A Pelly Crossing mother incarcerated at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) has been unable to hold her infant for nearly eight months due to the jail’s COVID-19 measures prohibiting unrestricted personal visits.
It’s a situation her lawyer says is emblematic of the lack of resources for incarcerated women, particularly Indigenous ones, in the territory, and one that’s only been compounded by a global pandemic.
The Department of Justice, however, says the measures are needed for everyone’s safety.
Charabelle Silverfox was six months pregnant last May when she was arrested and charged, along with her sister, with first-degree murder in relation to the 2017 slaying of Derek Edwards.
The case has yet to go to trial.
Silverfox gave birth to her son, Zyryce, in August 2019 and up until late March, was able to hold and breastfeed him twice a day, every day; her husband, Calvin Menzi, moved from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse so that the baby could regularly visit.
But as the once-distant threat of COVID-19 crept closer to home, and Yukon began to impose restrictions on once mundane activities and so, too, did the WCC.
The jail suspended personal visits for inmates on March 24; they were reinstated in May, but now may only take place in a “secure” area, where inmates and visitors can see and speak to each other, separated by walls and clear panels. Previously, visits took place in an open room.
Silverfox was still breastfeeding when the jail suspended personal visits; she hasn’t been able to touch Zyryce since.
“It’s hard, it’s hard for a mother to be away, to not be able to touch their baby, their loved ones, just for a second,” she told the News earlier this fall.
“That’s all you’ve got in here, your thoughts, so you get lost in your thoughts and you just think about your children, your loved ones.”
Corrections officers, she said, have told her she’s the first person to have gone into the WCC pregnant and given birth while in custody; the system hadn’t ever dealt with a situation like this before.
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The News requested, twice, interviews with corrections officials about Silverfox’s situation, personal visits during the pandemic and supports available to pregnant inmates or those with infants.
Both were ignored. Department of Justice spokesperson Fiona Azizaj instead responded to questions by email, writing that the department would not, for privacy reasons, “comment on an individual or their personal circumstances.”
She did confirm, however, that one person in the last four years has given birth while under the WCC’s care.
Speaking generally, she wrote that the corrections branch “has transitioned to the provision of individualized care plans for all Whitehorse Correctional Centre clients,” which are “dynamic documents and are updated as the needs of the individual evolve over time.”
Azizaj also said that due to the evolving nature of the COVID-19 situation, “there is no estimated timeline for when in-person, contact personal visits will resume at the Correctional Centre.”
“The Corrections Branch is committed to maintaining humane operations at the Correctional Centre while mitigating the risks of COVID-19 to the custodial population,” she wrote.
“… This measured approach to limiting in-person contact personal visits has been implemented to protect the individuals who work and reside at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.”
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A myriad of studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact between mothers and their infants is crucial for the healthy emotional, mental and even physical development of children.
The most critical time for that is the first few years of a child’s life, University of British Columbia professor and former prison doctor Ruth Elwood Martin said in an interview, and just because someone is incarcerated doesn’t mean bonding can’t happen. She’s spearheaded several initiatives around women’s health in prisons, including developing guidelines for mother-baby units in Canadian correctional facilities.
The specially-designed units allow for mothers, with the approval of prison officials, to keep their babies with them, with the intention of preserving the mother-infant relationship.
“The critics against them would say, you know, ‘A jail is not the right place to house a baby,’ but I think in the long-run… everything has to be done to keep that infant with its mother and to support that nuclear family,” Martin said.
Even better than a unit, though, would be to have the mother in the community, she added, with options such as electronic monitoring bracelets available to ensure compliance with bail or sentencing conditions.
Martin hasn’t worked with Silverfox nor in the Yukon but repeatedly described her situation as “tragic.”
“For a newborn that’s breastfeeding, for that father to bring that baby in twice a day, and then for COVID to hit? … You can hear my horror.”
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Besides Zyryce, Silverfox and Menzi have two other children — a five-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son they raised together.
“It’s definitely, like, a lot more difficult and stuff taking care of kids without her and just managing doing everything,” Menzi said.
The difficulties go beyond changing diapers or making meals; Menzi spent his first six months in Whitehorse living in a hotel while he searched for housing and, until COVID-19 hit, was driving to the jail with the baby at lunchtime and again at 5:30 p.m. for one-hour visits.
The visits don’t happen as often anymore, nor do they last as long, because Zyryce, who’s now walking, gets restless sitting behind the barrier.
At one point, Silverfox said, she was inquiring almost daily about when open visits would be allowed again; she’s since given up on asking.
It’s frustrating, she added, to know that people outside can get tattoos and haircuts or go out to eat, while parents at the jail can’t even hold their children.
“It kind of feels like everyone forgot about us,” she said.
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Silverfox and her lawyer, Jennifer Cunningham, said they’d approached the WCC with the idea of repurposing one of the jail’s unused spaces to a mother-baby unit while Silverfox was still pregnant.
It was a proposal supported by Menzi, who said he would rather the baby stay with Silverfox full-time even if it meant he would see him less often.
Those efforts were unsuccessful, and Cunningham said applying for bail isn’t a realistic option, in part, because the territory lacks the resources needed — a halfway house for women, for example — to craft a strong enough bail plan.
Silverfox’s situation is “part of a larger problem,” Cunningham said, and is “illustrative of the way that Indigenous women are treated in the Yukon.”
“By failing to provide services, we’re perpetuating systemic racism and colonialism through our institutions,” she said. “Ms. Silverfox is also an intergenerational survivor of residential school and the lack of access to her child perpetuates that residential school legacy.”
Asked if the WCC was considering, or had considered, creating a mother-child unit, Azizaj wrote that officials “are always looking at how we can adjust programming to best meet the needs of those at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.”
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Silverfox says she’s learned to take things one day at a time; she has no other choice.
She thinks often about the WCC allowing open visits again, and likes to consider every day that passes as a step closer to finally being able to see her family without a barrier in the way.
“It’s like this big dream I’m always hoping will happen,” she said.
“… I play through it in my head a lot because (Zyryce) is getting big. Is he going to remember me? Is he going to think, ‘Oh, she can finally touch me again, she’s not behind glass?’”
She’s also looking forward to hugging her older kids and her husband, and maybe sneak a kiss in if she can.
The dream of that reunion keeps her going.
“It makes me feel sad (thinking about it) but I know once it happens, it’s going to be joyful,” Silverfox said.
“There’s going to be no words for it.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org