01/23/2013 01:09 EST | Updated 03/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Allegations guards ignored inmate's call for help before her death in Saskatoon

SASKATOON - A group that works with women in prisons is raising questions about the death of an inmate at the federal psychiatric centre in Saskatoon.

Kinew James, 35, was found unresponsive in her cell Sunday and later died.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said other inmates have reported hearing James shouting for help and using a distress button in her cell. Society officials said an inquest should be called in her death.

"That's what we have heard is that she told people that she wasn't feeling good, that she was in some distress, that she needed care and attention," Sue Delanoy, executive director of the society in Saskatchewan said Wednesday.

"She pushed buttons and requested care and attention. What we're not sure of is - time will tell, I guess, from videos and autopsies - was she responded to in the appropriate time."

Correctional Service Canada said in an email to The Canadian Press that "all cell call alarms are treated seriously and designated staff are expected to respond to these alarms in accordance with established procedures."

The procedures state that prior to disabling a cell call alarm, guards will verify the well-being of the inmate.

Corrections spokeswoman Lori Pothier said it would be inappropriate to comment further because the incident is under investigation.

Saskatoon police said Wednesday afternoon that their preliminary investigation has found no evidence of foul play.

The chief coroner of Saskatchewan now has authority over the continuing investigation.

James's family wants answers too.

Kim Pate, the Elizabeth Fry Societies' national executive director, said the family has been told she had a heart attack.

"They want to know what happened to their daughter and are concerned that they still don't have full answers and they're not trusting that it was just a heart attack," she said.

It's not clear how long it took staff to respond to the woman's pleas for help.

Pate said on at least one occasion staff said they would ask a nurse to come in, but that was not put out as an urgent call.

James was serving time for manslaughter, assault, uttering threats, arson, mischief and obstruction of justice.

Pate said James suffered from mental health issues and had a history of hurting herself. She was also diabetic.

"Our concern is that even though she may have died from natural causes, was it preventable if she had had medical attention and intervention earlier than she did," said Pate.

"It strikes me that the circumstances call out for an inquest."

Shaun Dyer of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan called for an inquiry to determine if policies involving inmate health and safety were followed.

"Were Ms. James’ calls for assistance ignored?" Dyer said.

"In the interest of inmate health and safety, we encourage Correctional Service Canada toward a transparent and thorough independent inquiry into this situation."

Questions about James's death come as an inquest continues in Ontario into the death of Ashley Smith.

The nineteen-year-old died in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007 after wrapping a strip of cloth around her neck. Guards who were ordered not to intervene stood watch outside her cell.

Most of Smith's final year was spent in segregation being shunted 17 times among nine different prisons in five provinces, including the Saskatoon Regional Psychiatric Centre.

—By Jennifer Graham in Regina