The inmate, 35-year-old Kinew James of Manitoba, was looking forward to being freed this summer after serving a sentence of more than 15 years for manslaughter, assault, uttering threats, arson, mischief and obstruction of justice.
She sounded in good health and was upbeat on Saturday according to her mother, Grace Campbell of Winnipeg, who tells CBC News her daughter called by telephone from the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon.
Campbell says the prison chaplain called on Sunday to inform her that her daughter had died.
“They said she was complaining of her stomach in the evening and they had to rush her to the hospital,” Campbell told CBC News. “But then she died of a heart attack at the hospital, one o’clock Sunday morning. It was so sudden.”
Campbell says she is suspicious of the account of how her daughter died provided to her by the Correctional Service of Canada, particularly in light of revelations about CSC’s handling of a similarly troubled young woman, New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith. Smith’s death at Ontario’s Grand Valley Institution in October 2007 is currently the subject of an inquest which is examining in part why guards looked on while she strangled herself.
Like Smith, James suffered from mental health issues and had a history of self-harming.
Other inmates claim guards ignored pleas for help
“My understanding from the other women who were in the cells next to her is that she was trying to get the staff's attention,” says Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
Pate says she’s had numerous calls about James’ final hours and has asked Canada’s Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers to look into the death and claims by inmates that guards took too long to respond.
“She was both calling out and pushing her call button for assistance,” Pate says of the inmates’ reports. “She was not getting any assistance.”
Pate says the inmates also claim “that staff did approach to turn off the call button but did not respond with health care until some time, they think, approximately an hour or more later.”
"By the time the other women indicate that the call was responded to, she was actually quiet so they were concerned she may have already been dead or she was unconscious,” Pate says.
CBC News has been unable to confirm how long it took for Regional Psychiatric Centre staff to respond to James’ pleas for help. Corrections Canada was contacted Tuesday evening with a request to comment on the time it took to give James medical attention and to address allegations that guards turned off the inmate’s distress alarm, but received no reply.
Deceased had made allegations against Ontario guard
James had been in touch with CBC News numerous times last fall while serving part of her sentence at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., the same prison where Ashley Smith died. She spoke to CBC News – on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from staff – making allegations that a guard at the institution was smuggling drugs and cigarettes into the prison and exchanging the contraband for sex with one or more inmates.
While admitting to her own struggle with self-harm and other interpersonal problems inside Grand Valley Institution, James had told CBC News that she agreed to a voluntary transfer to the psychiatric institution in Saskatoon as a reprieve from her isolation at the Kitchener prison.
“I don't have any friends, I don't talk to anybody,” she told CBC News. “Like I talk to maybe one or two people … and I just have no desire to be here or do any programming or do anything.”
James was transferred one week after CBC went public with the sex for drugs allegations.
Waterloo Regional Police were called to investigate the allegations but just this week concluded they were unfounded.
James had remained in touch with CBC News, writing letters about the university courses she was taking and her dreams for a life after prison come August 2013.
Her family is demanding an inquest into her death.
Corrections Canada says it is conducting a review and has notified both Saskatoon police and the coroner's office, which conducted an autopsy on Tuesday.