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The problems identified by the Ashley Smith case are getting worse

The tragic death of a New Brunswick teenager in a federal penal institution was in the news last year. A number of agencies have looked into the serious human rights concerns raised by the Ashley Smith case and have made dozens of recommendations. Yet, despite all the attention given the case over the years, there is reason to believe that the problems faced by inmates dealing with mental illness may not have improved much, if any, since that case became public knowledge.

The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission was not directly involved in Ashley's case. However, the Commission is concerned at the conditions faced by inmates with a mental illness, and urges authorities not to miss the opportunity to remedy some of the serious problems that have been identified.

Who was Ashley Smith?

Ashley Smith was a troubled teenager from Moncton who spent over three years in the New Brunswick Youth Centre in Miramichi, and then was transferred 17 times over 11 months between various federal institutions. She was at first sentenced for minor offences, but, once she was deemed an adult at age 18, the sentences for infractions while in detention quickly added up to qualify her for further detention. At every institution, she spent most of her time in isolation.

Ashley Smith died by self-strangulation in a federal institution in Kitchener, Ontario, in 2007, at the age of 19, as guards followed strict orders to not enter her cell until she stopped breathing. Instead, for several minutes, they watched and videotaped her and urged her to remove the ligature she had put around her neck as her face turned purple and she died.

How governments reacted to her death

To try to identify what went wrong, the provincial and federal governments have published several reports into her incarceration and death.

In New Brunswick, the Ombudsman and Youth Advocate published The Ashley Smith Report on her time in New Brunswick institutions. In 2009, the New Brunswick govern­ment responded with its own report entitled Reducing the Risk: Addressing the Need. As a result, the New Brunswick government established four priorities: earlier detection and intervention, better coordination, decriminalization of mental health disorders, and better training. The government also announced an integrated service delivery strategy to improve services for at-risk youth, and it set up demonstration sites to implement the strategy.

At the federal level, the National Board of Investigation convened by Correctional Service Canada released its report on Ashley Smith’s death in February 2008. In addition, the federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers published a report in 2008 entitled, A Preventable Death, in which he found numerous regulatory and legal violations by the Correctional Service and concluded that Ashley Smith’s death had been preventable. In 2013, he also published a more general report on federally incar­cerated women who self-harm, entitled Risky Business.

On December 19, 2013, after a nearly year-long inquiry, an Ontario coroner’s jury delivered its verdict on the case of Ashley Smith, saying her death was a homicide and making 104 recommendations to avoid a similar tragedy in the future.

The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission's concern

The fact that these inquiries were initiated is commendable. However, the federal government has not yet responded to any of them, and there is reason to believe that conditions are becoming worse for inmates who are mentally ill.

Since Ashley Smith’s death, the Canadian Parliament passed Bill C-10, which sets minimum sentences for young offenders, thus increasing average sentences in a system that already has record high prison populations. This will make it more likely that mentally ill young offenders convicted of minor offences will end up in penitentiaries, as Ashley Smith did. Despite this, the budget of Correctional Service Canada has been cut by nearly $300 million.

Bill C-10 also lowered the threshold for the use of restraints, forcible medication and segregation, controversial practices that were at the heart of the Ashley Smith case.

Furthermore, in the Risky Business report published in 2013, the federal Correctional Investigator said that incidents of self-harm in federal institutions had tripled overall (and quadrupled for women) in the five years since Ashley Smith’s death. He attributed the increase to the criminalization of mental health issues and the increasing harshness of prison conditions, with prisons crowded with longer-term, older prisoners.

According to experts, the use of solitary confinement is high and increasing in Canada while other developed countries are scaling back. On any given day, 850 of 14,500 federal inmates are in segregation, about 85% of them involuntarily.

The way Ashley Smith was treated is unacceptable and inconsistent with Canadian values. Her case gives us the opportunity to develop effective, evidence-based approaches to deal with young offenders and offenders who self-harm. We must not waste this opportunity.

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CASHRA - The Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies