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)