Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

BobbyLee Worm survived 1,123 days in solitary confinement and became one of the country’s most prominent and effective prison reformers. She died last month at the age of 35.Lenee Son/Handout/The Canadian Press

In 2011, BobbyLee Worm forced the Correctional Service of Canada to end a pernicious form of solitary confinement in federal prisons.

Seven years later, she did it again, captivating spectators during a landmark B.C. Supreme Court case that would compel the federal government to overhaul how prisoners are isolated.

Her authority came from her experience. She had survived 1,123 days in solitary. During that time, she thought of killing herself. She hallucinated and lost hair. She developed an aversion to loud noises and open spaces. During phone calls with her mother, she said she felt small and powerless. The effects would remain with her for the rest of her life.

From that place of helplessness, she would rise to become one of the country’s most prominent and effective prison reformers, working to overhaul the policies and power structures that had conspired to keep her in chains.

Ms. Worm, a member of the Day Star First Nation in Saskatchewan, died on June 5 at the age of 35. A GoFundMe page has been established to support her three children, aged 3, 6 and 8.

“She helped transform the conversation,” said Queen’s University law professor Lisa Kerr, who advocated for Ms. Worm. “She was such a compelling speaker and had so much emotional courage in sharing her past and what it was like for her in solitary, She had a face none of us could turn away from, and a life that was so emblematic of the trauma we know Indigenous women experience.”

Court filings describe a tough upbringing set against poverty, abuse, drugs and street gangs. Born and raised in Regina, Ms. Worm was an inquisitive kid who would blast Hootie & the Blowfish and TLC from her family home. She would dress her youngest sister Nona like a doll and visit family members spread throughout the city.

A jail visit to her father formed one of her earliest memories. “I knew that he was staying away from drugs and bad people and stuff like that, so I always looked forward to dad going to jail [when I was] growing up,” she told filmmaker Kevin Eastwood, a friend, for a short film he produced for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). “I know that’s a sad thing to say, but at some point I thought jail was a good place.”

Starting in Grade 7, she would follow her father’s path, landing in juvenile detention for assault causing bodily harm. Upon her release, she had nowhere to go. “I was pretty much homeless,” she recalled in the film. “I was living out of bathrooms and restaurants and stuff like that.”

Violence became a means of survival. In December, 2005, police arrested her for five armed robberies at gas station convenience stores around Regina. By the following summer, she was serving a six-year, four-month federal sentence.

She clashed with the restrictive environment, the staff and the advances of fellow prisoners.

“There was one fight where a girl wanted to be with Bobby because she [was] so pretty and Bobby said ‘No,’ ” Nona recalled.

Staff accused her of stabbing another inmate, threatening to slit a correctional officer’s throat and throwing a television. They placed her in maximum security and, eventually, in a new form of long-term segregation specifically for women, called Management Protocol.

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) reserved the practice for women it considered uncontrollable. Just seven women had been subjected to Management Protocol at the time. All but one were Indigenous. Ms. Worm was locked in her cell for up to 23 hours a day and denied most prison programming and leisure activities. Any time she left her unit, three staff members had to accompany her, and she was typically in handcuffs and leg irons.

“She started talking crazy in phone calls,” her mother, Deborah, said. “She felt like she was losing her mind. The guards were messing with her. She kept saying ‘Momma, if I didn’t hear your voice I would’ve given up long ago.’ ”

During a moment of clarity, Ms. Worm phoned Prisoners’ Legal Service (PLS), a Vancouver-based non-profit law practice devoted to people in prison. Staff at PLS happened to be on the lookout for Management Protocol cases, based on advice from Senator Kim Pate, who was then executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a prisoner advocacy group.

Dr. Kerr, then a staff lawyer for PLS, met Ms. Worm at Fraser Valley Institution in Abbotsford. B.C. Three guards escorted Ms. Worm to the meeting, where she had to speak to Dr. Kerr through a plastic partition. Dr. Kerr couldn’t square the woman in front of her with the person described in legal documents and prison assessments.

“I expected someone maladjusted,” Dr. Kerr said. “But I sat down with this woman who was so beautiful and so caring. She immediately asked about how I got into the prison and whether that was okay. She asked me about me and my life. This was a caring and intelligent woman.”

Dr. Kerr pored over Ms. Worm’s prison record. There was a CSC psychological assessment that recommended vocational training, trauma counselling and a therapeutic book to help Ms. Worm, none of which she had ever received. What really caught her attention was the Management Protocol plan. “It was the most unlawful thing I’d ever come across,” Dr. Kerr said. “It was a program of solitary confinement just for women. I immediately said we have to bring a Charter challenge.”

Dr. Kerr got the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association involved and they filed suit on March 4, 2011, arguing that both Management Protocol and the practice of indefinite solitary confinement violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Days later, CSC cancelled Management Protocol without acknowledging the lawsuit. “It was obviously in response to the lawsuit,” Dr. Kerr said. “They wouldn’t even give her the dignity of saying it was her doing.”

With multiple lawyers working on her case, Ms. Worm got out of solitary confinement and into trauma counselling. She was released on parole in April, 2012. A year later, CSC settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.

Ms. Worm moved back to Regina and started a family. But she wasn’t quite finished with CSC.

In 2015, the BCCLA decided to take another crack at ending indefinite solitary confinement, launching a lawsuit with the John Howard Society of Canada in B.C. Supreme Court. Ms. Worm decided to testify.

“She thought nobody else should go through this,” Mr. Eastwood said. “It’s rare to meet someone who would risk the spotlight, who would be willing to go to court, and be willing to go before federal government lawyers like she did. Most people would wither with the grilling she got, but she held her ground and even corrected them. When she spoke, everyone listened.”

The BCCLA won the case and a subsequent government appeal, striking down laws authorizing indefinite solitary confinement.

Ms. Worm returned to Regina and threw herself into parenting, according to family and friends. She and her partner, James Keshane, had three children: Nitanis, Nikosis and Nateo. “She was always there with her babies,” her mother said. “She was so devoted. They really took over her life and she was so happy.”

But Ms. Worm said she continued to feel the aftereffects of segregation. There was lingering anxiety when she was alone, meeting new people or leaving the house.

In recent months, things unravelled. According to family, child services workers seized her children after a concerned neighbour saw one of them playing alone.

“That led to a downward spiral,” Mr. Eastwood said. “Her kids were her world.”

She and Mr. Keshane were evicted from their home in January and ended up living in a tent behind a family member’s house.

“She lost everything,” her mother said. “She was just lost. So they pitched a tent. That’s where she overdosed. Fentanyl.”

The news shocked friends and family. Everyone decided something had to be done for her children. Mr. Eastwood organized an online GoFundMe fundraiser with $15,000 goal. Her youngest sister, Nona, is moving from Vancouver back to Regina in hopes of taking custody of the kids.

“My sister would do it for me,” Nona said. “She was big, bold and beautiful. She hammered into us right and wrong. She told us to be solid and speak up for yourself.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe