SASKATOON – The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies hopes an inquest in Saskatoon will lead to better care for aboriginal women with mental health issues who are serving time in prison. Kinew James, 35, died in January 2013 of an apparent heart attack after she was found unresponsive in her cell at the federal Regional Psychiatric Centre in the city.
The public needs to know if James’ physical health was compromised by her mental health problems and whether corrections staff took her request for medical attention seriously, said Kim Pate, the association’s executive director.
“It is extremely important because women are the fastest-growing population in the system, particularly indigenous women with mental health issues,” said Pate, who is also a University of Ottawa law professor.
“It is important that these issues be identified and that recommendations be made to try and prevent individuals like Kinew from facing the same fate she did.”
The inquest, which is scheduled to begin Monday, is to establish the circumstances of James’ death and could make recommendations to prevent other deaths.
James, an aboriginal woman, was serving an aggregate sentence of 15 years for manslaughter, assault, uttering threats and other charges — many of which happened after she was first sent to jail.
Pate said James’ parents were residential school survivors and she was abandoned as a young child. She suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse growing up and spent most of her life in the child welfare and criminal justice systems.
She was a maximum security inmate, serving most of her time in segregation units.
According to a Board of Investigation report, James, who was diabetic, activated the emergency call alarm in her cell and told corrections staff that she was feeling sick and lethargic the night she died. Inmates have alleged that James was denied timely medical assistance.
Pate said concerns about the effect of segregation on James’ mental health are similar to the case of Ashley Smith, who died in her cell at an Ontario prison in 2007 after tying a strip of cloth around her neck.
Smith spent much of her final year being moved to different prisons, including the psychiatric centre in Saskatoon.
“Many of the same issues are raised by Kinew James’ death — exacerbated by the fact that she had already been identified as having mental health issues and she was an indigenous woman,” Pate said.
The Elizabeth Fry Society was granted standing at the inquest earlier this month after first being denied by the Saskatchewan coroner’s office.
The coroner reconsidered after the society challenged the decision in court. The society can now present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.
Pate said she is concerned about the amount of time set aside for the inquest and whether the coroner will be willing to consider these broader issues.
“Too often the manner in which people end up in the situation that Kinew did, that Ashley did, cannot be examined only by looking at the few hours before they died,” she said.
“The entire manner in which they were treated by the prison system is vitally important.