In 2007 Ashley Smith died in a segregation cell in Canada at the age of 19 by strangling herself while the correctional staff failed to intervene. In December 2013 an inquest ruled that Ashley’s death was a homicide and delivered 104 recommendations aimed at improving the operations and accountability of Canada’s correctional system, particularly in the treatment of female inmates with severe mental illness.
Kim Pate, the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies who gave evidence in the case, has written a guest blog for Penal Reform International about the verdict.
The world has rightfully been shocked by the life and death by homicide of Canadian youth, Ashley Smith. Why? Because the ruling of homicide was made by a coronial jury – five courageous Canadian women who understood that, but for the inactions of front line Correctional Service of Canada staff and the actions of senior managers at the prison, regional and national levels, Ashley would not have died on the floor of her cell in the Grand Valley prison for women in Kitchener on October 19th, 2007.
Despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars — $5 million on their attendance at the inquest alone – the Correctional Service of Canada’s attempts to defend against indefensible actions and inactions, deny wrongdoing and error, and deflect accountability and responsibility, the horrific abuses of human rights and constitutionally entrenched Charter rights were finally exposed more than six years after Ashley’s death.
Ashley was the victim of a brutal system funded by Canadians and sanctioned by our elected officials. Every employee of the Correctional Service of Canada identified that s/he was acting on behalf of the Canadian government when they interacted with Ashley Smith. Although Ashley also suffered unlawful and brutalizing treatment in juvenile and provincial custody, the scope of the inquest only included her 11½ months in the custody of the federal government.
Ashley Smith was a scant 15 years of age when she began a 30-day sentence in youth custody. According to our Youth Criminal Justice Act, her time in custody should have focused on rehabilitation. Instead, during her time in custody, despite an abundance of negative documentation about her, and more than a hundred minor assault charges to which she consistently entered guilty pleas, there was a noticeable absence of reliable evidence of any behaviour that posed a risk to individual, much less public, safety.
Thanks to the courage and decisiveness of Ashley’s mother, all of the inquest proceedings were live streamed and therefore aired publicly. Among the hundreds of hours of videotaped interactions of correctional staff with Ashley, we witnessed countless uses of such force as full body shackling, hundreds of instances of pepper spraying, emergency response team takedowns, as well as forcible injections, unlawful solitary confinement and assaults. Ashley was charged with a number of minor assaults and pranks such as pulling a fire alarm. The result was additional sentences adding up to more than six years in custody, 17 transfers between prisons, and her death.
Despite being under near constant observation, not one example of Ashley posing a bona fide risk to staff was produced. If one existed, it most certainly would have been produced and publicly aired. Canada’s treatment of Ashley Smith is emblematic of all that is wrong in Canada, where we have decimated state supports in favour of invasive state interaction.
As the Coroner so aptly stated at the conclusion of the inquest “the time for words is over, now it is the time for actions.”
We worked with Ashley and we continue to work with a number of other women with mental health issues. The issues raised by Ashley’s life and death in the custody of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) underscore the reality that much work needs to be undertaken in order to ensure that no other prisoner with mental health issues suffers like Ashley.
Many of the inquest jury’s recommendations are in line with the UN Bangkok Rules on women prisoners, including the requirements that:
- ‘all female inmates are assessed by a psychologist to determine whether any mental health issues and/or self-injurious behaviours exist’ – see Rule 6, Bangkok Rules
- a full range of effective therapeutic interventions are ‘individualized to the needs of female inmates considering her self-identified needs’ – see Rule 12, Bangkok Rules
- body cavity searches are exceptional and limited to specific exceptional circumstances (see recommendation 41) – see Rules 19 and 20, Bangkok Rules
- ‘correctional staff facilitate, support, and document, at minimum, weekly communications…’ with family – see Rule 26, Bangkok Rules
The inquest jury also made recommendations on external oversight (Recommendations 73-78) and on solitary confinement (Recommendations 27-37), noting that in accordance with the Recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture on solitary confinement ‘there should be an absolute prohibition on the practice of placing female inmates in conditions of long-term segregation, clinical seclusion, isolation, or observation’
Kim is the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), a federation of autonomous societies that work with, and on behalf of, marginalized, victimized, criminalized and institutionalized women and girls, throughout Canada. Kim is also a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, where she teaches courses on prison law, and defending battered women on trial.
Kim is an expert on the federal prison system, and on the conditions and treatment of criminalized women in Canada, and has also worked with youth and men during her 30 years of working in and around the legal and penal systems. She is the recipient of a number of awards in recognition of her work on equality and human rights. She was honorary doctorates awarded by the University of Ottawa, Carleton University, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.