By Zoe McKnight
When Toronto Star reporter Laura Stone first heard about Ashley Smith, the teen who in 2007 asphyxiated herself in a segregation cell in a Kitchener jail, she had no idea where that story would take her.
It turned out she would travel from her hometown Ottawa, where she was an intern at Postmedia, to Calgary and back many times as winner of the inaugural Michelle Lang Fellowship in journalism, trying to make sense of the hidden world, the untold story, of incarcerated women: one very different from the men's prisons that often appear in media reports.
"I hadn't really thought much about prisons before I heard about Ashley. The idea of a 19-year-old dying in a prison cell -- after being incarcerated in the youth system for throwing crab apples of all things -- was inconceivable," Stone says. "Maybe it resonated so much because it was so difficult to understand why it happened."
Stone, 27, applied for the 2010 Postmedia-sponsored fellowship with women's incarceration in mind. Once accepted, and armed with a $10,000 travel grant, she spent a year at newspapers in Ottawa and Calgary, doing general assignment reporting (the Stampede, politics) and chipping away at her project.
The guidelines were clear: the fellowship was created "in honour of slain reporter Michelle Lang (to) inspire young writers to strive for the same excellence pursued by the award-winning Calgary Herald journalist." Lang was killed in Afghanistan in December 2009 by a roadside bomb.
Stone says she felt a duty to honour Lang and her journalism. "This was especially pronounced at the Herald, because I was working with Michelle's colleagues and best friends. I wanted to do good work," she says.
The series, Women Behind Bars , takes an in-depth, multi-faceted look at how female prisoners live in Canadian jails, a side of the prison system rarely reported since a government inquiry led to system changes more than a decade ago. A media rep told Stone that no tour had been organized in two years.
One story touches on women raising babies in jail; another, three generations –- grandmother, mother and baby -- living in the same U.S. prison cottage; another, violent gang members in women's jails; one on dangerous overcrowding; another on rehabilitation in an aboriginal healing lodge. Prison conditions vary, but in most cases the threat of violence is present. The series examines factors leading to women's incarceration: abuse, substance use, self-harm, and mental health problems, but also takes a hard look at women as offenders as well as victims in their own right.
Given extensive creative freedom from the Calgary Herald, Stone organized prison visits through Correctional Service of Canada and got valuable documents from FOI requests -- documents that were key to assessing the progress of the system since the closure of Kingston's Prison for Women in 2000.
"As my editor always said, you can't argue with numbers," Stone says. Working with a project advisor, she pitched the stories, organized the trips, found the sources and set up the interviews, including one with Renee Acoby, Canada’s only female dangerous offender.
Stone determined the topics and the angle, also working on photos, video, sidebars and graphics. The series is a large body of work, and a weighty contribution from a young journalist.
Stone joined the Toronto Star in September as one of 12 journalists in the Star's one-year intern program.
Her work has been published by the the Vancouver Province and Postmedia group. She has a B.A. from Dalhousie and an M.J. from Carleton.
Zoe McKnight is a Toronto Star reporting intern. She works in the radio room. You can find her on Twitter.