Ashley Smith: a death somewhere between tragedy and travesty

Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith was 19 years when she was allowed, or encouraged, to die, alone in a fully monitored prison cell. On October 19, 2007, Smith was a prisoner of the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Seven guards watched her die, and did nothing. Or rather, seven guards followed orders, and did nothing. Then, when they were sure she was dead, they rushed in.

Some called her death inhumane. Others said, or hoped, that Ms. Smith’s death would haunt Canada. In fact, her death is the common death of the prisoner, and so it was human all too human.

In May 2011, almost four years after Ashley Smith’s death, which was not a suicide but a call for help, the State coroner’s court finally, finally began its inquest.

This week, two months later, the Ontario Health Professions Appeal and Review Board finally rendered something like an opinion.

First, the Board cleared two doctors of wrongdoing in the “care” they provided.

Second, it asked the key, critical and painfully obvious question: “From our perspective, it is difficult to understand how the resources of Correctional Services Canada and the numerous health professionals who were involved with (Smith), particularly in the last year of her life, could not have, somehow, appropriately treated her admittedly severe behavioural problems.”

In other words, “How was an obviously troubled 19-year-old inmate left so long without proper treatment?

Third, it rendered a genre decision: The Smith case “lies somewhere in the spectrum between a travesty and a tragedy.” What’s that you said about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, and thereafter as farce?

Wherein lies the travesty? In the redundancy. “Ashley Smith” is produced every day in prisons across Canada, across the United States, across the United Kingdom. Every day, prisoners, and women prisoners in particular, are “somehow” denied access to life saving health services. How many times must Ashley Smith “commit suicide” while actually asking for help?

Meanwhile, the coroner’s inquest was postponed yet again, and won’t begin again until September. Some describe the inquest as delay-plagued. They’ve never been to prison. This inquest isn’t delay-plagued. It’s just doing time as it always does.


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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.