Skip to main content

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter