As a Canadian, I have always been extremely proud of the fact that we don’t have the death penalty. 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.

Young Ashley Smith

Young Ashley Smith

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 later on while she was in their care.

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 this, 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 8 institutions during 11 months in federal custody.

ashes3Instead 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 very minor incidents but always blown out of proportions 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 a while 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 that their daughter had become the human piñata of correctional services.

ashes4After 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.