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Kim Pate

The death of Ashley Smith: Prisons can't handle the mentally ill Add to ...

I think of Ashley Smith every time I see a photograph of Margaret Trudeau, who's been in the news lately due to the release of her most recent memoir. In it, the former prime minister's wife courageously chronicles the devastating impact that her untreated mental illness had on her life.

Suffering from bipolar disorder, Ms. Trudeau acted out by having ill-advised affairs. Ashley Smith, dealing with her own untreated mental health issues, did so by throwing apples, stealing CDs, and resisting the indignity of a strip search. Initially taken into custody at the age of 15 for breaching probation, Ms. Smith's subsequent inability to contain her feelings of fury - at being tasered, gassed, shackled, drugged and isolated - resulted in additional sentences and increasingly harsh conditions.

Revelations this week at a motion to expand the scope of the inquest into her subsequent death, in 2007, by self-strangulation while Correctional Service Canada staff looked on shed new light on the incapacity of prisons to deal with the mentally ill.

In the year she spent in federal custody, Ms. Smith was transferred 17 times, forcibly injected, and denied access to counsel, advocates and her family. She was left in a bare cell, with nothing to do for months on end. Is it any wonder she started to harm herself? (Would Margaret Trudeau have done any better? Would you?)

One Corrections Canada psychologist concluded that the teen's attempts at self-harm reflected not a suicidal desire but the only way she had, while in solitary confinement, of experiencing sensory stimulation. Another reported that Ms. Smith repeatedly voiced her naive belief that prison staff would ultimately save her from doing permanent harm.

It's not like we need more evidence that prisons are a brutally ineffective and costly default for people with mental health issues. In his most recent report, Canada's Correctional Investigator makes this clear, while urging that suffering prisoners at risk of serious self-injury not be placed in prolonged segregation.

Those who would decry the cost of expanding an inquest into Ms. Smith's death might consider the bigger financial picture: Her time in custody cost us between $1-million and $2-million. All Canadians - those with mental illness, and those looking for protection against crime - would have been better served if this money had been spent on health, social services and educational supports in the community.

But we're heading in the wrong direction. Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer reports that the fiscal costs of current law-reform initiatives far exceed the official departmental estimates. Effecting one bill alone, which the government says would cost Canadian taxpayers $90-million, is more likely to be upward of $7-billion. And yet the reforms parallel those from which many jurisdictions in the United States are now retreating.

Longer sentences and more punishing prison conditions have not made those south of the border feel any safer. Moreover, in 2008, recognizing that the costs of jailing so many people was bankrupting the state, a U.S. federal court ordered California to release 44,000 prisoners.

Here at home, more Canadians with mental health issues occupy prison cells than mental health facilities. Like Ashley Smith, most of these serve their sentences in isolation, which - not surprisingly - often exacerbates their conditions. And although Corrections Canada is the single largest employer of psychologists in this country, most professionals are hired for risk assessments, not treatment. The programs that do exist have long waiting lists.

People who commit crimes need to answer for their actions, and the public must be protected. But harsh prison conditions and lack of treatment merely create new problems. Canadians would be healthier and safer if moneys being spent on jailing the most marginalized and dispossessed were invested in community-based health, social and educational services that would benefit not only prisoners, but all citizens.

Kim Pate is executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

 

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