Remember this: We all killed Ashley Smith

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith died, or was encouraged to kill herself, while seven prison guards in a model Canadian women’s prison watched, followed orders, and did nothing. And by doing nothing is meant committed homicide. That was a decision of coroner’s jury, Thursday, December 19, 2013, six years and two months, to the day.

While it’s a good decision, and while it allows Ashley’s mother, in particular, a kind of peace, there’s more here. Ashley Smith was a girl, then a young woman who lived with mental and emotional problems. She needed help. She knew she needed help. She begged for help, and not only in her last moments. Her entire adolescence and brief adult life, she begged for help. There was none available in New Brunswick, where her family lived, and so she went into the system, and then was shipped around, from prison to prison, from prison system to prison system.

How does a young woman beg for help in prison? There’s one sure-fire way: self-harm. And that’s the route Ashley Smith took. That irked the warden who ordered the staff to do, ultimately, as they did.

But this is not about Canada, nor about seven guards, nor one warden, nor even the so-called correctional system nor the so-called criminal justice system. It’s not about the mental health system either. It’s about us, you, me, all of us.

Where ever you live right now, people, and in particular young girls, are being thrown behind bars for the crime of asking for help. `Budget crises’ produce austerity programs just as `inefficiencies’ once produced structural adjustment programs. These are all too genteel descriptors for a global factory of torture and death, that begins and ends with everyone who is supposed to be responsible responsibly watching a girl kill herself and doing nothing to stop it.

This is not about strangers `letting something bad happen’ nor is this `the order of things.’ This is the order of people and power.

We all contribute to a world in which prison has become the first and the final solution to everything, in which prison and military budgets dwarf all other government expenditures. We vote for that, we teach that, we allow that to continue, we contribute. Remember that.

And in the New Year, remember this: we all killed Ashley Smith. We did not `fail’ her; we killed her. So, rest in peace, Ashley Smith. Perhaps your death and life will not have been for naught. Perhaps.

(Photo Credit: UWaterloo.ca)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.