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British Columbia Indigenous women receive ‘harsher punishments’ in prison, ex-inmate tells solitary confinement trial

The B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Aug. 20, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

A woman who spent more than 1,100 days in solitary confinement – including one near-continuous stretch lasting more than two years – says Indigenous prisoners were treated worse than non-Indigenous inmates.

BobbyLee Worm testified Wednesday in a B.C. Supreme Court case challenging the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. Much of Ms. Worm's evidence was entered through an affidavit, though she also took the witness box. In the affidavit, she said she felt she was wearing a label as soon as she walked into prison.

"First Nations women were treated differently than non-Aboriginal girls, and I saw a lot of discrimination by [Correctional Service Canada] against Aboriginal prisoners – giving them fewer privileges, longer and harsher punishments, and just generally treating them worse," she wrote.

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The BC Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada sued the federal government in January, 2015, over the use of solitary. The trial opened this month in Vancouver.

From our archive: Attitude change results in parole for aboriginal woman

Solitary confinement: How four people's stories have changed hearts, minds and laws on the issue

The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on the prevalence and effects of solitary confinement, beginning with a 2014 investigation into the death by suicide of Edward Snowshoe after 162 days in a solitary cell.

During her testimony, Ms. Worm at one point began to weep, prompting the judge to call a brief recess. A lawyer for the federal government had been asking Ms. Worm about her contact with an institutional elder when Ms. Worm started to cry.

Ms. Worm later explained her culture played a vital role in getting her through prison.

"I believe it's what kept me together, kept my sanity together in that setting."

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Ms. Worm said she was sometimes given access to a spirituality room while at the Edmonton Institution for Women but was taken there in shackles and handcuffs and had to remain in restraints while meeting with the elder. She said the elder was not allowed to bring anything hard or sharp, such as a rattle that is often used in spiritual ceremonies. Ms. Worm said the same restrictions did not apply to meeting with the prison chaplain – she did not have to wear restraints and the chaplain could come directly to her cell door.

Ms. Worm said access to Indigenous supports and culture was dangled over her like a carrot and only granted when staff said she had earned it. She said attempts to improve her education level were also frustrating – she would meet with an instructor while handcuffed from behind and not be given a pencil.

Ms. Worm said she was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in federal prison in 2006 after she committed armed robberies of gas stations and convenience stores in the Regina area. She said she carried out the robberies to support her drug addiction.

Ms. Worm was 19 when she started her sentence as a medium-security inmate in Edmonton. But she said her past exposure to gangs led her to believe she needed to use violence to establish a reputation. She said she frequently behaved in an aggressive manner toward other prisoners and staff and was reclassified as a maximum-security inmate within five months.

Between January, 2007, and December, 2010, Ms. Worm said she spent 1,123 days in segregation, including a 330-day span in Edmonton in 2007-08. She said she had a later stretch lasting nearly 750 days in B.C.'s Fraser Valley Institution, though she was returned to general population for two days during that period. Ms. Worm said the reasons for putting her in solitary ranged from violence toward other inmates to disobeying rules to being disrespectful to correctional staff.

She said she attempted to hang herself while in segregation in January, 2008, because she felt "there was no other way out." Staff intervened and she was placed on suicide watch.

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Ms. Worm was released from prison in 2012 and now lives in Regina with her partner and two young children. She said when her children are older she would like to become a nurse, social worker or addiction support worker.

Ms. Worm sued the attorney-general of Canada directly in 2011 over her treatment in prison. The case was later settled.

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