“I see the ladies in the jail more than my own friends,” said Kate Crozier.
Crozier is the director of programs at Community Justice Initiative in Kitchener, where she spends most of her time in an unusual work setting: the Grand Valley Institution for Women.
Crozier, along with 25 other volunteers, venture into the jail about once a week to hold support groups for women who are struggling with issues surrounding mental health, sexual abuse, anger and drug addictions.
The support group program is called Stride. The goal is to create lasting relationships with the women, so they can feel part of something and concentrate on improving themselves while serving their sentence.
“Part of women’s healing is to be apart of their community and families,” Crozier said.
Crozier said that women who are in the system often don’t have a strong support team outside of the jail, and when they are eventually released they fall to old habits quickly.
Inside Grand Valley Institution (GVI), the institution was the first of its type in Canada to introduce community living to inmates, where they live in cabin-style homes and have their own bedroom door with a lock and key, and participate in mimicked real-life routines like grocery shopping.
“We need a different path to address women’s rehabilitation,” Crozier said.
Entering GVI, however, is the same nerve-racking experience to Crozier, even after years of walking up the cement entry.
Entering GVI it involves:
- Upon entry, you must wait for the officer to buzz you. According to Crozier, they are particular about the “ringing of the dreaded bell,” and prefer you to wait on them to let you in past the gate.
- Once inside, you’re only allowed to take in your ID and car keys.
- You must sign in, have an officer wand you down and walk you through a scanner, then police dogs wait for your appearance to give you one last sniff down.
Once inside, the entryway turns into a main corridor that offers classrooms, a canteen, office space and a hair salon.
Besides the progressive living conditions, GVI is also well-known for some of the infamous inmates its walls have held.
Terri-Lynne McLintic, the woman who was part of the abduction and murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford from Woodstock, Ont., was incarcerated here.
As was Jennifer Pan, a woman convicted of the kill-for-hire attack on her parents in 2010.
Elizabeth Wettlaufer, a Woodstock-based nurse who confessed to the killing of eight senior citizens and the attempted murder of six others, was also incarcerated here.
Moreover, the case of Ashley Smith was one not known for her crimes – but for the severe lack of attention she was given during her placement in segregation.
In 2007, the then 19-year-old Smith was placed into segregation for suicide watch at GVI. Though there were guards keeping watch on video monitors, Smith was still able to strip a piece of cloth and strangle herself. Forty-five minutes passed before the guards checked on her in the cell and later confirmed her death.
When asked about the use of segregation at GVI, Crozier said that it is an overused tool that does more harm than good. However, when the safety of one or multiple people is at stake, there are limited options within the prison to help people.
Jessica Hutchison, PhD student and faculty of social work at Wilfrid Laurier University and local advocate for women within the walls of GVI, said “Ending the practice of placing women who attempt suicide or self-harm in segregation cells,” would help those who are struggling with poor mental health, rather than making them feel more isolated and alone when they are placed on suicide watch in segregation.
Hutchison has been working closely with women inside the prison facility for nearly 12 years, by being part of groups like Elizabeth Fry Society, a group that advocates for prisoner conditions within the jail and the end of solitary confinement.
Currently, she is researching the effects of strip searches in women’s prisons.
“The majority of women in prison have been sexually assaulted prior to an imprisonment so forcing them to remove their clothes and perform actions with sexual parts of their bodies triggers past experiences of violence,” Hutchison said.
She added that women said strip searches were intensified when they are on their period, as they are forced to remove their feminine-hygiene products during the altercation.
Both women are fighting for changes to start at GVI to better help the women in the community.
According to Hutchison, “Making change in such a large system is extremely challenging.”