Editor’s Note

Renée Acoby and the grim legacy of the Management Protocol
Illustration by Ryan Lake
In march 2010, Marian Botsford Fraser wrote an article for The Walrus about an aboriginal woman named Renée Acoby whose troubles began when, shortly after her birth, her father murdered her mother. Raised by her grandmother, who struggled with addiction, Acoby grew into a defiant, angry teenager and soon ran afoul of the law. When she was twenty-one, she was sentenced to three and a half years in a Saskatchewan penitentiary on charges that included drug trafficking and assault with a weapon. In prison, she accumulated an additional eighteen years for an attempted escape and several hostage takings, bringing her sentence to twenty-one and a half years, of which she still has ten to serve. For the past seven, she has lived almost entirely in solitary confinement, having been designated a high risk by the Correctional Service of Canada, in accordance with a controversial penal measure called the Management Protocol, which CSC quietly abandoned in May.

The protocol permitted CSC to place troublesome female prisoners in segregation indefinitely. Offenders could work their way out in three stages — from segregation to partial reintegration to integration — but since the protocol’s inception in 2003, only two of seven women have succeeded. The rules virtually guaranteed failure; there was zero tolerance for aggressive behaviour, whether physical or emotional (Acoby was once ordered not to use profanity for thirty days). And because CSC considered the protocol an administrative rather than a punitive instrument, it could be employed without limitation, whereas purely disciplinary segregation cannot be imposed for more than forty-five days. Nor was use of the protocol subject to judicial oversight.

In the summer of 2007, Acoby’s cell at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, Nova Scotia, adjoined that of a teenager named Ashley Smith, who was also in segregation and also faring badly. Smith had been sent to a New Brunswick juvenile facility when she was fifteen for throwing apples at a postal worker, and over the next four years she would be the subject of more than 800 incident reports and 500 institutional charges. She was eighteen by the time she entered the federal system, where she was moved seventeen times in less than a year, always segregated and traumatized. She tried repeatedly to commit suicide, and eventually succeeded, strangling herself in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, while CSC employees watched on closed-circuit television. (After prison documents were made public, Smith’s family reached an out-of-court settlement in their $11-million lawsuit against CSC, although a coroner’s inquest into her death is still under way in Ontario.)

It is no secret that prolonged solitary confinement results in harmful psychological consequences, including psychosis, hallucinations, insomnia, and confusion. The Management Protocol was thus a cruel throwback to a time when prison administrators could incarcerate unfortunates like Ashley Smith and throw away the keys. And how better to describe what has happened to Renée Acoby? The Management Protocol may be a thing of the past, but in March an Ontario judge granted an application from the provincial attorney general to have her classified as a dangerous offender, which will make her sentence indefinite. (In Canada, only two women have been so designated. The first committed suicide in prison; the second had her sentence overturned and never reoffended.) The ruling was based on the testimony of a Crown psychiatrist, who never interviewed Acoby but said her history suggested an anti-social personality disorder. From this and other evidence, the judge concluded that she was likely to reoffend.

No one would deny that Renée Acoby has mental health issues, but clearly her eleven years in prison have only made them worse. Is that what we intended? Was it a coincidence that all four of the women in segregation under the terms of the Management Protocol when it was still in force were aboriginal (as, indeed, are more than a third of the 500 women in Canadian prisons)? Was the use of this arbitrary, extra-judicial, and obviously punitive form of confinement — in other precincts, it would have been called torture — in accord with our belief that prisons should be places where criminals can be rehabilitated? When Renée Acoby was declared a dangerous offender, she was in the Edmonton Institution for Women. By the time you read this, she may have been transferred somewhere else. Wherever she is, she faces what may be a life sentence for protesting mistreatment by CSC in the only way she thought she could. The pain is hers, but the shame is ours.
John Macfarlane is the editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.
Ryan Lake has contributed to Esquire and Scion magazines.

4 comment(s)

Norman Burke. caAugust 26, 2011 09:31 EST

I cannot believe how CSC has so badly mishandled the the Renee Acoby case. You can see why she lashes out so much. She started out with a 3 year sentence and now she is up to 18 years. All while she was incarcerated. They also took away any access to her child.
I remember in High School I was given 3 weeks detention after after school. 3 weeks later in was up to 16 weeks. I go so pissed off; I called the teacher every filthy word I could think of. That was the only way I could retaliate, My fury kept increasing. ////this is a micrcosum of Renee\'s case.
I\'m in a situation where the Government of Alberta has taken over control over my financial affairs because they say \" I\'m sloppy and don\'t follow through. Every time I retaliate; they squeeze. I am a brilliant CA who likes to play the stock market and they have taken all my fun and independance
Is there way I can help Renee?
Norman Burke, ca

TheothersideAugust 28, 2011 09:49 EST

wow...just a wee bit biased. Having seen with my own eyes the psychological damage inflicted on the people she has taken hostage...some have never been able to return to work.. I have to say she is reaping what she has sown. Her pain does NOT give her the right to inflict this on others. Behind bars is where she deserves to be.

AcobyJune 28, 2012 11:03 EST

Yeah she has no right to do that to people but who are we to judge in this perfect world of ours. I believe if our culture and Anishinabe traditions were never illegal or taken away from us she would have a whole different story to tell. So instead of me judging the government for such a "job well done", I choose to have compassion and show love to people no matter what kind of road they walk!

agreeJuly 04, 2012 13:31 EST

My daughter is the EFIW and believe me these women are not in seg. because they follow the rules, respect anyone, show remorse, have compassion etc. From what has been told to me about this young woman is she loves what she does to others and has no intentions of stopping. My daughter is an addict also and she is reaping what she has sew. I do not feel sorry this Acoby any more then I do for my own daughter. My daughter told me an overwhelming majorty of these women are native and they never feel sorry for what they do on the outside or the inside. It is all about power and violence to what ever extent moves you up the food chain. She told me the other native girls look up to this one and they want to be just like her. She said the few that are not native and do not want to participate in this type of behaviour are the ones living in hell. They are also living in seg. because they have to stay in their rooms to be safe and when they do come out it is like jumping into a pool of sharks and hoping you are not going to be eaten. She has had to fight a few of these women to servive herself and she is punished to seg. everytime she has had too. They tell her she should not fight but just tell them and they will take care of things. She knows CSC is full of it and will never do anything to help any of them.

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