Skip to main content

Ashley Smith is shown in an undated handout photo. A coroner’s inquest ruled that the teenager’s death in custody was a homicide.HO/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is launching a pilot project to treat mentally ill female offenders at provincial health centres, but the mother of the troubled teen whose jailhouse death in 2007 spurred the project called the move "insulting" because, she believes, it doesn't go nearly far enough in addressing how the correctional system handles mentally ill inmates.

Speaking at an Ottawa mental health care centre Thursday, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney launched the government's Mental Health Action Plan by announcing an agreement-in-principle with the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group to provide two beds for mentally ill female offenders.

"We realize sometimes that people end up in jail and this is not the best place for them," Mr. Blaney said, calling Ashley Smith's 2007 death a "tragic" event. "Probably, one of these individuals is one of the reasons we're here today. This is a young girl who actually ended up in a place where she was not properly dealt with."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the limited capacity of the Ontario pilot project, saying the initiative is "one of several things" the government is doing to improve the handling of mentally ill federal inmates.

"We obviously feel pretty strongly as a government that, speaking more generally, when we're dealing with violent criminals, the public should be protected from such people and they should be behind bars," Mr. Harper said at an unrelated event in Montreal, where he was asked about the two-bed pilot. "But where there are mental-health issues in the criminal-justice system, we want to make sure the criminal-justice system has the ability to identify and to treat those kinds of issues."

Mr. Blaney's announcement follows a verdict late last year in the Ontario coroner's inquest into Smith's death, which determined that the teenager's in-custody choking death was a homicide – not a suicide. At the time, Public Safety pledged to review the jurors' 104 recommendations aimed at improving the federal system's approach to the mentally ill.

The pilot project launches with a pair of guaranteed beds at the Royal's Brockville Mental Health Centre in Ontario – a capacity swiftly criticized by Ashley Smith's mother and the head of a national organization advocating on behalf of female inmates.

"Her immediate response was, 'This is insulting. This is no longer about Ashley. This is about the women who continue to languish in prison,'" said Kim Pate, the head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, speaking Thursday morning on Coralee Smith's behalf. "And I would agree with her."

Coralee Smith did not immediately respond to a telephone message requesting an interview.

Ms. Pate called Thursday's announcement a "step in the right direction," but said accountability remains a key issue and that it's doubtful Ashley Smith would have had access to one of the beds, since she was "transferred all over the place and wasn't identified as having mental health issues, but rather behavioural problems." NDP public-safety critic Randall Garrison applauded the Ontario pilot project in principle, but lamented that there are "only two beds" and they're reserved for women.

"Something may be achieved by the pilot project," said Mr. Garrison, who is now calling on Mr. Blaney to apologize to the Smith family on behalf of the government. "But this is not an adequate response."

When asked about the limited capacity for the pilot project at the Brockville centre, Mr. Blaney said the project is for those suffering from very acute mental-health issues, that there are already "dozens" of beds within Correctional Service Canada facilities, and that the government is open to expanding the project based on the results of the pilot.

Sara Parkes, a Correctional Service Canada spokeswoman, said arrangements are also underway with the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Nova Scotia to seek in-patient bed capacity on a pay-per-use basis. She said the Atlantic in-patient beds would allow female offenders from that region to undergo treatment closer to their home communities, and would also bring beds nearer to the Nova Institution for Women, where Smith started her adult incarceration in 2006 and soon after she started tying ligatures around her neck.

Ms. Parkes said there are also already more than 30 in-patient beds available for federally incarcerated women: 12 at L'Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montreal, a provincial mental-health centre in Quebec, and another 20 at CSC's Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatchewan. "This equates to approximately one in-patient care bed available for every 20 federally incarcerated women." The CSC, she noted, is responsible for administering an offender's full sentence – or, as Mr. Blaney put it, the women would remain within the "virtual borders" of CSC.

The government is focusing on women, it seems, because female inmates are more likely to report mental-health issues. According to Public Safety, recent statistics show that at admission, 13 per cent of male offenders and 29 per cent of female offenders self-identify as having mental-health needs.

And to the frustration of prisoners' advocates, the country's federal correctional investigator came out with a report in 2013 that said the federal prison system remains "ill-equipped" to manage female offenders who chronically injure themselves.

"This is a health issue, and more of a society and social issue, than it is a correctional issue," George Weber, president and CEO of the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, said at the Ottawa event. He said the Royal has already helped one female offender, who was incarcerated alongside Ashley Smith, to successfully return to the community.

The Smith inquest probed how 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 crabapples at a postal worker.

The pilot project is part of the government's Mental Health Action Plan, which Public Safety said in background materials "lays a foundation" for Ottawa's full response, due out in winter of this year, to the recommendations of Smith inquest. The plan's five pillars are: timely assessment, effective management, sound intervention, ongoing training and development, and robust governance and oversight.

Among the "priority activities" laid out in the action plan, the government says it has already created a National Psychiatrist position, rolled out more comprehensive mental-health screening at all intake sites, and has a policy that says inmates on suicide watch generally won't be transferred to an institution other than a treatment facility.

The strategy also says the government plans to craft training materials using Ashley Smith's experience as a case study, and will complete a comprehensive review of research on, and practices of, segregation. Ashley Smith, who bounced among 17 institutions in her final 11 months, spent long stretches in segregation, and drew her final two breaths on the concrete floor of a segregation cell.

With a report from Les Perreaux in Montreal