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. Read more