10/17/2012 01:48 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST

Julie Bilotta prison birth 'tip of the iceberg,' say protesting mothers

OTTAWA - The mother who gave birth last month on the floor of an Ottawa jail cell offers just one example of the harsh conditions women must endure behind bars in Ontario, protesters said Wednesday as they demanded better treatment for female prisoners.

Julie Bilotta, 26, of Cornwall, Ont., gave birth prematurely to a boy on the floor of a segregation cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Sept. 29.

The protesters, part of the Mother and Baby Coalition for Justice, gathered outside the Ottawa offices of Ontario Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur to draw attention to the plight of women in jail.

Bilotta's case — her mother has said her screams for help went ignored for hours — was not an isolated incident, said Dawn Moore, an associate professor of criminology at Carleton University who helped organize the demonstration.

"I need only speak the name of Ashley Smith to remind you that Julie Bilotta was not the first woman to be incarcerated in Canada to have her cries for help ignored and to have guards stand by and watch as her life was put in danger," said Moore.

"And in Ashley's case (her life was) ultimately lost."

Smith was a teenager when she committed suicide on Oct. 19, 2007, while under suicide watch at Ontario's Grand Valley Institution for Women. She was able to strangle herself despite guards watching her on video monitors.

Women at Wednesday's protest said they were shocked by the details of the Bilotta case and wondered how such a thing could happen in Canada.

"We have a system in place, things are supposed to work," said protester Jackie Hansen.

"Clearly things didn't work the way they should and it's just horrific what this woman had to go through."

Chanting, "Mothers and babies belong together," the women called on Meilleur to do everything in her power to ensure Bilotta is reunited with her baby boy.

"Pregnant inmates should expect to have access to the same level of care that expecting mothers in the community receive," Meilleur said in a statement, describing the incident as an isolated one.

Three inmates gave birth in Ontario in 2010 and 2011, and all three babies were born in hospital, she added. An investigation is also underway by the province's Correctional Investigation Security Unit.

"I have also asked the deputy minister to examine our processes, and if he finds that changes need to be made, we’ll make them."

Just hours after the protest, Bilotta's lawyer Don Johnson indicated he was hopeful that his client could be freed on bail as early as Thursday when she's scheduled to appear in court.

"I've had my discussions with the federal prosecutor and the Crown attorney's office and hopefully the plan (for release) is going to be acceptable to everybody," Johnson told The Canadian Press.

Bilotta has not been convicted, but is being held for allegedly breaking the conditions of her bail in connection with several fraud and drug charges.