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Pregnant woman’s treatment in Ottawa jail has mothers calling for inquiry

Julie Bilotta.


An angry group of mothers is demanding a full inquiry into what they say is the systemic inhumane treatment of women in the prison system.

They say the case of Julie Bilotta, who gave birth last month in an Ottawa jail cell, is just one example of the harsh conditions women endure behind bars.

Ms. Bilotta was to appear Thursday in Ontario Superior Court, where her lawyer was hopeful that she could be released from prison, under as-yet undetermined conditions.

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The group, which calls itself the Mother and Baby Coalition for Justice, demonstrated Wednesday in Ottawa outside the offices of Ontario Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur.

Dawn Moore, an associate professor of criminology at Carleton University who helped organize the demonstration, said Ms. Bilotta's case was not an isolated incident.

Ms. Bilotta, a 26-year-old from 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 woman's mother says Ms. Bilotta's screams for help as she went into labour were ignored for hours.

"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," Ms. Moore said.

"And in Ashley's case [her life was] ultimately lost."

Ms. 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.

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Women who attended the Wednesday 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 Ms. Meilleur to do everything in her power to ensure Ms. Bilotta is reunited with her baby boy.

Just hours after the protest, Ms. Bilotta's lawyer Don Johnson indicated he was hopeful that his client could be freed on bail as early as Thursday afternoon.

"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," Mr. Johnson told The Canadian Press.

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Ms. Meilleur has disputed the notion that there is a systemic failure to provide adequate care to inmates, although she has also said that pregnant inmates should expect to receive the same level of care as women in the general population.

The corrections service has started an internal investigation into the Bilotta case.

Ms. 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.

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