Family calls for reopened criminal investigation in her death
© THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Ashley Smith is shown in this still image taken from a coroner's video.
TORONTO — The jury at a coroner’s inquest into Ashley Smith’s prison death returned a verdict of homicide Thursday while making a number of recommendations on how the corrections system can better deal with mentally ill female inmates.
Smith, 19, of Moncton, N.B. and originally from Summerside, strangled herself in her segregation cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in October 2007.
The inquest heard how guards, who had previously rushed in to save the chronically self-harming teen, hesitated because of orders from senior management against intervening as long as she was still breathing.
Smith’s family and others had urged jurors to return a homicide verdict because of that order, which they believed significantly contributed to her death.
They are calling on authorities to criminally investigate those who issued that order.
“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.”
The verdict of homicide in an inquest setting is not one of legal responsibility, rather it’s a finding that another person contributed to Smith’s death.
The inquest’s five women jurors heard extensive evidence on the teen’s treatment in federal custody and also heard how poorly equipped the prison system was to deal with the mentally ill young woman.
In making a number of recommendations, the jury suggested seriously mentally ill women serve time in federally operated treatment facilities, not prisons.
It suggested decisions for such inmates’ treatment should be made by clinicians rather than by security management and prison staff.
The jury also suggested Smith’s case be used as a case study for training all Correctional Services staff and managers and that all female inmates be assessed by a psychologist within 72 hours of being admitted to facilities.
Additionally, the jury recommended that indefinite solitary confinement should be abolished.
Smith’s sentence originally began with a few weeks for throwing crab apples at a postal worker but ballooned to a cumulative 2,239 days by the time she died on Oct. 19, 2007, mostly for acting out in prison.
Smith spent most of the last three years of her life in segregation, shunted from one institution to another in isolation.
In the last year of her life she was transferred between institutions 17 times —restarting the clock each time to avoid reviewing her segregation status.
Some of the 83 witnesses, who testified over the inquest’s 107 days starting last Jan. 14, said the teen spoke positively about her future and going home to her mom.
Others said she had become inconsolably desolate at the prospects of never leaving prison.