.

“You can
remember every conversation you have, because not a lot of people want
to interact with you. They don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

One of the inmate’s visitors has been her daughter, Anika. But just like Acoby, the little girl does not know her real mother.

“My
daughter actually calls me auntie,” says Acoby. “I have a lot of
unresolved issues that I have to deal with, especially with the loss
from her.”

When her visiting time is up, Acoby is asked if she deserves her dangerous offender label. She hesitates.

“I don’t know about unfair, but I feel it’s excessive,” she says.

Does she think she’ll ever get out? “I don’t know. There’s just so many . . . ” her voice trails.

Acoby stands up and waits to be handcuffed. A guard opens the door. She disappears behind the wall, and is gone.

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