I’m not a parent, but I have no doubt that losing a child is the worst kind of suffering. Ashley Smith’s parents lost their daughter twice: first to the correctional system and then to suicide. As if this weren’t enough to bear, they discovered that Ashley had strangled herself with a cloth in a segregation cell, in full view of 7 prison guards, none of whom intervened until it was too late. She was 19 years old.
How did this happen? The Toronto Star has been running a series of investigative reports looking into Ashley’s tragic story. An article written on October 10th outlines her childhood, her diagnosis of oppositional defiant order at the age of 15, and her entry into the correctional system later that year.
A 4-month sentence for throwing a crab apple at a postal worker turned into 4 years of incarceration, as she was transferred from institution to institution. Rather than recognizing her self-harming and aggressive behaviours as signs of escalating emotional distress, correctional staff kept adding new charges which lengthened her sentence, and using severe punitive measures against her, including 11 and a half months in segregation.
I have heard and read the stories of many people who have spent time in segregation. They report experiencing disorientation, confusion, isolation, depression, despair, hallucinations and even psychosis. Despite CSC’s claims to the contrary, it’s hard to see this practice as anything other than cruel, inhumane torture.
In the wake of Ashley’s death and others like it, the Correctional Investigator (CI) has made several recommendations in order to avoid more deaths in custody; such as asking for outside oversight of such practices as the isolation of mentally ill offenders in segregation cells for extended periods of time.
Unfortunately, the CI’s office, which is one of the few bodies that monitors federal corrections, is effectively neutered by its inability to enforce its own recommendations. If you look at some of the CI’s annual reports, you will see the same recommendations being made year after year, and being routinely ignored by CSC.
The prison system creates a culture of silence and obfuscation, where trying to get even the most basic information is an exercise in endurance, and a test of sanity. This is why it it so easy for people to get lost inside the walls. As Ashley’s mom Coralee Smith says in the Star article:
“We had absolutely no idea. I think maybe some people look at the situation and say, ‘Oh, they must have known. Where are the parents?’ And I’m thinking, you have no idea – that once your child is gone into the system, you don’t have any control. You have nothing.”
We need to demand transparency and accountability, so that no one else has to lose a child.
To read the full text of the Star article, click on this link: