Ashley Smith, the troubled teenager whose 2007 jailhouse death by self-strangulation underscored how poorly the correctional system handles mentally ill inmates, died by homicide – not suicide – jurors at an inquest have ruled.
The decision and recommendations are the culmination of a probe into how, exactly, it came to be that a 19-year-old on high suicide watch died with a ligature around her neck while guards – who were ordered not to enter her cell if she was breathing – watched and videotaped. Publicly released surveillance footage gave Canadians a rare window into the way prison staff, at times in full riot gear, wrestled with how to manage a young woman first imprisoned in 2003 after breaching probation for throwing crab apples at a postal worker.
“There aren’t even words to describe,” Ms. Smith’s mother, 66-year-old Coralee Smith, told The Globe and Mail Thursday in an interview from her Dartmouth, N.S., home after watching the verdict streamed live on the Internet. “We are quite pleased … We’re more than pleased. There’s got to be bigger words than that – we’re elated, we’re delighted, we’re out of our mind. What a Christmas gift.”
A coroner’s inquest is not an adversarial trial determining blame, but rather a mandatory fact-finding inquiry following a death in custody. Still, the homicide verdict delivered Thursday in Toronto is a finding that the actions of others contributed to Ms. Smith’s death. The five female jurors chose homicide over four other verdict options – natural, accidental, suicide and undetermined – and made 104 recommendations aimed at improving how the federal system deals with the mentally ill.
In light of the finding, the Smith family’s lawyer is calling on authorities to criminally investigate senior prison management who ordered guards against intervening in Ms. Smith’s frequent self-harm so long as she was breathing. Four front-line prison staff were originally charged with criminal negligence causing Ms. Smith’s death, but those charges were ultimately dropped.
“The real question has to be asked: How could such a flagrant abuse, such a flagrant disregard for human life go unaccounted for?” Julian Falconer, the family’s lawyer, said after the verdict was read. “Those who made the order not to go into her cell – the deputy warden, the warden, those above – have yet to be truly investigated or yet to truly answer for their actions.”
Mr. Falconer said the Smith family is not calling for the Waterloo Regional Police case against the four guards to be reopened, but rather that the RCMP launch an investigation into the senior management who issued the order.
Ms. Smith’s is the story of one, but advocates say her experience stands in as evidence of a legal and correctional landscape that sometimes ensnares those who would be better served by facilities dedicated to mental-health care. Critics have contended Ms. Smith’s treatment effectively cut her off from her family and stacked the odds against her receiving adequate and sustained psychiatric care.
The inquest, deemed at the outset by presiding coroner Dr. John Carlisle as a “memorial” to the teen who died at Ontario’s Grand Valley Institution, outlined Ms. Smith’s journey through the prison system. She bounced between 17 institutions in her final 11 months, spending long stretches in segregation.
The jury was permitted to scrutinize not just Ms. Smith’s time at the Ontario institution, but the entire history of her incarceration. That decision opened the door to the sweeping recommendations issued Thursday, including: seriously mentally ill women should serve time in a federally operated treatment facility rather than a prison; decisions around inmates’ treatment should be made by clinicians rather than by security management and prison staff; and indefinite solitary confinement should be abolished.
“Ashley Smith’s death is a human tragedy that has deeply affected the family of the deceased as well as the Correctional Service of Canada and its employees,” Jessica Slack, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Canada, which is responsible for corrections, said in an e-mail. “We will carefully review the recommendations to determine what further actions should be taken to meet the mental health needs of offenders so that tragedies such as this one does not happen again.”
The jurors heard from 83 witnesses over the course of 107 days since January, and watched videos showing Ms. Smith being duct-taped to an airplane seat during a correctional transfer, forcibly restrained and injected with powerful drugs and, finally, lying on the concrete floor of a segregation cell breathing her last two breaths. CSC initially fought the release of the footage, prompting charges of “coverup” and “bullying” from the family and others at the inquest.