Prison making violent inmate worse, lawyer tells judge

KITCHENER — The prison environment isn’t helping Renee Acoby rehabilitate, her lawyer said Thursday at Acoby’s dangerous offender hearing.

Paula Rochman said Acoby has spent the last six years locked up in segregation for 23 hours a day.

She can only leave her cell for an hour to exercise in a small, cement yard. She hasn’t had “normal human interaction for years,’’ Rochman said on the final day of the hearing in Superior Court.

Justice Gerry Taylor reserved his ruling, which he might release in February.

Rochman said Acoby’s conversations in prison are mainly with correctional officers and staff, except for brief exchanges with other inmates through vents in the walls and doors.

“One can’t expect her to improve where she is,’’ Rochman told Taylor who must decide if the 31-year-old Brandon, Man., native should be declared a dangerous offender. “It’s not a place to get better.’’

Rochman argued that Acoby, who’s been responsible for five hostage-takings at prisons across the country, and a sixth alleged incident in Nova Scotia, would behave differently in the community.

She wants the judge to impose a fixed sentence on Acoby for taking two staff hostage at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for Women in 2005. Acoby has already pleaded guilty to the charges, and the Crown’s dangerous offender application has been part of her sentencing.

If designated a dangerous offender, she would likely be given an indefinite sentence. Her status would be reviewed every two years by the National Parole Board.

Rochman asked the judge not to include Acoby’s youth crimes as part of a pattern of violent behaviour, as the Crown has asked.

She argued that Acoby’s youth record consisted mainly of assaults, where no injuries were caused, and property offences.

To declare her a dangerous offender, the judge would have to find the Grand Valley hostage-takings were part of a long-standing pattern of similar offences or violent behaviour.

Prosecutor Mark Poland has argued that her aggressive and violent behaviour started as an adolescent. He disagreed Thursday that her youth offences were minor and didn’t involve injuries.

Rochman suggested there is hope Acoby can change because she’s had some good periods in custody.

She “made phenomenal progress’’ after being moved to a Saskatchewan healing lodge for aboriginal inmates following the birth of her baby at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in 2000, the lawyer said.

Rochman acknowledged Acoby then made a “stupid, tragic decision’’ by taking drugs. As a result, officials took her one-year-old daughter away from her.

Rochman said Acoby responded like an enraged mother animal separated from its young in the woods. She began an escape bid, but it turned into a hostage-taking.

“She felt like she lost her baby,’’ the lawyer said. “I think, in that moment, she really destroys her life.’’

Acoby went on to commit repeated crimes, including threats, assaults and more hostage-takings in years to follow. As a result, an initial sentence of 3½ years turned into a 2 ½-year sentence.

The judge has been told Acoby enjoyed inflicting pain and showed no remorse for her victims. Several female correctional officers have been unable to return to work because of the trauma they endured at her hands.

The judge asked Acoby if she had anything to say at the end of the hearing.

A tall, slim woman with long dark hair, Acoby stood and responded, “I hope you understand I am capable of rehabilitation. I hope you give me the chance to try to do that.’’

Rochman said Acoby has deteriorated while in prison and “ the behaviour just feeds on itself. It’s a bitter cycle down.’’

For her to improve, she needs opportunities to develop trusting relationships in prison, perhaps with outside people such as art therapists and native elders, she said.

The judge was given a report containing information about Acoby’s family background to use in sentencing.

Her mother, a Saulteaux member of the Swan Lake First Nation, was murdered by her father when Acoby was six months old. She was beaten to death with a tire iron and left in a ditch. Acoby and her two siblings were raised by their grandmother, who called herself their mother.

Acoby discovered the truth around age 10 when she overheard a drunken family conversation. She reacted with rage.

Acoby told the interviewer preparing the report that she is remorseful for her crimes.

“I have bawled when I read the victim-impact statements …’’ she said. “I feel horrible about the hostage-taking and the people involved.’’

Spending the last decade in prison “makes me feel hopeless,’’ she said. “Sometimes, I’m consumed by rage and frustration.

“Sometimes, just to try to feel some control in my life, I’ll hold onto my toothbrush so I won’t have to keep asking for it … having to earn it.’’

 

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