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For over a year, Dawna Ward has been sending encouraging notes to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about prison reform.

"We're counting on you," she recalls writing. "What's your plan and when do you plan to do it?"

Her requests are similar to the notes the Prime Minister receives from average Canadians every week – with one stark difference. Ms. Ward is the sister of Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teenager who drew her last breath on the floor of a solitary-confinement cell in Ontario almost 10 years ago. She had spent at least 1,065 days in solitary.

Read more: Solitary confinement: How four people's stories have changed hearts, minds and laws on the issue

As of this week, Ms. Ward wonders whether it's all been in vain – the letters and the inquests and the investigations that preceded them. On Monday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale evoked her sister's name in touting Bill C-56, a proposal to change the federal solitary-confinement regime. When Ms. Ward read the bill for herself, she felt the reference dishonoured her sister's name.

"The fact that the minister mentioned Ashley's name is so disappointing and so upsetting," she told The Globe and Mail. "Solitary confinement is a horrific, torturous, inhumane practice. This bill will not change that."

The suicide of 19-year-old Ashley Smith as guards watched launched numerous inquests, investigations and news stories examining how the correctional system places mentally ill prisoners in cells the size of hotel bathrooms for 23 hours a day with no external oversight.

A rough consensus emerged from many of those probes.

The federal government needed to prohibit vulnerable inmates from being sent to solitary confinement, place hard limits on the duration inmates can languish in segregation and appoint an independent adjudicator to make sure the Correctional Service of Canada follows the law.

Ottawa insists that C-56, along with some internal rule changes at Correctional Service Canada, will address those points. Ms. Ward feels differently.

"I do not believe this bill would have changed the outcome [for Ashley]," she said.

Her sister was first sentenced to prison at the age of 15 for breaching probation, assault and causing a disturbance. At the time, Ms. Ward knew a much different Ashley Smith from the one who would become classified as dangerous, aggressive and self-harming in the federal correctional system.

"I was quite a bit older than her, but my children were very close with her," said Ms. Ward, whose children were 12, 17 and 23 years old at the time of the death. "I can't imagine a more close-knit family, really. The kids attended daycare together. They swam together every day in the summertime. Sledding, ice skating, tobogganing, all of those things."

For the next two years, Ms. Smith would be in and out of youth custody. Once, she was charged for throwing an apple at a postal worker. On another occasion, she did time for pulling a fire alarm.

In custody, she racked up hundreds of institutional infractions and new charges for assaulting staff and damaging property. She was routinely sent to segregation, or "therapeutic quiet," as it was termed.

She turned 18 in 2006 and was transferred to adult custody under Correctional Service Canada. There, she exhausted correctional officers by continually tying strands of fabric around her neck and physically resisting staff attempts to remove them. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a condition typified by fear of abandonment, self-harm and mercurial temper.

The Correctional Service kept her in near-continuous solitary confinement, transferring her 17 times between seven institutions in four provinces over 11 months.

"Fortunately, my parents had the means to travel all over the country," Ms. Ward said. "Everywhere they moved Ashley, my mom would visit. But she wasn't allowed a contact visit. She couldn't hold her hand, couldn't touch her hair, she couldn't hug her, she couldn't do anything. For a kid to go from a caring, conservative upbringing to being caged like an animal – how could anyone cope with that?"

On Oct. 19, 2007, Ms. Smith told a correctional officer of a recent nightmare wherein her mother had died while she was still in prison. She felt like tying something around her neck. "Just let me do it," she told the concerned officer, who had been ordered not to intervene. "I won't die. I know what I'm doing."

By then, guards had been ordered not to intervene unless Ms. Smith stopped breathing. They followed orders on that day and entered her cell too late to save her.

The jury in that 2013 inquest deemed the death a homicide and recommended a prohibition on keeping inmates in segregation beyond 15 days.

"That was the first time we started to feel closure," Ms. Ward said. "With the homicide designation, we expected change would happen, that no family would ever have to go through this again."

Days after taking office, Mr. Trudeau instructed cabinet to implement the recommendations from inquest. Bill C-56 would create a presumptive segregation time limit of 21 days, dropping to 15 days a year-and-a-half after taking effect. But it also proposes to give any warden the power to override those time limits.

Under the proposed legislation, independent reviewers would be appointed to examine all solitary placements extending beyond the presumptive limits, but would be granted no power to release inmates from segregation. The bill doesn't mention mentally ill prisoners.

"It's too discretionary," Ms. Ward said. "It still allows for the use of solitary confinement. I think if this legislation were in place years ago, Ashley would have received the same treatment."

The family received an undisclosed settlement in 2011.

Ms. Ward still has trouble erasing the dreadful images from the inquest. She holds on to hundreds of hours of home movies showing Ms. Smith laughing and playing.

"That's the Ashley I think of on a good day," Ms. Ward says. "We are starting to have good days, but the dark cloud of her demise is always going to overshadow the good we have in our collective memory."

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