The videos of the late Ashley Smith that the Correctional Service of Canada fought like badgers to keep out of court for two years deserve the widest possible circulation. Here are teams of men and women in full riot gear – as if to protect themselves from the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs – for a mentally ill young woman who had never committed any major crimes. All the force in the world could not make her healthy or obedient. The videos made public this week capture the futility, and absurdity, of criminalizing the mentally ill.
They are an indictment of so much more than the corrections system. The children’s mental-health system in New Brunswick was weak and ineffective, and it is by no means an exception to the Canadian rule. Rather than try to block publication of the videos, the Correctional Service should want everyone to know what it surely already knows – that it is singularly unequipped to handle severe mental illness.
This is not to let the Correctional Service off the hook for its treatment of Ms. Smith. Canadians have a right to expect that the federal authorities would set the highest possible standard in their treatment of mentally ill prisoners. They didn’t. The videos are dehumanizing and degrading. She could hardly be more vulnerable or powerless. She is by turns bound to a table or masked on an airplane. She is laughed at for defecating in her clothing.
There is something reminiscent here of the famous video of the four RCMP officers involved in the fatal 2007 tasering of a Polish-speaking immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, at the Vancouver International Airport. Those officers saw him as a risk, and treated him as one; and every action he took in response (backing away, picking up a stapler in his fear and confusion) confirmed their belief; and the cycle that led to his death was inexorable.
The videos of Ms. Smith show her being treated as an extreme security risk. They do not show her as behaving like one – she appears calm, benign – but the officials may have had cause to expect something from her. On one video, taken on a flight, an assistant pilot duct-tapes her hands together though she is already highly confined and under guard; on another, she is given injections, apparently against her will, under heavy guard; and in another, a guard twists her arm and wrist for an extended period to punish Ms. Smith for grabbing the guard’s shirt through a grate in her cell – like something out of Papillon, on Devil’s Island. As in the Dziekanski video, true communication seems maddeningly possible, but never happens.
Ms. Smith needed specialized care, and didn’t receive it. She was kept in solitary confinement for all of her 111/2 months in federal jails. She never had a complete psychological assessment during that time, Howard Sapers, an ombudsman for federal prisoners, wrote in a 2008 report. “The Correctional Service was working in the dark.” A prisoner in solitary is, by law, supposed to receive an automatic review from regional correctional authorities after six weeks. Yet she was held for nearly a year – until her suicide – with no such review. Each time the authorities took her out to attend court, or transferred her to another jail or to a psychiatric facility, they reset the “solitary clock.” They broke the law, and should be held to account.
But the videos played this week are no more than snapshots in a much longer progression to her death at 19.
Her school wasn’t able to handle her and she dropped out at 14. Youth mental-health centres couldn’t handle her. New Brunswick’s then-ombudsman and child and youth advocate, Bernard Richard, called for the creation of a centre of excellence for youth mental health, and a network of highly specialized therapeutic foster homes. Neither has happened yet, though the use of segregation is under much stricter control in youth custody as a result of his reports.
Her family turned to the legal system in their desperation to get her help. The youth justice system couldn’t handle her either, and locked her in solitary for a year. For vandalism and assaults committed in that prison, she wound up being transferred to the federal, adult system when she turned 18. How bored, terrified and alone she must have felt. She talked of suicide, or attempted it, daily. She may have grabbed that guard’s shirt for human contact, a psychologist’s report after her death implies.
A hospital may have the security features of a jail but a jail will probably never be able to care for and treat someone like Ms. Smith as a hospital could, or a small, specialized treatment facility in the community. The videos show where Canada’s neglect of mental illness in children and youth can lead.
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