The 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith, a mentally ill, 19-year-old inmate of the federal prison system, deserves the maximum possible scrutiny, because everything that led to it happened behind closed doors.
Videos of her 11½ months in a 6-foot-by-9-foot segregation cell - or "therapeutic quiet," as Canada's prison authorities prettified it - will be introduced as evidence at an inquest into her death. They will be hard to watch. She may be screaming, naked. She may be trying to harm herself. She may be seen to kill herself while prison staff watch.
The Correctional Service of Canada is trying to keep the videos from being made public until the inquest nears its close, arguing that the jury may be influenced by the media coverage. But that is life in the open-court system. In criminal trials, once an exhibit is ruled admissible into court it is considered to be available to the media. The stakes are higher in those trials in one important sense: An individual's liberty is at stake. At the Ashley Smith inquest, the reputation of a government body is at stake. As well it should be.
Separately, the coroner, Bonita Porter, has expressed concern about unseemly videos being spread around the Internet. While Ms. Smith's mother, represented ably by the lawyer Julian Falconer, argues for the videos to be released, the coroner hints that she may act to protect the dignity of the dead youth.
Ms. Smith's sojourn in prison began at 15 in New Brunswick when her family found that the mental-health system had nothing for her. In federal women's prisons she was treated inhumanly. And this Dickensian treatment of the desperately ill continues; reports from Howard Sapers, a prison ombudsman, say that severely disturbed inmates are still held in long-term segregation, beyond 60 days. There is a strong public interest in revealing as much as possible about those places where the state holds people like Ms. Smith, unseen, utterly powerless and vulnerable.
The videos may appear degrading, in some sense, but in their power to shock and horrify they can alert the public and make the death, and life, of Ms. Smith, into something meaningful.
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