In the early hours of October 19, 2007, Ashley Smith died from self-inflicted wounds in a segregation cell in Grand Valley Institution, the federal prison for women in Kitchener. She was transferred up from the youth system less than one year earlier. She was 19-years-old.
Initially jailed for a breach of probation, Ashley accumulated charges while in prison. Despite clearly exhibiting mental health issues she was never properly assessed nor treated. In the year before her death Ashley was moved 17 times among three federal penitentiaries, two treatment facilities, two external hospitals and one provincial correctional facility.
Each transfer eroded her trust in staff and the corrections system, resulting in escalated episodes of “acting out” and her assessment by the Correctional Service that she was increasingly “difficult to manage, ” according to the official report on Ashley’s death.
Ashley spent nearly all her imprisonment in segregation, also known as the “hole”. This punishment regime is highly restrictive and inhumane, and the UN defines prolonged periods of segregation as torture. The fact that she had been segregated before and that it had negatively affected her well-being was know to CSC. But once again Ashley was put in the hole.
In the weeks before her death, Ashley was shut away in empty, poorly lit cell, cold, lonely, and suicidal. She was on 24-hour suicide watch under direct staff observation, and in the hours prior to death Ashley told staff that she wanted to end her life. Staff observed her tying a ligature around her neck but failed to respond immediately to her medical distress. In simple terms, they let her die.
The Correctional Investigator and the New Brunswick Ombudsman reported that Ashley died because of individual failures that occurred in combination with much larger systematic issues within ill-functioning correctional and mental health systems.
Editor’s note: For the most part, the systematic failures that allowed Ashley Smith to die in 2007 have not been fixed. At the time of this writing, it was reported to the Elizabeth Fry Society that a young woman had committed suicide in her cell at the Manitoba Youth Centre.
(With files from the Elizabeth Fry Society and the official report on Ashley’s death, conducted by New Brunswick Ombudsman Bernard Richard)