As a Canadian, I have always been extremely proud of the fact that we don’t have capital punishment. Our institutions feed their inmates correctly and have a decent reputation. I cringe at the idea of the tent city jail in Arizona, where Sheriff Arpaio prides himself on keeping inmates in outdoor tents with hardly any ventilation and substandard food.
So it is in this spirit that I could not fathom the death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith on October 19, 2007, at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ontario.
Ashley was born in 1988 in New Brunswick, Canada and adopted by a local couple. The same government that put her in their arms to be loved and protected ended up taking her life while she was in their care.
From all accounts, Ashley was a sweet child but at age 14, she was placed in a youth facility for a month after showing signs of a personality disorder, typical misbehaving and throwing crabapples at the mail carrier.
Yes, you heard it right, she went from apples to incarceration. On her first day at the institution, she was placed in solitary confinement after ‘disruptive behavior.’ Her initial one-month detention would last almost four years, entirely in isolation.
On January 29, 2006, Ashley turned 18; in July, a motion was made under the Youth Criminal Justice Act to transfer her to an adult facility. She hired a lawyer to fight, but it failed. Ashley was transferred to the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre (SJRCC). Due to her behavior at SJRCC, she spent most of her time there in segregation; she was tasered and pepper-sprayed. She was then transferred to the Nova Institution. Numerous other transfers followed and by October of 2007, she had been transferred a total of 17 times among eight institutions during 11 months in federal custody.
Instead of cooperating, Ashley reacted strongly to the harsh discipline and tried to harm herself and at times even attacked staff with weapons she fabricated. They were minor incidents but were always blown out of proportion by an army of staff, which led to worse incidents. It was a real case of falling down.
Ashley was passed around from place to place and showed improvement only when an officer or worker would create a bond with her. But management sent out an internal memo asking the officers to be aloof with her and not enter her cell on a casual basis. They were only to enter as a group in full gear. It was the most dehumanizing treatment you can imagine—she received body cavity searches, was put in straitjackets, was given a whole gamut of medications and was placed in solitary confinement.
She ended up tearing a piece of cloth from an officer’s jacket and wrapping it around her neck. The staff, as instructed by higher management, didn’t go into her cell to remove it. They monitored her on camera and made visual checks. She was choking and getting blue. It went on for quite awhile without intervention until she finally expired.
Ashley was due to go home in 43 days when she passed away. Her parents had to bring her back in a pine box. They were kept in the dark and didn’t realize their daughter had become the human piñata of correctional services.
After Smith’s death, and the firing of both wardens and four directly involved officers, the four officers were charged with negligent homicide. The union’s representative for the guards alleges they were “scapegoated” by senior management.
There is a public inquest into her death right now, and it might last up to a year. The Coroner called this inquest a ‘memorial’ to the teen and stated that the prison system was becoming a dumping ground.
There is a conflict between the notion of punishment and the issue of the kind of care that a person should receive while in detention. In this case, the system had so many tentacles that they became entangled and ended up creating a mess. Most people who spoke at the public inquest are sorry and find it deplorable that they couldn’t get Ashley ‘to behave’ when they, in fact, knew that she reacted well to individual attention. Nobody thought of using that method even though it worked. She was crushed, and I would dare to say executed by this mammoth bureaucracy.
How do you like them apples?
Update: The inquest concluded with a ruling that teenager Ashley Smith’s shocking in-custody death was a homicide. A five-woman coroner’s jury that heard testimony in almost a year of hearings made a number of recommendations aimed at preventing mentally ill inmates in Canada’s corrections system from tumbling into the kind of spiral that ended in Smith’s death. However, such recommendations are non-binding, which means the Correctional Service of Canada can decide whether or not to implement them. The homicide verdict means the jurors found Smith’s death was neither suicide nor an accident.