The evidence portion of the inquest into Ashley Smith’s death will commence on Jan. 14, 2013, after years of motions to inquire into the case behind her death.
In 1997, Smith choked herself to death with a strip of cloth after a year of solitary confinement in the Grand Valley Institution of Kitchener, Ontario. The women’s institution is one of many Correctional Services Canada (CSC) correctional facilities, which opened its doors in 1997 to hold up to129 inmates.
Legal battles have been fought over whether the public should continue having access to videos of the treatment that Smith endured at the facility. Dr. John Carlisle, presiding coroner, was asked by federal correctional authorities to ban disclosure of the shocking videos to the public.
Julian Falconer, the representative who speaks on behalf of the Smith family, was in opposition to the government’s request. He argued that the government is trying to cover up the treatment of Smith.
“The essential question is what the various doctors and prison officials in the various provinces did to Ashley,” said Falconer.
The videos show Smith being restrained for hours at a time, at one point left wet and cold, with no food or water.
Recent court rulings denied the request for the videos to be blocked. Lawyers working in defence of Smith believe that Smith’s case should include her whole time of incarceration as she was moved 17 times within institutions. Three psychologists who worked with Smith outside of the Ontario institution were contacted, but maintain the position that the case should stay within the realms of the Kitchener institution.
Kim Pate, head of the Canadian association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, stated the importance of the case being released to the public due to the fact that there are many inmates in similar situations.
“Increasingly we’re cutting resources in the community and (incarcerating) individuals who should never end up in prison [ . . . ] We continue down the path of criminalizing and imprisoning people who really have other issues,” Pate told the CBC.
CSC claims that providing safe and secure facilities for both staff members and offenders is one of their central responsibilities. The CSC website states their goal is to amalgamate offenders within society as responsible, law-abiding individuals. In order to do so, they claim to provide a safe environment with appropriate treatment, programming, and essential healthcare. CSC states that part of this essential treatment is directed towards those with mental illness in order to reduce self-harm and risk that these individuals may pose to others.
“Every day, thousands of correctional staff across the country interact with more than 13,000 incarcerated offenders in efforts to assist them with their rehabilitation and intervene when they are in distress,” states the CSC website.
In 2001-2005, there were 82 deaths not due to natural causes. The volume of high-need offenders is large and offenders often have drug, alcohol, and mental health issues. CSC claims to issue of unnatural deaths while in custody.
CSC states that they have taken preventative correctional steps since the death of Smith in 2007. Forums were held in 2009 to discuss deaths while in custody and to explore the relationship between mental health and the criminal justice system.
Smith was diagnosed with learning disabilities as a teenager but was unable to receive the proper help or necessary treatment. Her mother stated that Smith had multiple run-ins with the law as a result of her inability to grasp the consequences of her actions. Smith was initially incarcerated for pelting a local mailman with crab apples. She was moved between several institutions and videos of brutal treatment surfaced while she was incarcerated.
Videos show the guards using physical force, pepper spray, and a cocoon-like wrap in order to subdue the girl. Smith is shown to have complete resistance to the authorities. The cycle perpetuated throughout her incarceration and Smith became more resistant and volatile as her treatment became worse.
This is not the first time an inquiry into the Smith’s death has been requested. The first attempt was shut down after the coroner on the case, Dr. Bonita Porter, retired after months of legal battles.