It's been nearly two weeks since 34-year-old Kimberly Squirrel was found frozen to death in Saskatoon after being released from the Pine Grove Correctional Centre near Prince Albert, about 160 kilometres northeast of the city.
At a Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations conference Monday, the executive director of an advocacy group for women in the justice system called on the province and Saskatchewan communities to increase their mental health, addictions and housing resources in order to decrease the number of women in the province's correctional facilities.
The conference was held in conjunction with International Women's Day.
"Sadly the bulk of the women we're dealing with in this province are Indigenous women. Presently we are experiencing an influx of women into our provincial system," said Patti Tait, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society Saskatchewan branch.
Squirrel's family says they had not been told she was being released from prison in January. Three days later, she was found dead. This tragedy sent shock waves through the province.
"The sad testimony of that is that there was nothing that we as an agency could have done because we've been denied access to the institutions presently because of COVID," Tait said.
The organization is currently only able to meet with women over the phone.
"And when there's a shy, bashful Indigenous woman in the institution, she may not reach out to us. If we were there, if we were able to go into the institution, if we were able to meet the women on their units, we would be in a better position to establish meaningful relationships. Relationships that would mean that a woman who is being released from jail would call out to us," said Tait.
While Tait said there needs to be alternatives, she acknowledges she cannot blame Pine Grove for not letting them in, as the facility needs to prevent COVID-19 from coming in.
There are currently 190 women incarcerated at Pine Grove, according to Tait. Of those 190, less than half are sentenced.
"And that means that all the rest of the women who are being housed there are there on remand status. They have not been found guilty of a crime. They're awaiting court and the court dates are being delayed and delayed and delayed."
As with many things, COVID-19 is cited as the reason for those delays.
But Tait says helping these women needs to start in the community — before they are incarcerated.
"If there were resources in the community for mental health issues, for housing for women, for addictions, many of the women who are presently on remand and sitting doing dead time effectively in Pine Grove would be housed in the community," said Tait.
"We'd be able to take care of them in the community. It would be a safe and viable alternative to having them incarcerated, in some cases for well over a year. I can tell you that I've dealt with women who have been incarcerated for well over a year in Pine Grove institution awaiting trial and then found not guilty of the crimes that they were accused of and released into the community with a whole year or more of their lives lost."
Tait says the province needs to put money into building up resources for Indigenous communities. She over 90 per cent of the women at the Pine Grove institution are First Nations and Indigenous women. She says that the COVID-19 restrictions not allowing people to see those who are incarcerated are traumatizing for the women.
"The mental health issues are significant. They don't get to see their family. They don't get to visit with their children. They don't get released on work releases," Tait said.
"But one of these days, soon that pandemic is going to be under control. And I would challenge all of us and all of our communities to get out there and to work to ensure that the resources available in our communities are a vast improvement over what we have today."