Women's health needs are being ignored in the prison system and it's time for a full review, says Bryonie Baxter, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society.
The demand for an inquiry comes after Julie Bilotta, a 26-year-old from Cornwall, Ont., gave birth prematurely to a boy on the floor of a cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Sept. 29.
"It is a cultural thing and I think there needs to be an inquiry into the particulars of this instance, for sure, but there needs to be a national systemic review," said Baxter.
Bilotta's screams for help as she went into labour were ignored for hours, said Baxter. It was only after she was put in isolation, and a nurse noticed a baby's foot emerging, that paramedics were called, she said.
After the birth, Bilotta and the baby were rushed to hospital.
Proper procedure would dictate that a pregnant woman be brought to a hospital as soon as there are any signs she might soon give birth, said Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario's minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. She cited privacy issues for refusing to talk about details of this particular incident.
"When they go into labour they're supposed to be transported to the hospital," said the minister, who practised as a nurse prior to entering politics.
"A baby being born in a detention centre is not the ideal place."
Bilotta had been checked twice by nurses at the jail, but they decided she was in false labour. The woman said she was also given Tums and told she had indigestion.
Bilotta's mother Kim Hurtubise has been caring for the baby, named Gionni Lee Garlow, since he was released from hospital nine days after birth.
Bilotta was returned to the correctional centre two days after giving birth. She is being held for allegedly breaking the conditions of her bail in connection with several fraud and drug charges. She has not been allowed contact with her child.
Hurtubise said she was outraged at her daughter's treatment.
"It should have never happened, this is Canada," she said.
"She should have had the same care as any other pregnant woman and she didn't. They totally ignored her and put her in a segregation cell by herself because they said she was complaining too much."
Meilleur agreed that pregnant inmates should expect to receive the same level of care as women in the general population.
"We have in place policies and procedures on how to care for pregnant inmates," she said.
But Baxter said inmates are all too often treated like second-class citizens when it comes to health care, particularly mental illness.
"There is a culture of 'us and them' that permeates our prisons," she said.
"It is incomprehensible to me that human beings can be that callous."
Meilleur disputed the notion that there is a systemic failure to provide adequate care to inmates. In fact, jail is often the first place that some people receive care, especially for mental illnesses, she said.
Bilotta's lawyer is attempting to have her released from the corrections facility on compassionate grounds so she can care for her son. But a bail hearing could take weeks to schedule in Eastern Ontario's clogged court system and Meilleur said she is powerless to intervene to speed up the process.
The Elizabeth Fry Society has formally complained about the incident to the College of Nurses of Ontario and to the Ontario ombudsman. However, the ombudsman's inquiry is on hold until the corrections ministry's internal investigation is completed.