Ashley Smith Inquiry Commences: Is Incarceration the Solution to Female Offending?

by | January 23, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics


by Kim Mackenzie

An inquest into the circumstances of how Ashley Smith died in a Canadian federal prison five years ago has finally begun. Hopefully some questions will be answered as to how Ashley managed to commit suicide as prison guards watched from the other side of her cell door. Instead of just looking at why the guards did not intervene, I think it is important to question the entire system. How did the system let Ashley down?

Ashley had originally been incarcerated for throwing crabapples at a mailman, but due to her oppositional and defiant behavior, she was kept in custody for more than three years and most often forced into segregation for periods longer than Corrections Canada technically allows. Her life ended in the Grand Valley Institution for Women- an institution that is supposed to have more gender-responsive programming.

Clearly the biggest problem in this case was the mismanagement of someone dealing with mental illness. Ashley engaged in repeated self-harm. Research suggests that over half of federally-sentenced women engage in self-harm. The truth of the matter is female offenders have different needs compared to male offenders, especially those suffering from mental illness. It is not enough to create a female-centered facility; the gender-specific programming needs to be followed and staff need to be properly trained. Instead of focusing on control and punishment, female offenders dealing with mental illness need to be treated. They need to have access to mental health and community resources.

Corrections Canada continues to use a model to assess offenders’ risk that was designed and tested on men. Female offending patterns are much different than their male counterparts and they have different needs.

There is also a difference between a high-risk offender and a high-need offender. These high-need offenders are ones that need more emotional and interpersonal support. They also often struggle with substance abuse.

Yet the gender-blind risk assessment models fail to differentiate between the two and many female offenders are labeled “high-risk” despite the fact that most female offenders are actually low-risk, but high-need. These offenders are then incarcerated because they are labeled “high-risk” but to be honest, I don’t think incarceration is the solution to the problem for most female offenders. Community-based alternatives to incarceration do work and are better at addressing the individual root causes of criminality.

Hopefully there will be some important recommendations that come from this inquest that can improve the experiences of women in Canadian prisons. Female offenders need to be assessed and treated differently than male offenders. We cannot continue to throw women struggling with mental illness into segregation because we don’t know what else to do with them. In fact, the same goes for male offenders with mental illness.

Community-based alternatives to incarceration are within reach; we just need policy-makers on board. I truly believe that had Ashley Smith gone through a community-based alternative to incarceration, she would still be here today. On-and-off segregation over three years would get into anyone’s head.

(photo by Klaus with K, CC-licensed)

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  • So if I understand correctly, offenders with vaginas may be high-risk or high-need but offenders with penises are never high-need, they can only be high-risk?

    • Kim

      Hi Alison,

      Thanks for you comment. I am definitely not implying that men are never high-need and only high-risk. There are definitely all different types of male offenders, including high-need offenders that are dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, or whatever the case may be. However more federally-sentenced female offenders in Canada are “high-need” compared to male offenders. I am just pointing out that the risk assessments often do not differentiate between high-risk and high-need. This inability to differentiate definitely impacts male and female offenders, but I bring it up as an women’s issue because it disproportionately affects women and to me it makes no sense to assess risk the same for men and women when they have different needs and different offending patterns. I hope that clarifies my point.

      • D

        I don’t quite understand your clarifications about high-need offense “disproportionately affect[ing] women”–since women are already charged less often for the same crimes and sentenced less severely for the same crimes as men, they seem as a group to be quite a bit less in need than men, especially when males face abominable overcrowding, non-violent drug convictions, debtors’ prison terms for inability to pay child support, and violent, widespread, institutionalized anal rape, for which the term “rape culture” was actually coined. What about that group, which receives no preferential treatment and indeed quite a bit of institutional targeting for unfair and unnecessarily harsh treatment in comparison to female offenders, is not “high-need”?

        • Al

          Exactly. She doesn’t have a concrete standard, unless you want to count sexism and double standard as a standard to rely on.

  • Anthony Zarat

    Sexism hiding behind feminism is still sexism. A vagina should not be a licence to murder and maim with impunity.

  • jarrahpenguin

    I think if you actually read the post you’ll see she never said only women offenders can be “high-need”. There are two big issues addressed in this post, though of course many more that exist.

    One, which affects inmates of all genders, is the fact that we have a totally inadequate mental health care system, which means the prison system ends up picking up the pieces. Two is the fact that the risk assessment used in Canada is based entirely on research on men offenders but is applied to women. This is a problem because, as Kim notes, women are socialized differently and by and large have different patterns of offending. I suggest you check out some of the research she references because it’s really interesting and clearly shows the statistical gender differences and the specific issue around women inmates self-harming.

    Noting this is a problem doesn’t take away from any problems that male inmates experience.

  • daniel woods

    your a useless feminist twat..i hope u have to spend time in jail one day…men don’t deserve to be in jail any more then women…women lie and steal and are terrible people

    • Some dude


      While I may not have agreed with most of the premise of this article you are helping no one with the kind of hyperbole and negativity you have just displayed.

      Grow up sir.

  • Meaghan

    Hi Kim,

    I am very intrigued by your post. The treatment of offenders once incarcerated, especially those with mental illness, should be tailored to the differing needs of men and women.

    To point out what others in the post have commented on as “sexism”, Kim clearly states that “the same goes for male offenders with mental illness.” What it seems she is trying to point out is that mental illness is not something society can treat by locking people behind bars. This case in particular was about a women who threw an apple at a mailman and was thrown in jail to later commit suicide.

    The moral of the story is mental illness cannot be fixed by locking a person behind bars. Whether it be male or female, mental illness needs to be treated as such, and just like any other illness, treatment for men and women should be tailored to specific needs.

    • B

      Yes, the author does not say anything sexist outright. But she is ignoring men. She said a lot of how women need special treatment for having these values (such as high-need) and asks for a change for women. The only time she asks for the same thing for men is “In fact, the same goes for male offenders with mental illness.”

      Statements like “I don’t think incarceration is the solution to the problem for most female offenders” is the kind of thing that makes us think she is sexist. Because through this entire article, if we remove sex of ashley and the victims (females being mislabelled), the author says ‘prisoners are being falsely labelled and this needs to be fixed’, Which is still true. But she uses women as the sole focus, and uses men mainly as the standard to which prisoners are ‘measured’.

      • Kim

        Hello B,

        Thanks for your comments. I would just like to clarify that I am writing this piece for a women’s rights-focused blog, hence why I focus on the issues facing women involved in the criminal justice system. I never once said that men do not face issues in the criminal justice system. The system is not perfect for males or females. I am not addressing the issues men face in this article because this is a feminist blog. I know that men face many issues in prison. There are men out there that self-harm in prison. Many male offenders are dealing with mental health issues. I would suggest that incarceration and segregation are not ideal for many male offenders as well.

        I am using men as the standard to which prisoners are measured because that is in fact how the system is currently functioning. I am just pointing out the differences between male and female offenders and because of these differences, I believe that women should not be assessed using an assessment that has only been tested on men. Perhaps the whole assessment process needs to be re-vamped for both men and women.

        And I am by no means saying that women who kill and maim should not be incarcerated. Those women would most often be labelled as high-risk offenders, and rightly so. I do not think women should get off for serious crimes just because they are women. This is never what I implied. Ashley Smith was put in prison for throwing crabapples at a mailman- not for murder. She was kept in prison because she was considered high-risk due to her oppositional behavior, when in fact I believe that she was simply a high-need offender. Had her needs been addressed early on, she may still be here today, living in the community and functioning as a member of society.

        So yes, I frame this article around women, but there are many ways in which men are duped by the system, and I acknowledge this.

        • Matt

          Why should female offenders be treated differently than men? That directly contradicts the principles of equality that feminism is supposed to be about. I think this contradiction is what so many are picking up on as sexist. I myself am having a difficult time disagreeing as it does seem sexist to suggest women need special treatment.