An Inuk woman says she was left vulnerable and the target of a human smuggler after she was released from prison with nowhere to go. Advocates say it’s proof that Manitoba’s justice system needs an overhaul.
Jessica LeBlanc spent 11 months at the Women’s Correctional Center in Headingley, awaiting her court date, where she was sentenced to just two days for resisting arrest.
She was released on a Friday after 5 pm and said no transition or release plan was made for her.
“They repeatedly release women to nothing,” she said. “Just on the street with a bus ticket.”
While in jail, LeBlanc, 29, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was taking medication, he said.
He got out of jail with no money, no health card, no prescriptions for his mental illness, and no safe place to stay for the night.
“They hadn’t given me the money from the job I had as a trustee in the jail,” he said.
“I had three days of [medication] that they had provided me in jail, that they had said was mandatory, and I had the clothes that they arrested me in.”
She said she was dropped off with a bus ticket at Unicity that night and left alone.
“It was very concerning that someone would be released so late at night and especially on a weekend, when there are no business hours for any [mental or social] services in the cities,” he said.
Homeless shelters were an option, but they were already full when LeBlanc arrived downtown.
4 days on the street
He spent the next four days sleeping on the streets.
Within days, a man picked her up and took her to a hotel, where they spent a week before taking her to live in an abandoned house for another three weeks.
She believes that he was trying to sell her into the sex trade.
He eventually found a safe location after seeing a St. Boniface Street Links van driving by and calling for help.
They helped her find housing and a part-time job, and she began to get her life back on track.
LeBlanc said that she could never have imagined that she would end up where she is.
She is a college graduate and before the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked and traveled the world.
When the pandemic hit, she was kicked out of her apartment and was couch surfing to stay off the streets.
If it happened to her, it could happen to anyone, she said, and she wants the justice system to change before another woman ends up hurt or killed.
Marion Willis said that the LeBlanc story is all too common.
“I think about the files on missing and murdered indigenous women, and when you really think about Jessica’s situation and how vulnerable she became when she was released, it’s not hard to understand how so many women go missing and sometimes die,” Willis said.
LeBlanc was continually failing a system that should have protected her, she said.
Many of LeBlanc’s legal problems arose because he battled undiagnosed and untreated schizophrenia, Willis said, but instead of receiving treatment at a proper facility after the diagnosis, LeBlanc remained behind bars.
During those 11 months, no one looked forward to making sure there was support for her when she was released, Willis said.
“[She] ends up being extremely vulnerable by the very system that is charged with keeping all citizens safe, including Jessica,” he said.
Willis said his team has worked with too many people who are left without a plan after serving time. Ultimately, it leads to people becoming homeless, living in camps and often falling back into the wrong crowd and reoffending or being targeted, he said.
“The system, in the end, many times forces the most vulnerable women to seek safety in the most dangerous places and with people who are also dangerous, and that is a big part of Jessica’s story. That is embarrassing,” she said.
“She was set up by the justice system to really be exploited and even killed in the streets, and that’s the piece that gets me.”
The province would not comment on the details of LeBlanc’s case, but a spokesman said Manitoba Corrections staff are working closely with inmates on their release plans.
The spokesperson said inmates are released from custody with medication to allow for the transition to primary care, but Corrections does not provide prescriptions as “there is no longer the capacity for the justice system to oversee or provide medical care.”
The release plan includes shelter options and community support, the spokesperson said in an email.
“This includes working with inmates to obtain a Manitoba health card or with another jurisdiction to provide options for a primary card upon release.”
However, LeBlanc said that never happened.
The spokesperson added that Manitoba Corrections does not help inmates find shelter accommodations, saying “once they’re released, they’re free. There are other social supports in place, but once they’re released, they’re like every other Manitoban.”