Julie Bilotta, the Cornwall-born inmate who gave birth to her first son, Gionni, on the floor of a jail cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre September 29 because guards and nurses didn’t believe she was in labour, is still awaiting the outcome of three separate investigations into her shocking birth story.
Bilotta and baby Gionni have been living at J. F. Norwood House, a transition residence run by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, since she was released from custody in October. Her bail conditions impose a strict curfew and staff supervision when she leaves the facility. Other JFNH residents, many of them separated or estranged from their own children, have been delighted to help care for the baby boy.
Bilotta, who was eight months pregnant and in remand custody awaiting trial on fraud- and drug-related charges, underwent a blood transfusion as a result of excessive blood loss during the high-risk, breech birth. Her release from custody was likely due to the barrage of media coverage. But most women’s complaints from behind bars go unheeded and unnoticed. (In an eerily similar account of neglect, 35-year-old Kinew James died January 20 of an apparent heart attack at a Corrections Canada psychiatric prison in Saskatoon. Fellow inmates say guards ignored a distress alarm and her repeated calls for help. Corrections Canada is now reviewing the circumstances of James’ death.)
Elizabeth Fry Societies across Canada provide assistance to women involved in the Canadian criminal justice system and advocate for the rights of women in prison. Bryonie Baxter, the executive director of the Ottawa society, was instrumental in raising Bilotta’s concerns — and what she calls the systemic abuses that women endure behind bars, especially regarding healthcare. “They punished her for being in labour. It’s barbaric,” said Baxter. “And regardless of what you think about the rights of the mother, we have to think of how the rights of the child have been violated.” The Ontario Minister of Correctional Services, the provincial ombuds office and the Ontario College of Nurses are all investigating why Bilotta’s cries for help resulted in guards shuttling her into segregation instead of an ambulance.
Here are a few things you may not know about pregnancy and prison in Canada:
Editor's note: Author Lisa Gregoire is an Ottawa writer and board member of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa.
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