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Opinion The prison system failed my daughter. Ashley’s ordeal will be repeated

My daughter Ashley died in solitary confinement, where she had been held for long periods over five years from the age of 14, while staff of Correctional Service Canada watched and did not intervene.

After seven years and two inquests, I received a call on Thursday from Don Head, the CSC commissioner. He told me that the correctional service had rejected most of the 104 recommendations for changes to the penal system, including the key recommendation that the use of solitary confinement beyond 15 days' duration be abolished. I am gravely disappointed. I fear that people currently being held in solitary confinement could experience the same degrading abuses and mistreatment that Ashley did.

One of the recommendations, to provide mental health treatment beyond that provided by the prison system, was met with refusal from the CSC. Mr. Head made it clear to me that there will not be an independent facility to treat mentally ill prisoners or patients outside the present CSC system. He noted that a pilot project over the next five years would provide two beds in Ontario and possibly one in Nova Scotia.

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I am told by experts that there are 20 to 30 females in Canadian prisons who need mental-health care, but are instead living under the same conditions as Ashley.

Who is going to get those two or three beds? It won't be those most in need, because staff will say that they can't be handled. The need for treatment will continue to be decided and overseen by CSC staff. Clearly the wants of prison guards is trumping the needs of prisoners.

I wonder how many frontline staff have been re-educated to respond to the mental-health crises of prisoners? In Ashley's case, they didn't respond. They're not trained to treat the mentally ill; they were all making guesses. There was no consideration, within the system, of Ashley's file as a mental-health case.

Ashley did not enter the prison system with mental-health issues. She got sick inside, under its tutelage. As I learned with Ashley, mental-health traumas are often created by the experience of solitary. CSC staff are not prepared to accept that some of the conditions are going to create mental-health problems.

The CSC relies – more than most other countries – on solitary confinement, where, contrary to claims that the duration will be limited to 30-, 60- or 120-day periods, prisoners are often held for months and years, often without writing and reading supplies, where clothing and personal effects are kept to a minimum, as is bedding. I was in Ashley's cell after she passed away: There was nothing in there.

Solitary is meant to be a rarely used punishment, and is described that way by the CSC, but it has been used as a permanent confinement against many prisoners I know of. Ashley was in solitary for 11.5 months straight, except when they were transferring her between prisons.

The cases of Edward Snowshoe, who died after spending 162 consecutive days in solitary (or "administrative segregation," as it is known in the system), and Kinew James, who died at 35 after spending much of her 15 years of prison time in solitary, are now known to the public.

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Three people are too many. And I know of another woman from my region who spent years in solitary. They give up on some people and throw away the key.

Another recommendation rejected by the CSC report is any monetary consideration to assist with family expenses associated with prisoner visitations – so if you're transferred from, say, Nova Scotia to Ontario, as happened with Ashley, you lose all touch with your family. Prisoners will continue to have access only to phone privileges paid for only by themselves or by collect calling, and those privileges can be withdrawn as a punishment. So on top of solitary, we have a system that is isolating them from their families. With Ashley, we couldn't catch up with her – she endured 17 transfers in 11 months. They allowed her one call after each transfer, and I was so worried I'd miss a call. And the night before she died, I did miss a call: I was out doing yard work because Ashley was coming home in 43 days.

Decisions regarding solitary confinement and transfers to hospitals will continue to fall under the jurisdiction of CSC staff. I suggest that independent judicial oversight is key to resolving these unsettling decisions. As it stands, there is no oversight of such decisions. As I learned with Ashley, the staff will protect one another, not their charges: Nobody came forward to take responsibility.

I feel that Ashley and I have been let down. I fear that Ashley's experience is being repeated over and over again, in the cases of Kinew James and Edward Snowshoe and other people. Ottawa's dismissive response to these recommendations means that history could repeat itself, and Ashley's ordeal will become someone else's.

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