Ashley Smith an object lesson to justice, penal systems

The verdict of the coroner’s jury and the accompanying recommendations relating to the death, six years ago, of an emotionally disturbed young woman while she was in custody must be seen as a kind of Christmas gift for the Canadian people.

Ashley Smith, the young person whose death was the focus of the coroner’s inquest, was just 19 at the time of her death when she strangled herself in jail in front of prison guards who had been ordered not to attempt to interfere with her until she stopped breathing.

The coroner’s jury, which was charged with determining where she died, when she died and by what means did she die, came back last Thursday with a determination that her death was “a homicide.”

This means, literally, that her death was caused by other people and for future reference, in situations like the unfortunate Ms. Smith’s, this will serve as a shot across the bow for those charged with administering Canada’s penal institutions together with their political masters.

Ms. Smith’s guards, the ones who watched while she strangled herself, will not be charged so the determination of her death being a homicide is somewhat symbolic as far as they are concerned.

But the coroner’s jury’s verdict could very well, and we must hope and urge that it will, encourage police investigating a similar custodial death in the future to assign blame and charge prison officials into whose care and keeping a particular inmate is entrusted.

It’s the same thing with the more than 100 recommendations made by the jury in Ms. Smith’s case: they have no force in law in the future unless they are adopted by the penal system or come into law. These include common-sense approaches like the one suggesting that female inmates with serious mental health issues and/or self-injurious behaviour serve their sentences in a federally operated treatment facility rather than the series of security-focussed prison-like environments in which Ms. Smith was incarcerated during the last years of her young life and, in her last stay at the Grand Valley Institute for Women, in Kitchener where she killed herself.

Another key recommendation by the coroner’s jury asks that indefinite solitary confinement should be abolished, long-term segregation of more than 15 days should be prohibited for female inmates and the conditions of segregation should be as least restrictive as possible. A related recommendation suggests that all female inmates be accessed by a psychologist within 72 hours of admission to any penitentiary or treatment facility to determine whether any mental health issues or self-injurious behaviours exist and that there be adequate staffing of qualified mental health care providers, with expertise and experience, in place at every women’s institution.

Ideally, all staff providing mental health services and care should report, and be accountable, to other health care professionals and not to those people whose main focus is on the security of an institution.

All of these recommendations make so much sense. The last one mentioned could have made so much difference to Ms. Smith. As it was, she dealt almost exclusively in prison with guards; with those whose almost complete focus is on maintaining a sense of calm and order in the whole institution and not so much with individual inmates’ particular emotional and mental health problems and their approach to a person like Ms. Smith, top down from their managers, was to let her work the demon out of herself while she was excluded from the main prison population.

This approach clearly was unsuccessful for Ashley Smith, leading as it did to her death.

We know from the people around us who suffer from one form or another of mental illness that they cannot all be treated the same way nor categorized the same way.

How much more pronounced must these differences be in a prison setting where individuals have been sent precisely because of anti-social behaviour that has been extreme enough for the judicial system to have removed them from walking among us?

To remove them from general society and then treat these people who are mentally and/or emotionally damaged as common or garden variety inmates makes no sense and Ms. Smith’s death underscores this.

The fact that the citizens who heard all the evidence of Ms. Smith’s death and then determined that, in their view, she died at the hands of others (and not other inmates at that) is a finding at once disturbing and memorable. This coroner’s jury’s determination of “by what means” Ms. Smith perished has startled the nation and, hopefully, those who administer penal institutions.

The recommendations of these juries are only that: recommendations that the coroner’s jury feels, if implemented, would help to prevent other similar tragedies.

They can be ignored. They do not have to be implemented by, in this particular situation, those who administer prisons.

But, given the sustained publicity this unfortunate young woman’s death has had, it will be difficult for the policymakers in government and the politicians they advise to sweep all memory of Ms. Smith under the carpet.

We predict there will be changes in the way mentally and emotionally ill inmates are dealt with, women in particular.

The recommendation that reads, “that Ms. Smith’s experience within the corrections system be taught as a case study to all Correctional Service management and staff at all levels” should definitely find its way into the textbooks for Ashley Smith’s experience as an unstable person in an environment hostile to her circumstances and her subsequent death can be just as strong a symbol and reminder for the correctional services establishment as are the 14 young female engineering students, also homicide victims, killed 24 years ago in a mass shooting at Montreal’s L’Ecole Polytechnique and whose slaughter is a national reminder for vigilance against violence towards women.