If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law in a foreign country, be prepared to wait a long time to get back to Canada.
Natalia Stachowiak, a 21-year-old from Edmonton, has waited almost two years. The federal government has also been processing 27-year-old Calgarian Christina Jocko’s case since November 2014.
Both Albertans are locked up in a Panamanian prison for drug trafficking. Stachowiak received more than six-and-a-half years, and Jocko over nine. In Canada, the women would be eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of that. Stuck in Panama, they’re on the hook for the entire thing.
So the two applied to serve out their sentences on home soil. The application process is handled by International Transfers, a unit within the Correctional Service of Canada.
Shortly after Global News contacted the unit on their behalf, their seemingly stalled cases took a step forward. Their files (known as share packages) were finally completed and mailed to them.
The documents arrived at the Canadian embassy in Panama on Monday, three weeks after they were sent.
“I’m super happy,” Stachowiak exclaimed soon after she received the news.
“Christina and I were screaming when we heard.”
WATCH: Exclusive look inside a Panamanian prison
On Wednesday, the packages will be delivered to the women at the Centro Femenino de Rehabilitación and they will have the opportunity to review the contents before it’s presented to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.
He’s the one who makes the final decision on whether Canadians incarcerated abroad get to come home, after the foreign government approves the transfer.
How the International Transfers process works
Stachowiak and Jocko are two of nearly 300 Canadians jailed abroad who’ve requested to complete their sentences in their home country.
Of the nearly 1,000 applications over the past decade, 40 per cent have taken a year or longer to process.
To be eligible for a transfer, you need to have undergone a trial and exhausted all avenues of appeal in the country that’s incarcerating you. That country also has to approve your transfer and send your sentencing documents to Canada.
Then different law enforcement agencies in Canada try to determine how much of a threat you pose, and whether the crime you’ve been convicted of is punishable here.
“Cases will take as much time as required with public safety in mind,” said Joseph Daou, senior manager of the International Transfers unit.
The process can take months, he added, or years.
When Stachowiak originally applied for a transfer in the spring of 2014, she was told the wait would be six to 12 months. Then it took a year just for Panama to send her paperwork.
‘She had to have facial reconstruction’
Sandra Mallon, a 51-year-old Quebec resident, found herself incarcerated in the same Panamanian jail as Stachowiak and Jocko between August 2009 and Dec. 21, 2013. She claims airport workers framed her for drug trafficking.
Mallon spent four years, four months and three days “in hell” before transfer agents showed up at the prison to transport her to Canada. They first searched her suitcase and then had her checked by a doctor to make sure she wouldn’t “go crazy on the plane.” They also brought her a winter coat, since it was -40 C in Canada.
The fact she was leaving didn’t hit her until she was on the plane and looked out the window.
“It was a beautiful full moon on that night when we left Panama. When I first saw that moon I just sat there and started to cry like a baby,” she recalled.
“For over four years and four months, I never saw the moon.”
“When you’re stuck in a prison, you’re not allowed to go outside at night and see the sky. Just that little thing, it was like a big treasure for me.”
She was transferred to a a prison in Joliette, Que., where she served 63 days before being let out on parole.
It won’t be until April, when her sentence officially finishes, that she’s completely free of any conditions.
The trauma of what she suffered through will likely take much longer to overcome. Mallon said she’s been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic shock and is afraid to sleep at night because she gets flashbacks from Panama.
“I saw a young woman being raped by other prisoners. … There were five women on her.”
Mallon watched, she said, when other inmates jumped on the woman and attacked her with fists and sticks.
“She had to have facial reconstruction,” Mallon said.
“The guards just stood there and did nothing.”
She claims they also did nothing when a woman “cut her throat open with a knife” in front of her. The woman survived, thanks in part to Mallon jumping in to help.
Global News reached out to the Canadian embassy in Panama to discuss these allegations but did not receive a response.
Mallon admits she attempted to take her own life after a couple years.
“You never see the end,” she said. “You go through anger, rage, depression…you get discouraged.”
Her post-prison life also hasn’t been easy. She essentially lost everything — her home, her furniture, her dog, and her job for Garda at the Canadian Border Service Agency.
Mallon is now on welfare, something she says she’s not proud of, and works part-time as a truck driver.
“I have to start all over again.”
‘Unless the person is Bin Laden, there is no reason to refuse the request’
Edmonton defence attorney Dennis Edney, who helped get Omar Khadr transferred out of Guantanamo Bay, believes the process needs to be improved for the sake of Canadians.
Otherwise, Edney said, citizens in countries with less respect for human rights endure a “horror story” serving out their sentences.
“Assuming they do survive, the hell that they have lived in is something they’ll carry for the rest of their life. And so the punishment they’re enduring far outweighs the crime.”
He reminds Canadians that even just buying drugs in some foreign countries is enough to land you behind bars. He’d like to see the Canadian government do more to drill home that message to travellers.
The government currently has a page dedicated to “true confessions” of Canadians imprisoned abroad for drug offences.
Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman is currently dealing with another case similar to those of the Albertans. He hopes to see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau do more to fix what he believes is a broken system, and bring detained Canadians home faster.
“There’s no reason these young girls shouldn’t have been brought home a long time ago,” he said of Stachowiak and Jocko.
“Really unless the person is Bin Laden there is no reason to refuse the request.”
Waldman argues transferring Canadian offenders back to Canada makes sense from both a humanitarian and a public safety perspective: Canadian citizens are going to come back to Canada anyway; if prisoners serve their sentences here, they can go through Canada’s rehabilitation and parole process so it’s easier to monitor them after.
It used to be easier for Canadians jailed abroad to get back to Canada, Waldman adds. Data from International Transfers shows that the application approval rate went from 98 per cent in 2005 to 72 per cent in 2006, when Stephen Harper took office.
“Under Harper, they changed the law to make it easier to refuse … The changes were driven by their tough-on-crime agenda even though there was no empirical evidence to support it.”
“This is an issue that is not on the public’s radar screen but represents another test for the new government,” Waldman said. “Hopefully they will understand the issues … and do the right thing.”
The Alberta women hope their story will help prevent other people from making the same mistakes they did and are eager to return home.
“We are so, so, so close.”