June 21, 2024

“Imagine having the wind knocked out of you, and then each time you catch your breath, it gets knocked out of you again.”

This is how Brenda Martin describes prison.

She should know, she is currently an inmate at the Grand Valley Institution for Women (GVI) in Kitchener.

“There is so much talk of how institutions have programs to help people change. But having now been here almost a year, I can tell you that all it is, is talk,” said Martin, whose first and last names have been changed to protect her identity.

“Prison truly is survival of the fittest.”

For stepsister Shelley Lowe (also a pseudonym), the relationship between her and Brenda has been an ongoing battle. 

One that has been broken many times over. 

“She has been this way for as long as I can remember, being in and out of jail … It’s unfortunate, however, it’s her reality with mental health issues,” said Lowe. 

Martin’s first stint in jail was at 20 years of age, a result of turning to drugs and living on the street.

“She was in and out of living off the streets with her drug dealer and the typical drug lifestyle which was sad. She was at rock bottom with nothing to lose,” Lowe said.

According to Lowe, Martin would steal from family members’ houses and wouldn’t so much as bat an eyelash when it came to lying to those she loved to get what she wanted. Martin disregarded the well-being of her children as she often chose the streets which held the promise of drugs and crime instead.  

Her most recent charges include theft and breach of probation.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could turn back the clock. So many wasted years,” said Martin in a letter she wrote to Spoke News, which detailed her experience of serving time at GVI.

The prison has 16 detached “cottages” where the majority of the prisoners live, including Martin. Most of the cottages can house up to 10 inmates, who are expected to cook, clean and keep the yard tidy. Cottage “residents” include murderers, pedophiles and drug dealers. Martin said there is also a dangerous offender serving out his indefinite sentence.

“He (the dangerous offender) has been in prison for 18 years now. Yes, he. Two years ago he told the government he thought he was a woman. Ta da, here he is.”

Inside the women’s prison Martin is classified as a medium-security inmate. She has taken workplace programs like landscaping and hairdressing and has also worked inside the sewing department until it was closed down last year due to “an inmate leaving and saying she had a sexual relationship with the sewing boss,” she said. 

In her description of what daily life is like and the people she is around, she said there are about 50 inmates who have all been charged with murder. 

Among those 50 is Terri-Lynne McClintic – a woman who pleaded guilty for the role she played in the kidnapping and murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford in 2009. 

Martin said she often dreams of her past, but those dreams turn quickly into nightmares. 

“I have siblings who don’t know me. Nieces and nephews I’ve never met, and parents who probably are so ashamed they doubt anything good can come from me,” Martin said. 

Today, she said she is no longer trying to prove to others that she has changed. It’s too painful. 

“I know I’m a good person. I have a heart, a conscience and I know when sober I am a good mom,” said Martin. “I’ll always be rough around the edges but I know I’m a good person worth the chance to live.”

Though past actions speak the loudest, Lowe hopes her sister will take the time to reflect on her behaviour, including how her actions have had a negative ripple effect on the rest of the family. 

“She sounds hopeful once she gets out this summer she’ll flip her life around and gain her kids back … so we will see,” said Lowe. 

Martin’s children were previously in the sole custody of her husband, John White (a pseudonym). However, in February of this year, White went to the hospital complaining of leg pain, not realizing that he had a massive blood clot that had travelled down into his leg. He passed away due to complications.

The children now are being housed with other family members while final decisions on their placement are made. 

Grand Valley Institution is the only federal prison for women in Ontario and the largest in Canada.

Before entering the system as an inmate, most of these women have had an intense history of trauma and heartache. To help them there are therapy groups within the prison, led by women who have spent years inside post-secondary institutions to learn how to help those who have been marginalized. Then there are the family members and friends who offer their love, assistance and support from beyond the barbed wire. They are often left to deal with the repercussions of their loved one’s actions.

Going to prison affects each person involved differently, but leaves a mark on everybody. 

In a study done by the Government of Canada in 2016, data showed that women in correctional services are more likely to have a history of physical and sexual abuse, substance addictions and poor mental health.

“Women are also more likely to both develop and experience a higher intensity of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can develop as a result of exposure to a traumatic event,” said authors Katie Tam and Dena Derksen in their research report,  Exposure to trauma among women offenders.

But how do Canadian prisons handle the trauma of women who have had a previous history of sexual assault and/or abuse, when it comes to the routine action of strip searches?

In Canadian prisons, a strip search can be done if a guard has a suspicion that contraband is being hidden inside clothing or upon random selection. The search must be conducted in a private area away from others and done by a guard of the same sex. Another guard of the same sex must also be in attendance to witness the search taking place. 

Inmates are often told to, “Turn around, squat and cough,” which helps eject any drugs hidden in the rectum. 

While there is minimal research on the effects of strip searches, Jessica Hutchison, a faculty member of social work at Wilfrid Laurier University, is working to change that. 

“Over the years I have heard countless stories from women about their experiences of being strip-searched and when I entered my PhD, I was surprised to learn that there is almost no research in this area.”

Having 12 years of experience in supporting and advocating for the women inside GVI, she is taking her work to the next level by addressing this grey area. 

In her research paper titled “It’s Sexual Assault. It’s Barbaric”: Strip Searching in Women’s Prisons as State-Inflicted Sexual Assault, she said there is minimal data available despite strip searches becoming a more routine and acceptable part of being incarcerated.

But just how often are these methods of control used? 

According to Phil Scraton and Jude McCulloch, authors of The Violence of Incarceration, a women’s prison in Australia that housed an average of 200 inmates had 18,889 strip searches performed in just one year. 

That breaks down to over 51 searches per day. 

“In a research study where I interviewed women about their experiences of being strip-searched, women described being strip-searched as humiliating, degrading, triggering, traumatizing, and as sexual assault,” said Hutchison. 

Forcing women to remove their clothing and perform these actions can trigger past experiences of violence. 

Hutchison also said, “Women also indicated that these impacts were amplified when they were on their period as women are forced to remove their tampon during the strip search.”

While the exact number of strip searches performed in a day remains unclear when looking specifically at GVI, it’s clear that it is a common act for all inmates regardless of where they are housed. 

With a capacity of approximately 215 inmates, women from all across Canada who are sentenced to more than two years can be sent to GVI. Their charges range from drug-related crimes and theft to kidnapping and murder.

An unidentified prison. Photo by Carles Rabada via Unsplash

Before GVI was around, all federally-sentenced women with two years or more time to be served were sent to a maximum-security prison called Prison for Women located in Kingston, Ont. However, due to a major lack of security tiers, disorganization was prominent with minimum and maximum security inmates interacting. Fights broke out daily and there was a severe lack of trust between the guards and inmates due to the disorganization.

This made the opening of different levels of security within the system imperative, according to Beth Kapusta, who wrote the architectural article Grand Valley Institution for Women, Kitchener Ontario.

One unique living arrangement at GVI is that some inmates get to live in mock home-style areas. These houses have a front porch, personal key access to their bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. 

With 16 homes on the property, each house is designed for a different level of security. The maximum-security house has an enclosed yard and another is home to women who have children. 

Martin said she gets paid $2.75 a day, but must pay $30 a month for rent to live in one of the homes, plus pay for food and cable, and 30% in taxes. She also gets $42 a week for groceries.

“If someone steals your food then that is just too bad. You either find a friend or starve,” she said.

Phone calls cost five cents a minute.

Martin said inmates who work are paid $5.85 a day and after six months the pay goes up to $6.40. The highest pay level is $7.30. Jobs are available in various departments including construction, maintenance, recycling, the library, food services and cleaning.

In addition to taking landscaping and hairdressing courses, Martin said she enrolled in a business management course through Northern College, getting 83%.

Despite taking courses and working, Martin said life stops when you’re in prison.

“It’s mind-numbing boredom like no other. Like the movie Groundhog Day but worse. You put a bunch of angry, hurting people in locked spaces, you don’t get a good result.”

She added not a day goes by that she doesn’t wish should could turn back the clock.

“So many wasted years. So many people lost. By far the worst being my children.”

Throughout the day inmates at GVI are expected to be moving throughout the prison, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., by participating in activities like going to educational classes, work or healing programs. 

“Part of women’s healing is to be a part of their community and families,” said Kate Crozier, the director of programs for Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) in Kitchener. Part of her job at CJI is going into GVI and holding mentor groups with women who struggle with issues like drug addictions, sexual abuse trauma and anger problems.  

“I see the ladies in the jail more than I see my own friends,” she said.

Crozier goes inside GVI one to two times a week to hold group meetings with the inmates.

Another unidentified prison. Photo by Tom Blackout via Unsplash

 The goal is to build a layer of trust and respect between each other, a concept that is usually new for them. Crozier said most of the women don’t have a strong support system outside of the jail, which makes their journey that much harder. 

She said the “cabin-style” homes are of great benefit to the rehabilitation of women as they feel a sense of purpose and belonging while serving their sentence.  

“The women do errands like grocery shopping and participate in a community (within the GVI system),” she said, adding that it’s a great step before the women are released back into society. By practising normal activities behind bars, it can help ease them into their new reality of no longer being an inmate. 

In comparison to most prison cells, these mini-homes are a huge progressive step forward in the Canadian prisoner rehabilitation. 

But not all inmates can live out their sentences in these more pleasant environments. 

The segregation and the maximum-security unit function as the “jail within the jail.” Inmates are locked in their cell for most of the day, with minimal human contact or chance to leave their cell voluntarily.  

“I was surprised by the silence … It was very unexpected,” said Crozier.

To enter the most lonely part of the jail, you need to go through three massive steel doors, before entering into the maximum-security pod.

Inside there are three pods each made up of nine cells. Each cell holds only one inmate.

Inmates here are allowed one hour of exercise each day with the exception of two hours on Saturdays and Sundays. They are also allowed out of their cell and into a common area during the daytime, where they can participate in daily activities like cards or watch TV. 

Photo by Denis Oliveira via Unsplash

The segregation unit, however, keeps the inmates separate from each other. They are generally locked up for up to 23 hours a day. In this part of the jail, the unit has its own showers and the women must be accompanied by a prison guard if they are using the outside yard. Even payphones are brought to the prisoners so they don’t have to leave their cell. 

When asked about the use of segregation as punishment, Crozier said, “It’s definitely a misused tool in the system.”

Keeping a person away from basic human contact, stimulus and socialization for any amount of time has proved to backfire, and only cause the person in question more pain and suffering. 

Originally, solitary confinement was created to help with the rehabilitation of inmates, however, the journal, Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, and the Case Against Solitary Confinement by Francis Shen, states humans naturally do poorly when confined to themselves, as we crave human interaction. 

“Inmates in solitary confinement exhibit increased ideation and contemplation of suicide,” said Shen. 

The research paper also said, “There is evidence that giving solitary confinement to prisoners who suffer from mental illness may be especially detrimental, further exacerbating symptoms associated with the mental illness.”

This is an issue that GVI is all too familiar with. 

Ashley Smith was a 19-year-old woman who the Correctional Service of Canada turned its back on. 

Smith was born in Moncton, N.B., where she was in and out of juvenile court for charges like trespassing, causing a disturbance and even one charge for throwing crab apples at a mailman. 

When she was admitted to the Pierre Caissie Centre for an assessment due to her growing aggressive behaviour, she was diagnosed with ADHD, learning disorders, borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality traits. 

Her time at the centre was short-lived, as Smith was kicked out of the program due to extremely disruptive behaviour. Afterward, she was brought to the New Brunswick Youth Centre (NBYC). 

According to The Ashley Smith Report, which was published by the Office of the Ombudsman & Child and Youth Advocate in New Brunswick, at NBYC Smith was involved in more than 800 documented behaviour incidents in a three-year span and made 150 attempts to physically harm herself.

Once she turned 18 in 2006, a motion was made to transfer her to an adult facility. 

An unidentified prison. Photo by Guido Coppa via Unsplash

In October of that year, Smith was transferred to the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, where most of her time was spent locked away in isolation due to her violent behaviour. It was recorded that she was tasered twice and pepper-sprayed once while she was in segregation. 

With Smith’s mental health diagnosis, regular therapy was held to help her talk out her issues and come to terms with her actions. She was also prescribed anti-psychotic medications like Clopixol and Haldol. These medications have drowsiness, anxiety and sleeping problems listed as possible side effects. 

Smith was also prescribed an anti-anxiety medication called Ativan, which can have even worse side effects such as hallucinations, depression and thoughts of suicide.

However, bouncing between different institutions so often led Smith to have virtually no sense of control or stability, and a severe lack of trust in her psychiatrists.

 Her violent outbreaks were a mere byproduct of her environment – which was full of confusion and chaos.  

During her 11-month stay within federal custody, Smith was transferred a total of 17 times to eight different institutions. 

Facilities that housed Ashley Smith: 

Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S.

Joliette Institution in Joliette, Que. 

Regional Psychiatric Centre Saskatoon, Sask. 

L’Institut Philipe-Pinel de Montreal Montreal, Que.  

Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.  

Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont. 

Regional Mental Health Care in St. Thomas, Ont.  

Central Nova Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S.

When she entered the doors at GVI, a series of unfortunate events would soon transpire, ultimately ending with the guards having little regard for Smith’s safety and life.

Smith was again held apart from other inmates, locked in isolation where her mental health problems only spiralled more out of control.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator published a summary of events that detailed Smith’s time in the care and custody of the Correctional Service of Canada. It stated, “The conditions of confinement in the various segregation areas were at times oppressive and inhumane. She was often given no clothing other than a smock – no shoes, no mattress and no blanket. During the last weeks of her life she slept on the floor of her segregation cell.”

It was also recorded in the report that Smith had over 150 security incidents at GVI, with many of them resulting in the use of gas. Other interventions resulted in the use of four-point restraints and forced injection of medication to help control her. 

“Ms. Smith’s name appeared in these reports on a weekly and often daily basis,” said Howard Sapers, a correctional investigator of Canada, in the paper, The Wrongful Death of Ashley Smith.

On Oct. 19, 2007, Smith, still serving her time in isolation, was placed on a 24-hour observation watch after voicing her desire to end her own life. Smith wasn’t new to this sort of watch, as she would constantly try to self-harm with whatever tool she could get her hands on. 

Observation watch is also referred to as suicide watch. Inmates who are likely to self-harm are placed on this watch, and it entitles the guards to keep a visual on them throughout the day and night. Inmates are usually left in a cell with only a blanket to keep them warm. 

But this watch was different for Smith. 

Even though she was supposed to be watched constantly, she was able to take her “suicide gown,”  create a noose and commit suicide. Forty-five minutes had gone by before a guard intervened. 

“Senior management at the highest levels of the Correctional Service were aware of the ongoing challenges presented by Ms. Smith, however, no one person of authority took direct ownership or responsibility to ensure that she was treated in a humane and lawful manner,” said the CSC in A Preventable Death.

Smith was extremely neglected during her stay within the correctional facilities of Canada. Her problems with mental health were constantly brought up, but the people in a position to help were uninterested in aiding her. 

“It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the most senior staff within the Correctional Service – including the Commissioner of Corrections, the Senior Deputy Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioner for Women, and the Regional Deputy Commissioners – were aware of the challenges presented to the Correctional Service by Ms. Smith’s ongoing self-injurious behaviour. Yet, there is little evidence that anyone beyond the institutional level effectively intervened before Ms. Smith died,” said Sapers. 

Pain, loss and unforgiving moments are the harsh realities for those witnessing a loved one go through the system. Jail pushes families’ and friends’ relationships to the max, as those on the outside are left to pick up the pieces from another’s action.  And sometimes tragedy strikes.

Martin said for her, she doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring. However, she does have advice for others.

“The best thing I can say about this place is this: STAY AWAY.”

“Nothing good comes from Grand Valley. Girls get raped. Girls become lesbians. Girls turn into nobodies in here. If you ever thought we were nothing before, prison confirms it.”

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