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No more Ashley Smiths Add to ...

After the jailhouse suicide of 19-year-old Ashley Smith in 2007, it should be unacceptable to put the seriously mentally ill into long-term solitary confinement in the federal prison system. But it is still happening, according to a report from Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, who serves as ombudsman for federal inmates. And as long as it does, there will be other Ashley Smiths.

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Ms. Smith's death should haunt Canada. She was a deeply disturbed youth who at 15 was thrust into New Brunswick's criminal-justice system because her family hoped she would get the help she needed; the province's mental-health system had simply not been up to the challenge. Once in youth custody, she committed more offences, primarily assaults against guards, and wound up serving a federal sentence in adult prison. The system coped with her wild behaviour by shutting her inside a segregation cell, 6 feet by 9 feet, for 11½ months without a book to read, or a mattress to lie on. She hung herself while guards watched, under orders not to intervene.

The system has yet to learn the lessons of Ms. Smith's death, Mr. Sapers reported on Wednesday. "Mentally ill prisoners being held in long-term segregation (beyond 60 days) still are not independently and expertly monitored. Chronic self-harming offenders with serious mental health issues are still subject to a disproportionate number of involuntary placements in segregation."

Its response to hard-to-control mentally ill offenders is still to put them in solitary. There are more disturbed offenders - up to 30 per cent, Mr. Sapers says - and therefore there is more use of segregation. While the Correctional Service of Canada has developed a plan to provide mental health care for "intermediate" cases such as Ms. Smith's, which do not, apparently, require psychiatric hospitalization, it has not put the plan in place. Mr. Sapers says the CSC told him it lacked funding for it.

No, jails are not hospitals; their first obligation is security. They cannot prevent every suicide. But, as Mr. Sapers points out, part of their mandate is to preserve life. A civilized society can reasonably expect that its federal prisons will do its best.

Canada's prisons can do better. As it stands now, the CSC investigates itself and keeps secrets. The reports of its inquiries into suicides are not made public, sometimes not even to family members. Reviewing four CSC reports of in-custody deaths, Mr. Sapers found their recommendations "inconsistent with the seriousness of the deficiencies." He wants an independent medical expert to sit on the boards that do investigate in-custody deaths, and he wants the reports of their findings to be made public. After the death of Ms. Smith, the Canadian government should insist that transparency be the rule.

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