In 2007 a young woman killed herself in an Ontario prison. Her death is now the subject of a coroner's inquest scheduled to begin in Toronto on Monday. Ashley Smith's death may help to prevent others who suffer from mental illness in the prison system.
When Ashley Smith was 13 she threw a crab apple at a postal worker. That act and other school incidents started Smith's experiences within the penal system. By the age of 19 she was a veteran of that system. Her life ended at a Kitchener prison for women where guards watched her strangle herself in a segregation cell.
In June 2008 the Office of the Ombudsman & Child and Youth Advocate published Ashley Smith: A Report of the New Brunswick Ombudsman and Child and Youth Advocate. The 69 page report detailed young Ashley's life behind bars and the lack of treatment for mental illness during that time period.
Ashley was young but had been in and out of the youth detention system for years. From the crab apple incident until her death the young girl fell through every crack along the way. The time she spent behind bars may have lead to the mental illness that she suffered from.
Bernard Richard said in the report:It is therefore my belief that the story of Ashley Smith illustrates the need to go beyond the operational aspect of correctional services within the province of New Brunswick. There is a much greater need in that all provincial governmental stakeholders involved in providing services to young people in contact with the youth criminal justice system must broaden their perceived scope of responsibilities and work towards a more coordinated and efficient collaboration.
Ashley was adopted at the age of 5 days. Until Grade 5 she was a 'normal' child. At 10 however Ashley developed behaviour problems at school where she was disruptive and talked excessively. When she turned 13 the problems intensified. she was suspended from school repeatedly for various reasons including “playing chicken” in the street with on-coming traffic.
During this period Ashley's family life was also strained. Her parents were receiving phone bills in excess of $1,000 at times because of long distance charges. Her mother reported that her daughter had few friends and interactions with others her age often ended up in conflict.
In 2002 she was sentenced for the crab apple incident and on March 4, 2003 she moved in to the Pierre Caissie Center for a 34 day assessment. She was 15 years old.
Testing at the center found that she was not depressed but assessed her as having “diagnostic impression”, “learning disorder, ADHD, borderline personality disorder”.
The report goes through her problems with education in the formal setting. In November 2003, at the age of 14 years and 10 months old, Ashley finished attending any form of schooling or educational program.
During the period between April 2003, and October 2006 while staying at the Saint John Correctional Centre there were hundreds of incidents recorded on Ashley's behaviour ranging from refusing to hand over a hair brush to more serious reports of self-harm and suicide attempts.
Ashley's time behind bars was often because of probation violations. She would be released for a few days and then a violation would land her back into the system.
"At the end of December 2003, Ashley was sentenced to her first lengthy incarceration period at the New Brunswick Youth Centre. Hours after her release on February 26, 2004, while under community supervision, Ashley was arrested for pulling a fire alarm and breaching her probation. Her guilty plea initially got her an additional 75 days of secure custody. However, subsequent criminal charges were laid while she served her custodial time and 75 days quickly cumulated into several months. Ashley remained in secure custody until her release on February 10, 2005."
Some of the notes within the report show the young girl's mental state and the means that the system dealt with it.
"On June 26, 2004, while serving time in TQ, Ashley was going through her regular routine of obstructing supervision checks by covering the cell window and camera with food, toilet paper, and blankets. She then refused staff directives to remove the items so they could make visual contact. After exhausting all other tactics for dealing with a situation of this nature staff were authorized to place Ashley in a restraint belt called the “WRAP”. After placing Ashley in the “WRAP”, she was secured for a limited amount of time (approximately 50 minutes)."
"On March 1, 2005, after a long series of negotiations with staff to leave the shower area and return to her cell, Ashley was pepper sprayed. At the time Ashley was nude in the shower area, and in possession of a piece of metal, possibly a razor blade. Female staff members were unsuccessful in removing her from the shower area. Due to her physical size, it was difficult for female staff members to be successful in extracting her from the shower area. It was then decided to consider the option of introducing pepper spray. Ashley was given three warnings and after she refused all warnings the pepper spray was introduced. After she was pepper sprayed she became compliant and was moved to the TQ area where the decontamination process (applying copious amounts of water to the eye area) was commenced. The Superintendent authorized this use of pepper spray."
Her journal entries show Ashley's state of mind just weeks after she was transferred to an adult jail in September 2006.
"Most people are scared to die. It can’t be any worse then living a life like mine. Being dead I think would just suit me fine. I wonder when the best time to do it would be. I’m not going to get locked because then I’m back on checks and they will expect me to act up then. I will call my Mom before bed and have one more chat. Somehow I have to let her know that none of this is her fault. I don’t know why I’m like I am but I know she didn’t do it to me. People say there is nothing wrong with me. Honestly I think they need to f*** off because they don’t know what goes on in my head. When I use to try to hang myself I was just messing around trying to make them care and pay attention. Now it’s different. I want them to f*** off and leave me alone. It’s no longer a joke. It kind of scares to think that they might catch me before it’s done and then I will be a vegetable for the rest if my life. That’s why the most important thing right now is to stay unlocked so they don’t think anything is up. It’s over."
In October 2006 Ashley wrote why she should not be sent to adult prison.
"Although I know that my record looks bad, I would never intentionally hurt anyone. I am really scared about the thought of going to an adult facility with dangerous people. It has occupied my mind for a long time. I have wanted to behave to ensure that I would not ever go to adult and was sure that I would succeed (…)."
On October 31, 2006 Ashley was transferred to the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, Nova Scotia. She was in and out of segregation. Ashley was subjected to the use of the taser during two separate incidents. Although she verbalized suicidal threats at no time was she sent for formal psychological evaluation after being admitted to the adult facility.
During her short life Ashley was transferred 17 times, forcibly injected, and denied access to counsel, advocates and her family reports The Globe and Mail.
Today David Langtry, Acting Chief Commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission released a statement of the Ashley Smith Inquest.
"After her death in a correctional facility, the Correctional Investigator of Canada found that Ms. Smith's mental health needs were never accommodated by Correctional Services Canada. Instead of leading to rehabilitation, Ashley Smith's incarceration led to a worsening of her condition. The Investigator has also reported that Ms. Smith's experience was not unique.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission has identified the treatment of people with mental illness in Canada's correctional facilities as a pressing human rights issue.
Mental illness is a disability. In Canada, people with disabilities have a right to be accommodated when they receive services from the government.
The case of Ashley Smith challenges Canadians to reflect on fundamental principles of justice and human rights that affect all of us, not just the mentally ill. It is important that these issues are fully explored in public, through informed discussion and debate.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission will be closely following this and other similar cases to drive awareness of these issues and urge that they be addressed in policy, and in practice. "
My life I no longer love
I’d rather be set free above
Get it over with while the time is right
Late some rainy night
Turn black as the sky and as cold as the sea
Say goodbye to Ashley
Miss me but don’t be sad
I’m not sad I’m happy and glad
I’m free, where I want to be
No more caged up Ashley
Wishing I were free
Free like a bird.
Ashley Smith, 18 years old
October 1, 2006
New Brunswick Youth Centre