On October 19, 2007, in Kitchener Ontario, 19 year old Ashley Smith took her own life. Suicide is always a heart breaking tragedy but Ashley’s story is overwhelming sad and shocking on so many levels.
Ashley Smith grew up in Moncton, New Brunswick with her family that adopted her when she was just five days old. According to her parents, Ashely had a pretty normal childhood until she reached her teenage years. Suddenly her behavior started to change. By the time Ashley reached 15 she had been in juvenile court 14 times. Although a psychologist who had assessed Ashley when she was 14 claimed she had no mental health issues, less than a year later she was sent to an assessment centre and received several diagnoses including ADHD and borderline personality disorder. Over the next three years it was reported that Ashely harmed or attempted to herself at least 150 times while in a youth centre.
Eight months after Ashley turned 18 she was transferred from a juvenile centre into an adult correctional facility. It would be a fast slide downhill from here for Ashley Smith. Over the next year Ashley was transferred a total of 17 times between 8 different institutions from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia.
I won’t go into the graphic details of what Ashley was subjected to but, to put it mildly, it was not good. Ashely spent the vast majority of her time in correction facilities in solitary confinement – just try to imagine living almost 4 solid years of your life completely alone. This is the main reason Ashely was transferred so often in such a short period of time. Canadian law requires an assessment of a prisoner that has been kept in isolation for 60 days. By continually transferring Ashely they were able to avoid this requirement. That seems like a pretty huge flaw in the system.
“Corrections Canada administrators instructed guards and supervisors not to respond to self-strangling attempts by Smith, …to ignore her, even if she was choking herself”
Ashley was a “difficult” prisoner. She was often aggressive and violent towards herself and others. It finally got to the point that corrections staff were told not go into her cell, to ignore her even if she was choking herself, to not intervene as long as she was still breathing. And so they didn’t. Instead they watched as Ashley Smith, 19 years old, choked herself to death.
The aftermath of Ashley’s death has been well documented in the media. Staff were fired and charged and the charges were subsequently dropped. An inquest was held and terminated in 2011. Now 5 years after Ashley Smith’s death a second inquest is being held. One of the biggest developments in the inquest took place just last week. Videos and documents surrounding Ashley’s confinement which had previously been sealed will now be available to the inquest. Some of these videos have been played in the media and they are heart wrenching to watch or even to hear. I cannot imagine being in this young girl’s shoes, suffering with mental health issues, desperately needing proper treatment but instead being kept in isolation, physically and chemically restrained and treated like a wild animal instead of the sick young woman that she actually was.
To me, the scariest part of Ashley’s story is the message it sends to other people that are trying to cope with mental illness, especially teenagers like Ashley. The reality is that it’s very common for teenagers who are not getting the help they need to end up in the corrections system. For many of them that will be their first (and often only) chance at actually getting help but, as was the case with Ashley Smith, the right kind of help is not always what you get when you enter that system. I cannot and will not make a broad sweeping statement about the corrections system in this country. I can only comment on this story because I have been following it for years and I can say, from everything I have seen and read, that this system failed Ashley Smith in an epic manner.