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Serena Nicotine

Serena Nicotine

Around Christmas time in 2000, Serena Nicotine was part of a kidnapping of guards in the Saskatchewan penitentiary in Prince Albert in the part set aside for federal women prisoners. The guards were released after the kidnapper's demands for fast food were met. SEE BELOW: conditions 'brutal'

In 2002 Nicotine was in the news again because an official at the institution spoke frankly to a Globe and Mail reporter about the difficulties of dealing with inmates like Nicotine.

In 2013 she is in the news for taking a fellow prisoner hostage in an Edmonton courthouse "bull pen". Yahoo! News link In a "fix", arranged by her attorney and the Crown, Serena was sentenced to two five-year terms for two hostage-taking incidents earlier this year which won't give Nicotine any extra time, but will affect her chances of future parole.

OFFSITE: CBC news July 31, 2014 Catherine McKenzie wins day parole

These discussions are important. Nicotine's limitations -- not too bright -- because of FAS would appear to be very different from the problems of Karla Homolka and their shared apparent lack of conscience the only similarity.

Provincial Court Judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has also been seen as controversial because she has tried to identify the social problems posed by FAS and look for solutions.

The thing with Serena Nicotine is that she's a beautiful young lady but she has no conscience. Another inmate will say 'Go take a hostage' and she'll say 'Okay'

Imprisoned women say conditions 'brutal' Some face months in segregation without services

Tona Mills would have the innocent looks of a 20-year-old if she hadn't used her body as a disturbing canvas to cry out for help.

Serena Nicotine in custody

Every inch of the pale skin on her slim arms and colourless cheeks bears scars that mark moments in time when isolation got the better of her. Mills spent nearly all of the last year in segregation at the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia.

"Unit 7 Max" of the prison, home to 12 maximum-security women, is little more than a hallway sealed off from more than 400 men.

Mills is one of about 30 inmates labelled high-risk who fell through the cracks in recent years as the women's penal system became kinder and more community-based.

Housed haphazardly in three men's prisons across Canada, the women talk of being maced without medical treatment, denied lawyers and other services and held in isolation for months at a time.

Advocates and others are appalled at the makeshift arrangements for these offenders, made in 1996 with promises they would last just 18 months. The women's lives revolve around the men's. In everything from eating schedules to exercise breaks, their needs come second.

The small numbers of women make it impossible to provide programs on par with what maximum-security men receive.

Tempers flare almost daily, landing the most troubled women in segregation or "the hole."

Mills, 35, was sentenced to four years for attempted murder.

She has doubled her sentence and won't be out until at least 2003 because of several angry assaults.

"It's been the hardest time I've done anywhere -- it's driving me crazy."

"I feel they won't help me here and their answer to everything is: 'Just put her in the cell and leave her.'"

Critics say the conditions are "brutal." Correctional staff say they're simply follow regulations and use extreme measures only for safety reasons.

“Some women had their clothes ripped off... by male riot guards”

About 90 per cent of Canada's 350 federally incarcerated women stay in five modern, cottage-style compounds considered a gentler, more effective way to house them.

The rest are deemed maximum-security, caught in a situation the federal ombudsman for inmates has called "discriminatory" and "untenable."

An alternative to Canada's only women's prison was long overdue when an ugly incident on April 26, 1994 prompted outraged calls for change.

That night, a strip-search of eight inmates at the Kingston Prison for Women by male riot guards -- called in to quell a spate of unruly behaviour -- would mark a sharp turning point for women's corrections.

A disturbing videotape later broadcast on TV showed half-asleep women, mostly docile, being manhandled by officers in fearsome black gear. Some women, including sexual abuse survivors, had their clothes ripped off.

Nearly five years ago, on April 1, 1996, Justice Louise Arbour, commissioned to investigate the incident, lambasted the women's penal system and called for sweeping changes.

Arbour, now a Supreme Court of Canada justice, won't discuss the subject. Back then, she didn't mince words.

She laid out a recipe for revamping women's corrections, calling for a more compassionate approach -- starting with the demise of the old Prison for Women. It closed for good last summer.

Arbour stressed the need for unfailing respect of the law, greater public scrutiny and an end to long stints in involuntary segregation.

The Correctional Service of Canada says it has adopted most of her report. But not her calls to limit isolation.

Serena Nicotine in custody

Serena Nicotine in custody during 2013 incident of taking fellow prisoner hostage in Edmonton courthouse.

Mills spent two years in segregation at the Prison for Women. As the Arbour probe ensued, Mills was enduring many of the abuses later outlined in a damning report.

Today, the vicious cycle continues -- frustrated outbursts, stints in segregation followed by more outbursts.

Just that morning, Mills lost it in court when she thought a lawyer seemed amused to hear she'd been recently maced.

"I've been in (segregation) for a year, I said. You don't know what I'm going through in there, I said. And you're sitting there laughing."

Once, an emergency squad maced her and left, she says. She got a handcuff off and splashed her face with water to ease the burning. But Mills says she wasn't allowed to shower for 21 hours -- a violation of prison policy. "The nurse documented . . . the burns I had and all the skin that peeled off my head and my back." A grievance Mills filed was only partly upheld because of her behaviour, said the Elizabeth Fry Society, which promotes inmates' rights. Prison officials won't discuss the incident.

Corrections staff admit the situation for maximum-security women staying in men's prisons in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nova Scotia is not ideal. They will be moved to the newer women's centres by September, officials say.

Yet staff for at least one of the new prisons, in Joliette, Quebec, say it will be at least January before a maximum-security unit is ready.

"We don't want them in men's institutions either," says Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay.

"They are a rough crowd and that's why we have to be careful." In the meantime, inmates endure horrible conditions tantamount to ongoing segregation, says the federal ombudsman who investigates prisoner complaints.

Women whose behaviour or mental state prompts officials to deem them maximum-security were moved to men's prisons in 1996. That year, a series of escapes and an inmate's death marred the opening of the new Edmonton Institution for Women and fuelled public fear. It also threw off plans to house the most dangerous inmates in the new prisons.

Critics say the Edmonton opening was rushed without proper security measures and inexperienced staff added to the chaos.

Many observers agree that for most federally incarcerated women, those serving two years or more, life is better since the Arbour report.

But inmates, lawyers, investigators and advocates say corrections has squandered a golden opportunity to set things right for everyone.

Some prison staff still view the law as a guideline to be followed when convenient, critics say. Women are still denied their right to legal counsel, says Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"We've taken a step forward and two back," she says. "We now have 11 institutions where women are serving federal time, not one." In the last decade, the number of female inmates has nearly doubled and they're more isolated, says Pate.

"Lawyers in corrections say Arbour was nullified when those women escaped (in Edmonton)."

The debate continues against a perplexing backdrop of falling crime rates, an incongruent rise in public concern for safety and a thirst for vengeance.

Few are sympathetic to complaints from beyond the razor wire. They want assurances that criminals are locked away, not living in luxury. Victims of crime want more inmate information and real input to ensure offenders pay.

Corrections is trying to strike a balance between the competing concerns by responding to almost all of Arbour's recommendations, says Nancy Stableforth, who oversees female offenders.

Although the law allows male staff to strip-search women in emergencies, Corrections Canada policy prohibits it since 1996, she says.

Women are typically strip-searched when they enter segregation or return from unsupervised absences. Staff are usually looking for weapons and drugs.

As for other recommendations, "there's only a couple of matters that are still outstanding" and they require changes to the law that the Justice Department must spearhead, says Stableforth, senior deputy commissioner for corrections.

For example, Arbour stressed that involuntary segregation of 30 days or more should be justified before a court. She also said that inmates who can show they were unlawfully treated by corrections staff should be allowed to argue for a shorter sentence. Asked why Justice hasn't taken the lead, a department spokeswoman said responsibility lies with the Solicitor General, who oversees corrections. A judge may not be consulted before an inmate is isolated for more than 30 days but "we review segregation regularly" to see if there are alternatives in each case, says Stableforth.

She recently visited Saskatchewan Penitentiary for the first time in more than a year.

There were two hostage-takings and a suicide in the women's unit in 2000. In December, a guard was abducted, assaulted and terrorized by four inmates. Sandi Paquachon has lived in the prison since 1996.

Violent outbursts have earned her repeated stays in segregation, isolated from most of the 15 maximum-security women who live in an area sequestered from 425 men.

She most recently attacked a female guard.

By mid-January, she had spent 60 continuous days in segregation. Paquachon described, in rapid-fire detail, how her surroundings can make a person "flip out."

"We have access to zilch . . . You see those four (segregation) cells? We're sitting on the range all day long and maybe we have a little work, like laundry, but that's done in an hour and a half."

The only exercise option for segregated women is an empty, fenced yard too small to jog around.

"Karla Homolka makes it look like we're all happy, having parties," says Paquachon. "Hey, we don't even see a birthday cake here."

Homolka, convicted in the sex slayings of two Ontario schoolgirls, is a medium-security offender. Pictures of her partying at the Joliette women's prison caused a public furore last fall.

"We don't get treated like that, us maximum women," says Paquachon, 41, who first entered prison at 18 for robbery and has never left. The death of an inmate 10 years ago got her a second-degree murder conviction and a life sentence, although some say it was a suicide case that should be reopened. "It is barbaric . . . This ain't our prison . . . They should have left Kingston open." Paquachon, sexually abused as a child, was among those strip-searched at the Prison for Women who received $50,000 in compensation. "Nothing has changed," she says. "Nobody listens to the Arbour commission."

Staff say they must weather endless verbal and frequent physical abuse from inmates and the most troubled women won't improve until they want to. "Working with one woman is the same as 20 men," says one guard. That's because the conditions exceed fair punishment, says Suzette Peters, an inmate at Springhill. "I deserve to be penalized for what I've done . . . but this is crazy," says Peters, 41, who's serving time for robbery. "I feel like I'm warehoused . . . like I've been thrown away."

Ed McIsaac, the ombudsman who investigates federal inmates' complaints, blames a correctional service that still largely operates in a vacuum. "Arbour . . . did not believe there was any hope in hell that the service, without judicial guidance, was going to correct . . . its past practices," he says.

The 'nice' jails

"The service is very closed. Openness, accountability and integrity: those are the slogans they place on their investigative process. They're certainly not the slogans they necessarily operate by."

McIsaac reports annually, but the government is not bound by his recommendations. Little will change while corrections avoids the prying eyes of the public and the courts, he adds.

"For a short period, there was a broad, public awareness and concern about incarceration of women in Canada because it was exposed to the light of day," says Trisha Jackson, lead lawyer for the Arbour commission.

"Some people said that something badly had gone wrong and people saw that, indeed, it had."

Jackson commends corrections for vastly improving the extent to which the law is now respected by its staff.

But she laments what might have been. So does Sandi Paquachon. "It's like you're never going to see society again," she says. "You have no hope. There's no rehabilitation in this place."