Saturday, 21 December 2013

Ashley Smith's Death Finally Declared a Homicide

I don't know how I'd forgotten about Ashley Smith's story.

I do remember hearing about it, closer to when it all happened. But I'd forgotten. And I haven't been listening to the news much lately, so I'd missed the fact that the inquest was winding up.

If you're not from Canada, you likely haven't heard Ashley Smith's story. She was 19 years old. She'd been Canada's prison system for 5 years in 2007, and would have been eligible for release in November of that year. But on October  17, 2007, in Grand Valley Institution, she tied a piece of cloth around her neck and choked herself to death in her cell. The guards watched, instructed not to enter her cell while she was still breathing.

Ashley Smith had a history of tying ligatures around her neck for, the told the prison, sensation. However, this time she'd been on suicide watch for a week after explicitly stating to a manager that she intended to kill herself. Read more here.

On December 19th, her death was declared a homicide instead of a suicide.

It's About Time

So I know that this isn't much of a feel-good story for the holidays...I'm going to get to one of those before Christmas, so keep reading...but I surrounded by media updates about the inquest all day on Thursday when I was in while (in the later hours of the day), it was great to hear that this Ashley Smith's death had been declared a homicide, the details of her story were surrounding me all day, and I felt physically ill every time I heard them. Like I said, I'd heard about this story before, but hearing about it on the radio for the first of many times that day was like a kick in the stomach.

I'm really wrestling with is how, orders or not, the guards could stand there and watch an inmate commit suicide without intervening. I want to know what it is about working in the Canadian federal prison system that makes a guard into a person that could do that. I want to know where this disregard for human life that's apparently infiltrated the system as a whole has come from, and why there's either so little known about mental health conditions and their management and treatment (or why what is known has been so disregarded).

Because there was some very disturbing testimony from witnesses:

  • Psychiatrists prescribed medications to Ashley Smith without seeing her, and she was sometimes medicated against her will.

  • When she got therapy, it was through the food slot of her cell door

  • For not handing over self-harm tools, Ashley Smith's cell was sometimes stripped leaving her with no blanket, mattress, or hygiene products and sometimes just a security gown to wear.

Read more about the witness testimony here.

The jury could not assign responsibility for Ashley Smith's death. Determining who was responsible is an entirely different matter, and one for the police investigation that Ashley Smith's family has requested now be re-opened.  But the jury made it clear that they didn't think that the guards, who were originally criminally charged and then had the charges dropped, should be targeted. They want to go after the big guns. Julian Falconer, the lawyer for Ashley Smith's family, says that the investigation will be into who gave the order not to go into her cell. (Read more here)

And I understand that. We do need to further back to fully understand what happened that day and who is ultimately responsible.

Going Back...

I got the following information from Toronto Star's timeline on the Ashley Smith case.

Ashley was 13 when she entered the prison system as a person with a mental health diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder, which was later changed to severe borderline personality disorder. She'd thrown crab apples at a postal worker. She received a closed custody sentence at the New Brunswick Youth Centre, where she, according to the Toronto Star's timeline, "incurred 50 additional criminal charges related to minor assaults on guards and prankish stunts such as pulling sprinklers and fire alarms or covering the window of her jail cell with scraps of toilet paper".

In 2005, Ashley entered the adult prison system, and was transferred to a federal prison in 2006. Her attempts to self-harm, consisting of "self-strangulation with ligatures, head-banging, and superficial cuts to her arms" got her a transfer to a transfer to a psychiatric facility in 2006.

What the Toronto Star timeline doesn't show is that in the next year, Ashley was in 17 facilities in 5 different provinces, and in segregation cells in each one.  Each time she was sent to a new prison, the clock was reset on her segregation time, to avoid having to review her segregation status (Read more here).  During her time in Joliette Detention Centre in 2007, she was medically and physically restrained twice in July, according to the Star's timeline, for attempting to self-injure with screws from the wall. She'd die three months later, just six weeks before being eligible for release.

I'm no expert in mental health. But I don't think it takes an expert to see that this was a young woman in chronic distress and under tremendous stress. She'd been in segregation cells for almost three years. She'd moved 17 times in a year. She was potentially facing release, which would be a tremendous transition after six formative years in prison. Juries also saw video of her being hooded and duct-taped to airplane seats during transports, and of her forced to the floor by police in riot gear and injected with drugs - post-traumatic stress disorder can't be ruled out as something that was influencing her actions.

These videos are available for viewing here but are very disturbing. Please be safe.

Certainly she would not have easy to deal with at times. But is it any wonder that that Ashley Smith frequently tried to block the guards' view into her cell by putting magazine pages over the camera? Or that she responded to their discipline with kicking and biting?  Or, given that self-harm was obviously a coping mechanism (and a common one in people with borderline personality disorder) that stress would have driven her to continually find new ways to do so?

Breese Davies, lawyer for the Association of Elizabeth Frye Societies, said that the videos also showed a largely hidden side of Ashley Smith: "a witty, engaging, smiley teen who in times of serenity endeared herself to those around her." (Read more here)

It's just such a shame that no one will get to see what Ashley could have been, what she could have accomplished, when she wasn't always living in stress and fear.

If you take a closer look at the Toronto Star timeline, you'll see that it took an awfully long time to get to this ruling - at one point inquest was even suspended indefinitely. It'd be great to see some lost time get made up and see that someone's held responsible for Ashley Smith's death - and some quick and decisive action taken on putting the 104 recommendations that the jury made in place, to help ensure that something like this doesn't happen again. Those recommendations include:

  • Abolishing indefinite segregation sentences

  • Giving front-line staff the ability to take action to preserve an inmate's life without seeking authorization and without "fear of discipline or reprisal", even if it turns out that the aid wasn't, in fact, required

  • Female inmates be accommodated in regions closest to family or supports.

  • Ensuring that nursing services are available for inmates at all times.

The list of recommendations is very thorough, and available here. Frankly, I'm quite shocked that some of these things are not in place already.

I think that one of the ones that I like best is that Ashley Smith's case be taught as a case study to Canadian Correctional Services at all levels. I agree with the National Post's Christie Blatchford on this one:  Canada Correctional Services killed her, and they should make sure that everyone who works for them and with them know how they did it, so that they *can't* kill someone else in the same way (Read more here).

What's done with the recommendations now is in the hands of Canada's auditor general, and Canada will be watching. I hope that you will be, too.

This article says it all better than I ever could.

Rest in Peace, Ashley Smith

In this video, Ashley Smith has a candid conversation with guards as she was being transferred to the Philippe-Pinel Institute in Montreal from the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon April 12, 2007, six months before her death. Rest in peace, Ashley - I won't forget again.


  1. This is a great article on many fronts.
    First of all, if this type of frontline behavior was just limited to this situation, the problem would be much simpler.
    As a direct service staff, I have been in a situation where a manager made a request of me, perhaps without knowing the whole situation or perhaps feeling the pressure from upper management in terms of numbers.
    Some of the requests, while they may seem simple enough, can be real slippery slope issues - in some cases the lines of abuse and neglect are clear, in others perhaps not so much.
    In one particular situation, I contacted the coordinator and said, "We need someone out here. We have people who need to get up and showered, we are short staffed, and we can't leave on our van routes." The coordinator was concerned about the timeliness of the van routes vs. the hygiene routines. I emphasized that we were short staffed and could not leave on our routes until we were able to assist with showers, etc. When the coordinator came out, rather than chastise staff being late on routes, he said: "It's a good thing you called. We could have been shut down if this was neglected."
    I told staff: "You can never go wrong by doing the right thing."

  2. Yes, this sort of frontline situation is getting more and more common as the cuts to services get deeper and deeper and the management gets more and more distanced from what's going on in the homes. Some of the lines are very blurry when it comes to what's abuse and what isn't, and good for you for calling your coordinator when you saw things definitely cross the line.

    Maybe things would have turned out differently for this poor girl if someone had had the guts to do the same in her case, and it's too bad that we'll never know.