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by Maggie Rahr
photos by Darren Calabrese
n the stillness of an exam room at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, Bianca Lynn Mercer, 24 years old, smiles in the dim light. It’s early April 2017, she’s seven months pregnant, and as she lies on the crinkling white paper, waiting to catch a glimpse of her daughter on an ultrasound monitor, she feels something she hasn’t known during her pregnancy, spent almost entirely in jail: peace.
Two months earlier, she says, she’d been alone in a different room: a solitary confinement cell at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, also known as the Burnside jail. She’d been put there after returning from a doctor’s appointment at the IWK, disciplined for fighting with another inmate over something so trivial she can’t even remember it.
According to Bianca, the fluorescent light on the ceiling was left on all night—guards never turned it off. The tiny cell was blazing hot, making it impossible to rest. She lost track of time, minutes bleeding into hours. Some time after being locked in, she says, her mattress was removed without explanation. She’d already been sick for weeks: too nauseous to eat and too exhausted to do anything more than sleep, but at 24 weeks pregnant, even that was impossible on the bare floor, under the glaring light.
She says was finally released seven days later, only to be immediately placed on lock-down in her own cell, spending 23 hours a day inside for the next 30 days. Beyond her door, in the day room—a shared space for daytime use by inmates, adjacent to the individual cells—other inmates taunted her constantly. With little to occupy their time, mutual torment became a kind of entertainment. One mimicked punching Bianca’s swollen stomach. Another, mocking her addiction, pretended to shoot up. Someone else yelled: “I’m gonna kill you and your baby, you stupid bitch!”
Bianca had been arrested in November 2016, on charges including, among others, drug trafficking and theft. It was her second time in Burnside; the first had been between November 2015 and June 2016. Like hundreds of other inmates in Nova Scotia at any given time, she was in on remand, unable to afford bail and awaiting trial. When she entered Burnside, she was in her first trimester of pregnancy, and over the course of her six-month stint between last November and this April, she says she was in and out of solitary confinement and lock-down almost constantly. She was losing weight, and spent most of her time terrified about what would happen to her baby. And she was—as she’d been for most of her life—completely on her own.
Bianca was also a member of one of the fastest growing incarcerated populations in the country: women. According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator, the number of women in federal penitentiaries increased from 502 to 688, 37 percent, between 2007 and 2017, and the majority are mothers. Pregnant women get basic medical care, ultrasounds, and regular check-ups, but they sleep in the same cells, are subject to the same punishments, and deal with the same hardships of life in jail as any other inmate. Prenatal education and support are virtually non-existent in provincial corrections systems, and there are no options for a mother to stay with her child—which means that incarcerated, pregnant women risk losing custody of their children. (Only one provincial jail, British Columbia’s Alouette Correctional Centre, has a mother-child program—it was cancelled by B.C. Corrections in 2008 but reinstated three years ago, after a court challenge by inmates.)
“We fundamentally believe that pregnant women and nursing mothers should not be in jail,” says Martha Paynter, the founder of Women’s Wellness Within (WWW), a Halifax-based organization that supports and advocates for pregnant inmates.
A nurse and volunteer doula, Paynter exudes a no-nonsense determination. She travels to hospitals across Nova Scotia, helping low-income women and recent immigrants through pregnancy and birth. In 2012, she started a post-partum and breastfeeding support group in Halifax’s North End, and that same year, founded the first iteration of WWW. Since its inception, Paynter has been fighting to get prenatal support and more services into Nova Scotia jails. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that pregnant women aren’t made to spend their pregnancies in prison at all.
This year, Bianca became the nascent organization’s first “wraparound” client—a woman they’d support from pregnancy through childbirth. The first order of business was simple: get her out of jail.
ianca grew up in Enfield, Nova Scotia, a small bedroom community 40 kilometres outside of Halifax. From before she can remember, her home life was troubled. She lived with her mother, whom she says was physically abusive, and never met her father. In her teenage years, she says, “I met a few different men who I thought were my dad.” Her grandfather is the closest thing she’d had to a father, and she hasn’t seen her mother in 10 years.
By the time she was a teenager, she was running away from home constantly, eventually moving in part-time with a friend in Indian Brook First Nation when she was just 13. In 2008, when her friend’s family was evicted, leaving her with nowhere to go, Bianca asked her grandfather to drop her off at Halifax’s Phoenix House youth shelter. She was 15. A year later, she was homeless, staying in shelters where older women showed her how to make money through sex-trade websites. She says she wasn’t involved in sex work herself until, at 16 years old, she followed a boyfriend to Niagara Falls in 2009.
“The day I got out there,” she says, “he’s like, ‘this is what you’re going to do, you don’t have a choice, it is what it is, and you’re not going anywhere until you make some money.”
He would purposely humiliate her in front of other people. If she walked too slow, he’d push her down the stairs. He’d trip her just to watch her fall. Each attack was designed to convey one message, Bianca says: “To make sure that not just me, but everyone around me knew I was his property.” He made her dance in all-hours bars, and later work in massage parlours and strip clubs. At 16 she had a fake ID that put her at 22, but she never had to use it. “I’d just tell them I was from Nova Scotia, and they’d let me in,” she says.
After months of daily emotional and physical abuse, Bianca reached her breaking point in late 2009: “He was getting a bottle of water from the fridge,” she says of her boyfriend, “and I was standing in front of the door, and he just poured a bunch of water on me and slapped me across the face. Being wet and hit like that, it just burned.” For the first time, she fought back, taking a swing at him. After a quick struggle he ran a cold bath and forced her to submerge fully clothed in the icy water. This was a common punishment when he felt she’d misbehaved.
On this day, however, he didn’t realize the neighbours had called in a noise complaint, and as police were knocking at their door, he told Bianca to stay hiding in the cold bath. From the bathroom, she heard the police forcing their way in. Her boyfriend was arrested on outstanding charges, and with no family or friends in Ontario, she returned to Nova Scotia in 2010, living on the margins in Halifax for two more years.
By 2012 she was 19, with a new boyfriend, and pregnant for the first time. She gave birth to a baby boy the following January, and two months after that, her new boyfriend was hit by a car. When he was released from hospital two weeks later, it was with a prescription for hydromorphone painkillers, which Bianca began crushing and snorting, she says to self-medicate for gallstone pain. By that November, she was addicted and injecting, and at 13 months, her son was taken by Child Welfare Services.
Her grief was immediate and all-consuming. She tried to salve the loss by diving wholly into drugs, and started sex work again, “walking Windmill Road,” to pay for them. “I was strictly using to take away the feelings I was trying to ignore.” A string of charges, including fraud, drug trafficking, and theft followed in quick succession.
“And that,” she says, “is when I started going to jail.”
Bianca ended up on remand in Burnside for the first time in November 2015. She was released in June 2016 on probation, but just over a month later, she was charged with trafficking, theft, and probation breaches. She fled to Calgary—and on the way, discovered she was pregnant again. Desperate for things to be different this time, she stopped injecting, though she continued using drugs orally as she tried to wean herself off of them.
What was supposed to be a fresh start lasted less than a month. Her lawyer convinced her to deal with her charges in Nova Scotia, and three days after returning, in November 2016, she was back at Burnside.
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n September 2012, a 26-year-old woman named Julie Bilotta went into labour in a confinement cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. She begged to be taken to the hospital; guards on duty gave her Tylenol instead—they figured she was just faking it. When the baby’s foot poked out, one guard asked if it was a package of contraband. Ten minutes later, a second foot emerged, but it wasn’t for another 20 minutes that someone called an ambulance, and another half hour until paramedics arrived. Bilotta gave birth to her baby, born breech, a month early, with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck, on the concrete floor of her cell. “The only time I held him was in the ambulance,” Bilotta said, on a phone call from Cornwall, Ontario, where she now lives. She didn’t see her baby again for three weeks.
The above details are confirmed in a College of Nurses of Ontario disciplinary decision made public in 2014, which sparked outrage when it was released. The prison launched its own task force report on the overcrowded and under-staffed facility, and Bilotta filed a $1.3-million-dollar lawsuit, which is still pending. But no matter the outcome, Bilotta will never be reunited with her baby, Gionni Lee, who was born with respiratory complications, and died just after his first birthday.
The story was unlike anything Martha Paynter had ever heard. “It’s like something out of an apocalyptic horror story,” she says. “And it happened in Ottawa.”
Paynter was moved by Bilotta’s case to think specifically about pregnant women in jail: how were they supposed to navigate the corrections system, with the trials of pregnancy on top of all the burdens inmates already face?
That year, Women’s Wellness Within served its first client. A wholly volunteer-driven outfit, WWW initially comprised IWK midwives, staff from Halifax’s Chebucto Family Centre, and a number of other volunteers and professional women who could provide the medical and legal help clients needed. Paynter imagined a network of volunteers, who could support inmates through pregnancy and childbirth and help prepare them to be mothers.
Among them was Emma Halpern, a Halifax-based lawyer, and regional advocate for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Halpern has been a social-justice advocate her entire life—when she was just a teenager, she launched a gender equity committee at her Vancouver high school, and after graduating travelled to Latin America to work in a women’s shelter in Guatemala, at the end of that country’s 36-year civil war. While working in a Halifax legal-aid clinic, she discovered how she could make a real impact in people’s lives through law.
Halpern’s cell phone is always pinging: new calls, emails, and texts. When it rings, she’ll slug her heavy briefcase over her thin shoulder to answer the call as she keeps moving. She moves fast and talks fast, usually in the throes of a torrent of words or laughter. Or, less often, still, silent, listening intently. There’s no in-between. With Elizabeth Fry, she’s been visiting inmates and monitoring prison conditions in Nova Scotia for years. She knew the gaps that existed in the prison system for women. She’d seen them herself on visits to both Burnside and the federal Nova Institution for Women (commonly referred to as simply Nova) in Truro.
Not long after Paynter and Halpern heard about Bilotta’s experience, another Elizabeth Fry volunteer met a woman in a similar situation at Nova, where she was visiting inmates and monitoring conditions. This particular inmate would never join in during Elizabeth Fry drop-in sessions, and when the volunteer finally convinced her to join one, in late fall of 2014, she was startled by the inmate’s condition: at least seven months pregnant.
When Halpern heard about this, she immediately called Paynter to see what they could do. She told Paynter about the woman’s situation and her mental-health issues—the inmate had the cognitive ability of a 14-year-old, and had been institutionalized in foster care and group homes for most of her childhood. All of her criminal charges related to violent attacks against foster parents and group-home staff. When Halpern met her, one of her first questions was troubling: “How did she even get pregnant?”
Paynter was concerned about what could happen when this woman went into labour. “If we don’t get in there,” Paynter said, “she’ll have a psychotic break.” But Halpern couldn’t get permission to bring a doula (someone trained to support women before, during, and after birth) into the prison in time. And her worst fear came to pass.
Guards said witnessing the inmate’s labour was like watching a caged animal being attacked. She was taken to Colchester East Hants Health Centre, and four prison staff went on stress leave just from watching, Halpern says. Child Welfare Services removed the infant immediately, and the woman was moved to a mental institution in Quebec. She’s still there.
o what’s supposed to happen to pregnant women in prison?
The United Nations’ rules regarding the treatment of prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules), which Canada adopted in 2015, state that women’s prisons should have “special accommodation for all necessary prenatal and postnatal care and treatment.”
According to Sarah Gillis, media-relations advisor with Nova Scotia’s Department of Justice, “Efforts are made to provide care and engage community partners to promote attachment of mothers with their children.” Corrections facilities work with the Department of Community Services, the IWK, and the Elizabeth Fry Society. If special diets are required, she says, they make arrangements for them.
There is one mother-and-baby program at the Nova Institution for Women, but this kind of program doesn’t exist in provincial jails, where women convicted of lesser crimes such as drug possession, sex trafficking, and theft serve their sentences, or await trial during long stints on remand—sometimes months long, as in Bianca’s case.
Bianca was one of the 62 percent of inmates held on remand at Burnside, who haven’t yet had a trial. They’re just there, waiting. Overall, 57 percent of prisoners in Nova Scotia provincial jails are awaiting trial, making the province one of seven provinces and territories where more prisoners are in jail on remand than in sentenced custody. (In 2015-16, Alberta had the highest remand rate, at 70 percent.)
Since the majority of pregnant women in provincial jails haven’t been sentenced, and because there is no provincial program allowing mothers and babies to be together, Halpern says courts will often simply release women before they give birth. “Ultimately, that seems to be what happens,” she says. Nonetheless, prison births do happen on occasion, and women must still undergo pregnancy while incarcerated, where the provision of “all necessary prenatal and postnatal care,” as stipulated by the Mandela rules, is uncertain at best.
In 2014, the provincial government cut free prenatal classes across the province and replaced them with an online program to help expecting parents learn about birth, breastfeeding, and postnatal care. But since provincial inmates don’t have access to the internet—at all—they simply don’t get that prenatal education.
To fill the gap in care, Paynter spent years trying to gain access to provincial jails to provide doula services. In the beginning, she says, every meeting with corrections officials at the Burnside jail began with the same question: What is a doula? “We have to do that every time we meet. Even if we’ve met five times.” After two years of negotiating, Paynter, in partnership with the Chebucto Family Centre, was given permission to enter the jails in 2016.
There have been improvements in recent years for incarcerated women in Canada, but Paynter and Halpern both believe the entire corrections system poses a philosophical and practical problem—they simply don’t believe pregnant women, or women with children, should be in jail at all.
“We shouldn’t have to bring doulas into the jail. I do not believe we should be making prisons caring and comfortable,” Paynter says. “We should be making sure those moms are out in the community.”
ne day in late winter 2015, Emma Halpern hustled into Burnside for a routine visit, a group session with incarcerated women. Her regular visits were a way to gain access to the women’s isolated community, to find out what women have been going through day to day in the jail, so that she could advocate for them if necessary. Even so, it can be a challenge to get women to speak up: “I understand why some are not willing to tell us what is going on, because it’s really scary and dangerous for them.” She explains that women may fear retribution by guards. “There’s so much at stake.”
During her session on this day, she was struck by one inmate in particular, bright and seemingly fearless. “She didn’t hold back any details,” Halpern says. Afterwards, the two were talking privately, and bonded over a common physical quirk: short, compact little thumbs, which they held up side-by-side to compare. “Hammerhead thumbs, we call them,” says Halpern.
Bianca and Halpern orbited each other’s lives for two years, during Bianca’s two stints in Burnside. When Halpern found out early in 2017 that Bianca was pregnant, she and Paynter decided she would be an ideal candidate to be WWW’s first “wraparound client.” They would see her through her pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood. With a trial date set for December 2017, Bianca was set to spend the rest of the year on remand at Burnside, possibly to deliver her baby while still in jail.
Halpern immediately started working on a release plan, outlining where Bianca could live and how she’d be supported. The plan had to be reviewed by Bianca’s lawyer, then accepted by the Crown, before it would end up in front of a judge, who could approve or quash it.
By January, Bianca was more than three months pregnant, and losing weight. In a day room with 11 other women, all “driving each other nuts” with petty torments, she had no time alone, and was constantly anxious about the fate of her baby. She admits that she wasn’t above some of the more juvenile behaviour that close quarters provoke behind bars: “I have serious anger, so I don’t argue, I fight…and when I was pregnant it was 10 times worse.”
One day she threw peas under another inmate’s cell door; after that seemingly trivial incident, she says, she was placed on lock-down in her cell. And it only got worse from there. “Prison creates monsters out of people,” she says.
On January 31, Bianca says she was let out of lock-down and placed back with the rest of the general prison population, when a woman in her unit attacked her. “She swung at me,” Bianca says. The woman struck her in the belly, and Bianca remembers pummeling her back, over and over, before blacking out.
Bianca says she was placed in solitary confinement for the night. In that tiny, harshly lit, windowless cell, she didn’t know when or if someone would come see her. She didn’t know how long she’d be left there, alone. “It was only 24 hours,” she says, “but you don’t know it when you’re in there.”
She was released the next day, in time for a routine prenatal appointment at the IWK Health Centre. She was taken by two sheriffs she felt a kinship with, whom she trusted, which made it a little easier—though it still felt demeaning, being escorted into the hospital and sitting in the waiting room in a bright-orange jumpsuit. There was no anonymity: everyone knew, just by looking at her, that she was a prisoner.
After her exam, doctors told her there wasn’t as much amniotic fluid as there should have been surrounding the baby, and they drew blood to see if the baby had DNA markers predicting Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, or another genetic disorder. The doctors explained that the fetus was in sensitive state, and urged her to try to relax and stay calm for the baby’s health. On her way back to Burnside, Bianca was buzzing with unanswered questions. But one pursued her more ruthlessly than any other: “What is wrong with my baby?”
Bianca says that when she told the captain on duty that doctors said she should relax and needed rest, he didn’t believe her. “They were calling me a liar,” she says—so she started screaming. (Health information is considered confidential and not shared with Corrections staff. And Bianca admits guards may have reason to skeptical, as inmates are often playing games with them, making it impossible to know when someone’s telling the truth or not.)
That night, she says, she was sent back to solitary, continued punishment for the incident the previous day. As guards led her into the cell, she demanded to see the captain on duty. They closed the door on her, and she was alone, back in that room, in the heat, under that light. “I shouldn’t be down here!” she screamed.
Hours passed, then days. She says she asked when she was getting out, but no one gave her an answer. When she asked for a shower, she was refused. She lodged a complaint, and says this was when her mattress was confiscated. She lay on the floor, four months pregnant with a fetus in precarious health. Ultimately, she says she was locked in there for seven days, let out for only 30 minutes every day or two. It felt “like forever.”
Six Months in Burnside
- Fleeing charges in Nova Scotia, Bianca travels to Calgary, discovering en route that she’s pregnant. She spends less than a month in Calgary before her lawyer convinces her to come home and face her charges.
- Bianca is remanded to Burnside on charges including fraud, trafficking, and theft.
- Entering her second trimester, Bianca was involved in near daily verbal and physical confrontations with other inmates, and losing weight. On January 31, after a fight with another inmate in her day unit, Bianca says she was sent to solitary confinement.
- During a prenatal visit to IWK, Bianca learns that her amniotic fluid is low. Doctors urge her to relax as much as possible. Upon her return to Burnside, Bianca says she was returned to a solitary-confinement cell. She claims that she was there for seven days, during which her mattress was confiscated.
- Bianca says she was returned to solitary as discipline for various confrontations. She spends as much time as possible sleeping, though she says certain guards would purposely slam doors and otherwise disrupt her rest.
- The Elizabeth Fry Society sends a letter to Minister of Justice Diana Whalen, asking for Bianca’s release from solitary, and condemning confinement as a form of torture.
- Bianca’s release plan is approved by a provincial judge, and she enters supportive housing provided by YWCA.
Whenever an inmate is held in solitary for more than 24 hours, it’s supposed to trigger a mandatory review. An independent adjudicator leads a hearing at an office in Burnside, usually by video link, and guards can use evidence, such as security footage (of fights, for instance), to bolster their version of events. And inmates are given an opportunity to tell their side of the story, and even call witnesses, before the adjudicator decides whether the inmate goes back into solitary.
But Bianca says she never got a review. She was finally released from solitary, only to be locked down again in her own cell in the day unit, and released from there a few days later.
Again, the days dragged, the arguments and pranks wearing on her, compounding her anxiety about her baby, and she felt her patience, and her sanity, slipping away. “I was giving up.”
When she ended up in solitary again in March, she didn’t protest, but used it as an opportunity to sleep, passing as much time as possible on the cell’s tiny cot.
A few days later, Halpern heard whispers that Bianca was back in confinement, and that she’d gone stretches of time with no mattress, or access to her medication. WWW and the Elizabeth Fry Society intervened, sending a joint letter to the province’s then-minister of justice, Diana Whalen, asking for Bianca’s release and condemning solitary confinement as a form of torture.
They never received a response, but shortly after the letter was sent, on March 31, 2017, Bianca was released from solitary, with no explanation. She was locked down again in her cell.