Toronto Star

November 3, 1999

Prison in Joliette is known as `Club Fed'

Few residents have heard of Homolka in small town

By Michelle Shephard
Toronto Star Crime Reporter

Nestled in a cradle of trees at the end of Marsolais St., a residential road in Joliette, Que., about 80 kilometres northeast of Montreal, is Karla Homolka's home.

The 80-inmate jail was opened in 1996 as part of a $54 million program to build five penitentiaries to replace Kingston's dilapidated and scandal-ridden Prison for Women. Homolka moved there in 1997.

Like the other female inmates, she walks the manicured grounds, reading or studying, moving freely behind a 2.5-metre double fence with razor wire. There are no watch towers, no armed guards and few locked doors.

When the penitentiary was unveiled, critics dubbed it ``Club Fed'' - a prison palace compared to Kingston's dingy confines.

In Joliette, a town of 18,000 where most speak only French and many residents know each other's business, few know about Homolka.

Less than 100 metres away from the posh prison, in the apartments and houses that line the street, residents shake their heads when asked if they've heard Homolka's story.

``Oh no, I was told these were harmless women convicted of petty crimes,'' said one neighbour this summer when told of Homolka's offences.

In 1993, Homolka received a 12-year manslaughter sentence for her role in the rapes and killings of Ontario teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. She told police she and husband Paul Bernardo also drugged and sexually assaulted her younger sister, Tammy, who died after choking on her own vomit.

The tragic story and Homolka's much-criticized plea arrangement, which still generates much outrage in Ontario, is not as well-known in Quebec, said Joliette police Constable Jean Claude Dufour, who also works on weekends as one of the town's paramedics.

``She must be a big deal in your province,'' Dufour said. ``But here, people do not know who Karla is.''

Corrections Canada officials stress the idea behind the Joliette prison is rehabilitation, not punishment - unlike the Kingston prison.

Eight women live in each of 10 two-storey cottage-like units within the prison. There's a grocery store on the grounds for the inmates to purchase food with a daily $4 allowance. Like college roommates, the inmates share the chores and meal preparation in their own kitchens.

Mothers can visit their children in an on-site day care. Homolka applied for the prison's parenting skills program, hoping she could babysit her fellow inmates' children.

She was denied this request because of her conviction involving minors, but, according to prison documents, vows to challenge it because she wants to have children herself one day.

While observing the institute on a summer's day, no guards could be seen. Women walked back and forth from their residences to the main building behind the fence. Other inmates used porch swings to talk or read.

A tabby cat mingled with the inmates.

Some inmates work within the prison at maintenance jobs and most attend various self-help or religious programs, study by correspondence or learn trades to obtain jobs when they are released.

Although the women have a curfew, during most evenings there are planned various events, such as volleyball or card tournaments.

Unlike the Kingston prison where Homolka was kept in her cell for more than 20 hours a day, at Joliette she is said to have many friends and is generally accepted.

``(Homolka) feels that her self-esteem and self-confidence have been influenced by her move to Joliette,'' said Dr. Sharon Williams, who assessed Homolka in July, in a psychological report.

Contents copyright © 1996-1999, The Toronto Star.