Ashley Smith died while seven guards followed orders and watched

 

Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith was 19 years when she was allowed, or encouraged, to die. At the time, she was a prisoner of the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

According to the Canadian government, Grand Valley is in many ways a model women’s prison. Organized around cottages, allowing for maximal self-sufficiency, it fosters a sense of personhood and humanity through what might be called normative social contacts. Women prisoners are allowed a certain level of discretionary time, quiet time, social time, alone time.  According to a 2005 commission report, by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Grand Valley, or GVI, is a relatively open and `healthy’ prison, fostering “safety, respect, purposeful activity and reintegration”. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, but as prisons go, it’s pretty good.

When thinking of Ashley Smith’s story, remember that the place in which she was allowed, or encouraged, to die is one of the model women’s prisons in Canada and in the world at large. This is as good as it gets.

Ashley Smith was a `troubled’ youth, in and out of trouble for minor offenses. She needed help, and in New Brunswick, where her family lived, the public mental health system could not address her needs. And so, instead, she was allowed to go `into the system.’

In March 2002, at the age of 14, Smith was sentenced to one year of probation for harassing phone calls, assaulting strangers on the streets, insulting bus passengers and drivers. A year later she was ordered into a youth center for probation violations. There she underwent psychiatric evaluation that suggested borderline personality disorder, among other possibilities. She was released. Seven months later, while at home, Ashley Smith threw apples at a postal worker. For that she was returned to the youth center, where she spent most of her time in solitary. From then on, she stayed pretty continuously in prison.

In October 2006, Ashley Smith was moved to federal prison, for violations committed while in prison.  A year later, she hanged herself.

In less than a year, her last year on earth, Ashley Smith was transferred seventeen times, from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan. Different prisons, same treatment.  Full body constraints. Shackles. Solitary confinement.

On August 30, 2007, Ashley Smith was returned to the Grand Valley Institution for Women.

During her time at GVI, Ashley Smith somehow made ligatures, strips of cloth clearly intended for self-harm. In a two-month span, fifty ligatures were confiscated. On September 24, 2007, Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, visited Ashley.  At her request, Pate filed a grievance, pleading for release from segregation and transfer to a hospital.

Smith knew she needed help. She knew that segregation was a death sentence. She had spent almost the entire preceding eleven months in solitary confinement. That’s a cell 6 feet by 9 feet: no books, no mattress, no writing implements; often, no clothes. The prison calls it `therapeutic quiet.’ While in federal custody, Ashley Smith received much `therapeutic quiet’, but never a comprehensive psychological assessment.

Pate’s grievance was placed in a grievance box that is only checked once the box is full. The box never filled. In the meantime, Ashley Smith hanged herself.

Seven guards watched and did nothing. They did nothing because they had received orders, in September, to not intervene. Ashley Smith had attempted suicide on numerous occasions. If guards entered to stop her, their actions were considered `use of force’, and involved videotaping, paperwork, and hearings. Rather than waste resources, the prison instructed the guards to not enter as long as Smith was breathing. Once dead, it’s no longer use of force.

This week, almost four years later, the coroner’s court began its inquest. Psychologists argue that Ashley Smith did not commit suicide. She thought people would come to her. She was trying to get help.

Seven guards watched and did nothing, which is to say, they did a great deal. They followed orders.

And Ashley Smith struggled to get help.

There are `ghastly’ videotapes of Ashley Smith’s death. Some say, “Ms. Smith’s death should haunt Canada.” Indeed, it should. At the same time, it would be more apt to say that Ashley Smith haunts Canada and the world. Ashley Smith was sick, she needed help, tried to get help. How did the State respond? It condemned her to live in a box for her last year on earth in a box, preceded by an endless series of cages.

Seven guards watched and did nothing. They were not alone in doing nothing. Ashley Smith haunts everyone.

 

(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.