Renée Acoby, a beautiful 34-year old Ojibwa woman, mother and poet, also happens to be the fourth female dangerous offender in Canadian history. The third one is Krista Walker, the second one, Lisa Neve, had her sentence overturned and is now a free woman. The first one, Marlene Moore, killed herself in Kingston Prison for women. So Acoby remains the second female dangerous offender in Canada. A designation she earned, not on the outside, but while incarcerated.
The title of dangerous offender is supposed to be afforded to only the most violent killers and sexual predators in the country, handing them a prison sentence with no end in sight. Serial killer/rapist Paul Bernardo and serial child molester Gary Walker are on that list. And they earned their title for crimes they committed living in the free world.
Three of the women who were designated as dangerous offenders were not hard core criminals and it is rather odd that they earned their title during their stay in ‘captivity’ while living under duress and mental strain. The fourth one was clearly a full blown psychiatric case.
Acoby was born in Manitoba and grew up in Winnipeg and the city of Brandon with two siblings and her grandmother. She comes from a cycle of violence herself; her father beat her mother to death when she was six months old. She lived with her grandmother thinking she was her real mother. She became angry and defiant as a preteen upon learning of her mother’s murder and was in and out of the foster care system afterwards. “Her difficulties appear to have escalated significantly after Ms. Acoby became aware of the circumstances of her mother’s death at the hands of her father,” says a 2008 report from psychiatrist Dr. Scott Woodside.
She entered the federal system in 2000 while she was pregnant. When her daughter Anika was born on Oct. 20, 2000, Acoby was transferred to the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge on the Nekaneet First Nation reserve in southern Saskatchewan.
She participated in a mother-child program, which allows some inmates to keep their babies in jail. The healing lodge reflects the rehabilitative side of women’s incarceration, nestled on 65 hectares of wooded landscape without barbed-wire and traditional segregation cells.
Acoby responded well to the aboriginal prison, where she established a good relationship with an Ojibwa elder “who reminded her of her grandmother,” and by all accounts, was progressing. In 2001, while Jacoby was 21 and a year into her stint at the healing lodge serving a 3 ½ year sentence for drug trafficking and use of a dangerous weapon, she was caught smoking marijuana and popping some Valium with other inmates and the authorities said to her, ‘think about your baby, you have 15 minutes.’ And then, they basically ripped her baby away from her and gave Anika to her sister. She had no idea this could happen if she took drugs that were readily available on the premises.
Acoby tried to escape the lodge soon after to go see her daughter. She was caught by a guard whom she took hostage demanding to see her baby. Since that unfortunate event, she has seen her daughter once when she was 8 years old. And her daughter does not know she is her mother. Kind of like history repeating itself.
“You just don’t go in and remove a cub from its mom,” she says. “You don’t do that. I don’t care if you’re in jail or out. Every parent, especially a mother, would react.
“They shouldn’t have taken my daughter from me, because she was basically my life.”
It was what Acoby now calls her “breaking point.” Looking at it from the outside, it is obvious that as a mother, she was put in a situation where she could not reason and made a series of bad decisions.
Every time Acoby resorted to violence during her incarceration, it had to do with her believing her rights were being denied. She is an agitator and was probably trying to empower herself in a place where power is non-existent.
Clare McNab, former warden at the healing lodge, says Acoby lived at the prison for 11 months without incident. “She did embrace what we were trying to do here, for a period of time.”.
“I still think she just doesn’t have the skills she needs. She has kind of a pattern of behaviour that she falls back on, and it’s too bad. I worry about aboriginal women in prison and what options they have. So, the same I worry about her too.’’
During her 11 years in prison, Acoby has been convicted in five hostage-takings and numerous assaults on staff and other inmates.
Acoby says “Looking back at it, it is self-defeating. It’s wrong, completely wrong to do that.”
“It just felt like we were trying to do everything the right way . . . and we just keep encountering obstacles. It’s like you’re one bull, against 100.”
The Canadian penal system took hold of Renée Acoby and proceeded to make or break her. CSC (Canada Correctional Services) decided to introduce a new Intensive Intervention Strategy they called the Management Protocol. It aims at ensuring the safety of the staff, other inmates and the public while giving the inmate the opportunity to regain her credibility and slowly reintegrate into the regular prison population.
It includes a stable routine, intervention methods, staff-inmate interaction, psychological assessments and interventions, spiritual activities and leisure. CSC estimates that it should take six months for the inmate to complete the steps. But as with the case of Ashley Smith who died in her jail cell while miserably failing at the same program, hardly anyone ever graduates from the protocol because of this rule: Zero tolerance for any aggressive behavior of physical or emotional nature. As the women never reach a certain level in the program, they are never allowed any spiritual or leisure activities.
Renée Acoby describes the protocol as having to jump through hoops to get 10 squares of toilet paper. The same thing goes for sanitary napkins, books, etc. She was required to clean her cell with a face cloth and hand soap to earn a mop, broom and cleaning products. For months, meals were brought to her in paper cones like Dixie Cups. She could not brush her teeth more than once a day. She was prohibited from using profane language for thirty days. In response, she swore incessantly for days, until the condition was removed. As one corrections official said, “This would be a Monty Python skit if it weren’t real life.’’
I know many young non-criminal women who would rebel and end up losing their impulse control if they were subjected to that kind of treatment. Acoby describes the feeling as having a Molotov cocktail in her mind.
The most troubling element of the Protocol is solitary confinement: twenty-three hours a day in the first phase. Michael Jackson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, calls solitary “the most individually destructive, psychologically crippling, and socially alienating experience that could conceivably exist within the borders of the country.”
Acoby describes the prolonged segregation as a devastating experience that made her believe she was literally losing her mind.
“People cannot tolerate a situation in which there seems to be no escape,” says Jackson. “If Acoby feels there is no escape and, knowing her own limitations, fears she cannot put together a month or two of good behavior without some infraction that sends her back to the previous phase, then she is in a situation where there is inescapable pain and inescapable punishment. It is the ultimate horror, and it leads to this cycle of violence.”
Most outsiders who have met Renée Acoby in prison, describe her as soft spoken, very articulate and smart. She is curious and has a great sense of humor. She is a fast learner and behaves correctly when not over-restrained.
Here is a poem she wrote for the PEN writer’s program:
There are times when I covet so much
The comfort inherent in a mother’s touch.
Infinite memory, suspended yet rushed;
Fleeting vulnerability, whispered, clutched.
Freedom slips away every time I get near it,
Deprived of intimacy so long, I almost fear it;
The song of the North Wind, I long to hear it…
I search for peace to still my transient spirit
Acoby’s record of offences is almost completely about perceived injustices to her or other inmates. As far as I know, every incident was preceded by Renée using every other mechanism available; she filed complaints, grievances and appealed legitimately before circumventing the system with her wild shenanigans.
How is it possible that young disadvantaged women entered the system on minor charges and ended up being designated as dangerous offenders?
Unlike the men who basically had to commit serial murders and rapes to get the designation. Colonel Russell Williams, who killed 2 women, does not even hold the title of dangerous offender.
Lisa Neve and Renée Acoby were both aboriginals and had a history of mental disorder. Lisa Neve was declared a dangerous offender and tried to kill herself while in segregation. She received help and her status was reversed. She was released in 1999, and with the help of her family and some community groups, she has never reoffended and helps young girls and troubled inmates.
Young Marlene Moore also entered the system on minor charges and came from a disadvantaged family where she was abused. She did not survive her stay in prison. After being designated as dangerous offender, she lost all hope and committed suicide in 1988, after years of self-mutilation and horrendous suffering. A touching movie called Dangerous Offender was made to tell her tragic story. She might have been her own worst enemy, but a monster she was not.
Click here to read an article about the label of dangerous offender and how it carries the risk of entrapping the wrong people. According to Alan Young, criminal law professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, “It’s almost an impossibility, because you’re saying to someone: Prove you’re not dangerous. The court system should make sentencing more of an obstacle course, rather than an assembly line.”
Krista Walker committed aggravated assault, but as an infant in Ontario, she had contracted meningitis causing brain damage. She exhibited uncontrolled behavior and at age 13, was placed in foster care and eventually, residential facilities. She is deeply disturbed and not surprisingly, ended up stabbing someone and uttering threats. What is she doing in prison with a title of dangerous offender and expected to follow a Protocol? She should be receiving treatment in a psychiatric institution.
Click here to read about Walker.
The penal system seems to be creating monsters out of unruly female inmates. Without denying that their actions have dire circumstances on their victims and their own life, they nevertheless, entered the system for minor offences and were given nothing but constant negative reinforcement.
After reading what Renée Acoby had to say about the system and her lack of hope since being separated from her daughter, I am convinced she could contribute to the creation of programs to stimulate the inmates to comply by offering them realistic and positive goals.
From all accounts, Acoby reads and writes voraciously, and takes college courses by correspondence that she aces. She understands the prison policies and directives. When you look at the Protocol, it is easy to deduct that it is not successful because the women keep failing at it.
Acoby wonders herself why Management cannot meet the inmates, to confront the problem. She says, ‘Perhaps they don’t want to confront the ghosts of women their brilliant Protocol has reduced the women to.’ Until then, she remains their best in-house Frankenstein creation.
Renée Acoby’s comments about the CSC Protocol:
You wonder what right you have to feel angry about your confinement because it was your own actions/reactions that led to your conditions. So, you soldier up and tell yourself to deal with it…until you find yourself in a tangled web of Carceral politics and loopholes that rendered indefinite solitary justifiable. You submit the customary grievances and rebuttal at every thirty day segregation review, inwardly questioning if you’re closet-case masochistic. Of course, you never do give up on submitting grievances because, ha ha, maybe someone will eventually listen.
Then you have those renegade days where you wake up feistier than the notorious Black Widow on a geriatric ward. Ten squares of toilet paper? Fuck you. One book for four hours? Fuck you, I have my imagination. So it goes. You push back to reclaim your so-called dignity, know it’s one word with a dictionary definition, especially on the rare days you opt for a nude Mexican stand-off.
You mind feels like a Molotov cocktail was thrown into it. Sometimes it could be the scent of a shampoo that triggers an old memory, good or bad and sometimes both. You have tunnel vision some days, with every smile you see hiding an agenda and behind every tear lurks a crocodile. Anger and unbridled hostility permeate every fiber of your being like a virus.
You reflect on the validity of being compartmentalized as manipulative, violent, and threatening and generally as a bad seed by CSC, yet the System that claims to have zero tolerance for such unsavory traits is the first to adopt them when it suits their purpose.
The Protocol program has been cancelled and replaced by other punitive measures
Click for a link to the book about Marlene Moore’s case called Rock A Bye Baby
UPDATE: In January 2016, Renée Acoby’s appeal was dismissed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto. She fought to remove her designation as a dangerous offender, and lost. Not surprisingly, newspapers announced it with headlines like Psychopath who took hostages (10 years ago) loses appeal. I am surprised some of them did not add a video of their happy dance. By constantly dehumanizing inmates. and expecting them to show humanity and compassion in return, you only contribute to this non ending vicious circle of crime.