Canada built a special hell for women: the Nova Institution for Women

Camille Strickland-Murphy, left, and Veronica Park, right

On April 24, 2015, Veronica Park died in the Nova Institution for Women. On July 28, 2015, Camille Strickland-Murphy killed herself in the Nova Institution for Women, committed suicide. On October 31, 2006, Ashley Smith, a “troubled teenager,” was shifted from youth custodial services to a federal women’s prison, the Nova Institution for Women, in Truro, Nova Scotia. From there, over the next year, Smith was transferred 17 times, and subjected throughout to full body constraint, shackles, and extended solitary confinement. On October 19, 2007, Ashley Smith hanged herself while seven guards watched and did nothing. The State was “shocked”. Some said, “Ms. Smith’s death should haunt Canada.” It didn’t and, as the corpses of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy demonstrate, it hasn’t. The death of women prisoners haunts absolutely nothing. Last week, the families of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy sued Canada’s federal correctional service for “negligence.” Rather call it torture. This play unfolds in three acts: the deaths, the after-death, and the darkness gathering.

Act One: Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy die.

Veronica Park entered Nova Institution for Women on August 14, 2014. Her family says she suffered from mental health issues, which they attribute to having been sexually and physically abused as an adult. She took to self-medicating and became addicted. In prison, she continued to self-medicate. Prison staff responded to her “situation” by throwing her, three times, into “segregation”, where she spent a total of 22 days. In the weeks before her death, Veronica Park went to the clinic seven times. She was clearly sick. On April 23, 2015, Veronica Park went twice to the clinic, where the nurse recorded a sore throat, cough, body aches and shortness of breath, and sent her on her way. The next day, Veronica Park was found incapacitated, gasping for air. She was taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a serious case of pneumonia. By 4:30 pm, Veronica Park was dead.

Camille Strickland-Murphy entered Nova Institution for Women on November 10, 2014. Strickland-Murphy had been in Nova before, at the age of 19. At that time, she had been beaten twice, by other inmates. Her family says that Strickland-Murphy’s mental illness began then, with untreated concussions. She began having seizures, fainting spells, and periods of loss of consciousness. The State responded with “segregation”, seven times totaling 23 days. When Camille Strickland-Murphy returned to Nova, her condition was worse. She was engaging in self-harm, which, again, resulted in segregation In February, she cut her face, and was found in a pool of blood. In March, she set her leg and room on fire. On July 20, she attempted suicide, and was sent to hospital. She was then returned to the Nova Institution for Women. On July 28, Camille Strickland-Murphy killed herself.

Who really killed Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy?

Act Two: The State abuses the families of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy.

When Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy asked, directly and indirectly, for help, they were sent into segregation. Segregation means no family contact and that one’s security changes from medium to maximum. The families say they were never told about their loved ones’ deteriorating conditions. No one in either family knew how bad the situation was. How could they, when Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy were in and out of “segregation”? After the deaths, the State met the families’ various requests for information, both on what happened and what follow-ups were going on, with stone dead silence. According to Kim Pate, of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, when the Park family asked for more information, “they were told it was protected. It is outrageous.” There’s no outrage here, and Ashley Smith does not haunt the Canadian justice or prison system. The State kills women in prison, and then “protects” information. According to the family, the investigation into Veronica Park’s death didn’t even begin for a full four months.

Act Three: The darkness gathers.

Howard Sapers, the federal prisons ombudsman, released a report last week on how Canadian prisons deal with families after prisoners have died “in custody.” Investigative reports are consistently blacked out. Sometimes whole pages are missing. This repeats the treatment prior to the death, when the prisons don’t inform families. Prisons treat the families callously and worse. One man told the prison he would be coming to view his family member’s body on a certain day. When he arrived, he was told, for the first time, that his family member had been cremated. Later, without any notice, the ashes were couriered to him: “They cremated him and they sent him by Purolator…sending someone in the mail…it’s just not right.” It’s just not right. Sapers’ report is titled In the Dark.

Ashley Smith died, or was killed, nine years ago. In the interim, the darkness has gathered and thickened. In the name of Veronica Park, Camille Strickland-Murphy, and Ashley Smith, no more red flags, reports, inquiries or commissions. It’s time, it’s way past time, for action. Close the Nova Institution for Women. Close all places where segregation and isolation are the protocols for healing. Build spaces that are actually for women. Anything else is just not right.

A report to a family on their loved one’s death


(Photo Credit 1: CBC News) (Photo Credit 2: News 1130 / Office of the Correctional Investigator)

We all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith died by self strangulation while seven prison guards in a Canadian women’s prison, Grand Valley Institution for Women, followed orders, watched and did nothing. By doing nothing is meant committed homicide. That was a decision of a coroner’s jury, December 19, 2013, six years and two months later. As a result of Ashley Smith’s murder, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, issued Risky Business: An Investigation of the Treatment and Management of Chronic Self-Injury Among Federally Sentenced Women – Final Report. This also appeared in 2013. Risky Business focused on eight federally sentenced women prisoners “selected for this investigation because they were deemed to be the most high risk and chronic self-injurious women in the federally sentenced women population.” Kinew James was one of those women. Kinew James was in and out of solitary confinement. Kinew James was interviewed in the middle of 2012. In January 2013, Kinew James died, in custody, because nobody answered her pleas for help. An inquest into Kinew James’ death was supposed to start in April 2016, but it’s been indefinitely postponed. Terry Baker was another of the eight most high risk and chronically self-injurious women. On Monday, July 4, in Grand Valley Institution for Women, Terry Baker killed herself. She was pronounced dead on Wednesday. Canada claims to be shocked, and yet for nine years now the State has “done nothing”, killing woman after woman with absolute impunity. What happened to Terry Baker? Kinew James? Ashley Smith? Absolutely nothing. After scathing reports and damning juries, the murder of women living with mental illness continues unabated. Despite sincere, or not, expressions of concern, suicide among women prisoners is part of the plan. It’s the new normal, and it’s too late to protest shock or concern. Shut down the segregation units, once and for all.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said: “We know that she was in restraints a number of times; we suspect there were uses of force, but we don’t know that for certain and we have asked the correctional investigator to also look into it … It’s a terrible tragedy for her family, her friends, the women she served time with. It’s a tragedy all around and it’s a travesty, and it should not be happening in this country. It needs to stop. I hope the minister pays attention to this and makes a decision very quickly to end the use of segregation. Terry was a very sweet, gentle young woman except when it came to herself. She had been very self-destructive and self-harming for a number of years,” said Pate. “She’s someone who, when I last saw her in Saskatchewan, she was actually doing quite well. She was involved in a dog therapy program. From our perspective, [this] underscores exactly why we have the position of no women in segregation, particularly those with mental health issues.”

Other prisoners said she was kind and courageous, but in need of help.

The week before her death, Baker had complained to prison advocates about being forcibly bound to her bed for prolonged periods of time. She had a history of self-harming, and a revolving door relationship with solitary confinement. Rosemary Redshaw, former chaplain at Grand View, remembered Terry Baker: “I really liked her. She had a childlike sense of humor and was great to get along with. In the midst of her struggle, she seemed to get help in the time I was there.” Redshaw added that Baker should not have been in prison or in isolation.

None of this matters. Terry Baker is dead, and nothing will bring her back. Her planned death will now be desecrated by a series of reports and recriminations, just like the deaths of Ashley Smith and Kinew James. Remember this: we all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet. Close segregation units. Don’t send people who need help to prison. Invest in mental health and wellbeing. It’s not magic.

Terry Baker’s birthday would have been July 15. She would have turned 31


(Photo Credit: Office of the Correctional Investigator Canada)

What happened to Kindra Chapman? The new normal for jails and prisons

Kindra Chapman

On Monday, July 13, #BlackLivesMatter activist and outspoken critic of police brutality Sandra Bland was “found” dead in a Texas jail. On Tuesday, July 14, in Homewood, Alabama, 18-year-old Black teenager Kindra Chapman was arrested, at 6:22 pm. At 7:50 pm, Kindra Chapman was found dead, hanging by a bed sheet in a holding cell.

While the case of Sandra Bland has attracted extensive and intensive attention, with one or two exceptions, the death of Kindra Chapman has not.

Suicide in jails and prisons, and in particular women’s jails and prisons, is the new normal, and not only in the United States. For example, just yesterday, it was reported that, in the United Kingdom, the number of people dying in police custody has reached its highest level for five years. We reported on this earlier in the year. The story’s the same in Italy.

Meanwhile, the jails of America are filling up to choking as the prisons are “releasing”, and women, and especially Black women, have been the principle actors, and targets, of this new phase of mass incarceration. And then there are the immigration detention centers. At Women In and Beyond the Global, we have been covering this trend for years. Here are just some of the individual women’s stories we’ve followed.

In 2007, in a Canadian prison, after years of mental health torment and begging for help through self-harm, 19-year-old Ashley Smith killed herself, on suicide watch, while seven guards followed orders, watched and did nothing. Now Ashley Smith haunts the Canadian Correctional Servicesor doesn’t.

In 2013, in England, Ms. K died. Her death was exemplary. A woman enters prison for the first time, a troublesome woman, and within weeks is found hanging in her cell. For the Ombudsman researchers, Ms K’s case is “one example” of the “failure” to “consider enhanced case review process” when a prisoner’s history suggests “wide ranging and deep seated problems.”

Last year, on Thursday, September 18, Megan Fritz hung herself. On Monday, September 22, Mary Knight did the same. Both women were incarcerated at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison when they committed suicide. Yet neither woman was on suicide watch. Why not?

Josefa Rauluni left the island nation of Fiji for Australia, where he applied for asylum, or “protection”. He was turned down. He was taken to Villawood Detention Centre, run by Serco. He continually appealed the decision, saying he feared for his life if he returned to Fiji. In response, the State told Josefa Rauluni that he would be deported on September 20, 2010. The night of September 19, Josefa Raulini sent two faxes to the Ministerial Intervention Unit at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. They read, ”If you want to send me to Fiji, then send my dead body”. The State did nothing. On the morning of September 20, 2010, Josefa Raulini informed the guards, “I’m not going, if anyone goes near me, I will jump“. The guards did nothing for a while, and they they tried force. As they moved in, Josefa Raulini jumped from a first floor balcony railing. He dove, head first, hit the ground, and died. The State did nothing; the Villawood staff had no suicide prevention training.

On December 20th 2013 Lucia Vega Jimenez committed suicide, hanging herself in a shower stall of a bleak border facility at the Vancouver International Airport under the jurisdiction of Canada Border Services Agency, CBSA. She died eight days later in a hospital. She somehow found a rope and hanged herself. Who brought the rope and who tied the knot?

Lilian Yamileth Oliva Bardales, 19 years old, and her four-year-old son had been held in Karnes “Family Detention Center” from October to June. She had applied for asylum, explaining that she had fled Honduras to escape an abusive ex-partner, six years older than she, who had beaten her regularly since she was 13. Her application was denied. In early June, she locked herself in a bathroom and cut her wrists. She was removed from the bathroom, held for four days under medical “supervision” during which she was denied access to her attorneys, and then deported.

The line from Sandra Bland to Kindra Chapman is direct, a line of Black Women killed in police custody. The coroner’s report may say they hanged themselves, and they may have, but if there’s an epidemic of self harm and suicide and the State does nothing, that’s public policy, and it’s murder. Likewise the line between Canadian Ashley Smith and English Ms. K and Mary Fritz and Mary Knight and Kindra Chapman is direct, as is the line that binds asylum seekers and immigration detention prisoners Josefa Rauluni, Lucia Vega Jimenez, and Lilian Yamileth Oliva Bardales. These women, and men, are captives in jails and prisons in which there is no suicide prevention training or planning. Quite the contrary, prisoner suicide is part of the plan. #IfIDieinPoliceCustody say my name. If she dies in police custody, #SayHerName.


(Photo Credit:


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:

To present to the dead friend within oneself the gift of his innocence

The names. The names of places: Armadale, Marikana. The names of sectors: the garment industry. The names of those individuals whose names cannot be shared: Laura S. The names of the men: Jimmy Mubenga. The names of the women: Ishrat Jahan, Jackie Nanyonjo, Savita Halappanavar. The names of the children: Ashley Smith, Trayvon Martin.

These are but some of the names of the innocents, slaughtered by State policy and practice. These are but some of the people we have tried to describe over the last little time. These are the names of those whose tragedies have opened too many doors to the work of mourning.

We have written, others have written, to what end?

To write, to him – present to the dead friend within oneself the gift of his innocence. For him, I would have wanted to avoid, and thus spare him, the double wound of speaking of him, here and now, as one speaks of one of the living or one of the dead. In both cases, I disfigure, I wound, I put to sleep, or I kill. But whom? Him? No. Him in me? In us? In you? But what does this mean? That we remain among ourselves? This is true but still a bit too simple.”

After the silence, after the too-simple truths, what is there? If we are to present to the dead friends within oneself the gifts of their innocence, we must earn the gift. We must organize the State of peace, justice, mutuality, love. All else is … words.

And Trayvon Martin is dead.


(Photo Credit: Gill)

Canada’s Highway, Prisons, Foster Homes, and Schools of Tears

The Ashley Smith inquest continues. Ashley Smith was a 19-year-old woman prisoner who troubled the government of Canada too much with her constant acting out and suicide attempts, and so, finally, was allowed to commit suicide while seven guards stood and watched.

The guards, four women and three men, have now testified. They all say their hands were tied; they were only following orders. They’re very sorry, even anguished, for how Ashley Smith died. They know they failed her, they know the State failed her. They were misinformed. They were told Ashley’s problems were “behavioral not mental.” Behavioral not mental is code for in control of one’s actions. When the madwoman in the attic is a 19-year-old in solitary confinement, somehow she becomes `sane.’ The guards say they knew something was wrong, but the doctors had told them otherwise. It was a victory of military discipline over human and common sense.

Some ask, “How does an 18-year-old end up doing serious time in a federal prison for throwing crab apples at a postman?” Others wonder if Ashley Smith’s death was suicide or murder. Did Ashley Smith die or was she killed?

The Ashley Smith inquest continues, and Ashley Smith is still dead.

Here’s another question. Is Ashley Smith’s experience an isolated one? How does Canada treat its troublesome children? Three current reports suggest that the treatment of Ashley Smith is more common public policy than exceptional horror.

One study documents “ongoing police failures to protect indigenous women and girls” in Northern British Columbia. This “failure to protect” includes gang rape, torture, abduction, and a whole menu of violence. This “failure to protect” has contributed to the construction of what many call the Highway of Tears, as has the national government’s `failure’ to care about the lives of indigenous women and girls. That’s not failure. That’s refusal, and it’s an aggressive public policy, not an omission or lack of action.

A second study follows a 13-year-old Aboriginal child from cradle to cage. Taken from his parents at an early age, he was tossed from one foster home to another. Most of them were abusive environments. The one foster parent who actually cared and tried to take care of the boy couldn’t get help from the State, and so had to give the child up. When the boy turned eight, and was in a residential facility, the staff started disciplining him by calling in the police. And so began his life of being Tasered, followed by time in prison.

His story is a common one. In British Columbia, of children and youth `in care’ more enter into the juvenile criminal justice system than graduate from high school. One in six youth in care have been in youth custody. Close to one-third of the youth in the juvenile justice system is Aboriginal, which pretty much accords with the adult prisons. As above, so below. That’s equality in a prison State; that’s public policy.

An unpublished study reports that more than 3000 Aboriginal children died in Indian residential schools. Children died of disease, malnutrition, and accidents. Children froze to death. From the 1870s to the 1990s, 150,000 First Nations children were forced through the meat grinder of “civilizing” instruction, and at least 2% of them died in house. The names of 500 of the 3000 dead are still unknown. What is known is that in 1917, the Department of Indian Affairs stopped reporting the deaths and death rates of Aboriginal students in residential `care’: “It was obviously a policy not to report them.”

In each instance, from the 3000 Aboriginal children to the one Aboriginal child to hundreds of missing Aboriginal women and girls to Ashley Smith, the State responded with silence, followed by denial.

The Highway of Tears is not a road to nowhere. It leads to the Prisons of Tears, to the Foster Homes of Tears, to the Schools of Tears. Ashley Smith’s suffering is part of the brutal disposal of children in a world in which care is forced to surrender to the business of security as usual.


(Photo Credit:

Swaziland closes a pregnancy to prison pipeline

Vuyesihle Magagula is 21 years old and seven months pregnant. In December of last year, her mother, Shell Dlamini, went to Court and had her daughter committed … to prison. Vuyesihle’s boyfriend, Colani Dlamini, then informed Vuyesihle’s father, Zephaniah Magagula, about Vuyesihle’s incarceration. Vuyesihle’s parents are separated.

Vuyesihle Magagula sat for a month in Mawelawela Correctional Facilities for a month. There never was a charge against her. There never was a claim that she had committed any crime or broken any law.

Today, January 22, 2013, the High Court ordered Vuyesihle Magagula to be released from prison. The Court agreed with Vuyesihle’s father that his daughter was of sound mind and had not been charged with any offense. Therefore her imprisonment was a violation of Chapter III of the Constitution of Swaziland, “Protection and Promotion of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.”

The Court also agreed that prison is not a good place for pregnant women.

Prison is not a good place for pregnant women nor for women who have not been charged with a crime.

Swaziland has 12 prisons. Mawelawela is the one for women. The Swazi prison system is full to bursting, with government reports that there’s no more room at that inn. Much of the overcrowding is made up of prisoners awaiting trial. Something like 25% of prisoners are remand prisoners. But they’re treated exactly the same as convicted prisoners, sharing the same cells, occupying the same time. Torture is common, beatings are common, and rape is common as well. Juvenile offenders and juveniles awaiting trial, children, are often thrown into the adult prisons. There aren’t enough beds, and so what is a State to do?

Of the twelve prisons, Mawelawela isn’t the worse. It’s not overcrowded. Around 15% of its prisoners are awaiting trial. Some children are living with their mothers at Mawelawela. They’re not in special wards. As elsewhere, juveniles and `detainees’ are part of the general population. On the other hand, Mawelawela is said to be “clean”. That’s something, right?

Mawelawela may not be the worst place, but it’s not the right place. Prison is not a place for `wayward girls.’ Vuyesihle Magagula is not the first to be sent to prison for `protection.’ Last December, as she sat in prison, His Majesty’s Correctional Services Commissioner, Mzuthini Ntshangase, announced that prison was open to unruly and naughtly children. Send them over to us, and we’ll teach them. Ostensibly, girls like Nomthetho and Tebenguni are given `a second chance.’

A second chance. Swaziland has the world’s highest incidence of HIV, with 43% incidence of HIV among pregnant women. Vuyesihle Magagula is the face of HIV in Swaziland, and, whether or not she’s HIV+, prison is not a solution to anything.

In the last ten years, infant mortality in Swaziland has increased by 26%. Maternal mortality has increased by 160%. And somehow, in this landscape of mathematics and morbidity, prison is a second chance?

Around the world, `troublesome’ and `troubled’ girls, girls like Ashley Smith in Canada, are sent to prison … for their own good. Ashley Smith died while seven guards watched. They were only following orders. Let’s apply the common and juridical sense of the High Court of Swaziland to the world. Prison is not a good place for pregnant women. Prison is not a good place for children. Prison is not a school, mental health facility, or resource for stressed parents and strained communities. Invest in children. Close the prisons, and open schools, clinics, community centers, and libraries. Do it now.


(Photo Credit: pikerslanefarm/Flickr)


Ashley Smith haunts Canada’s total peace of mind

For the second time, Canada is trying to investigate the death of Ashley Smith. The inquest starts today. The coroner leading the inquest says Smith’s death was a tragedy. The lawyer representing Smith’s family says it was a case of “absolute torturous circumstances.”

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith, an inmate at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, tied a rope around her neck and choked herself to death. Seven guards watched and actively did nothing as all this transpired.

Some called her death inhumane, while others hoped her death would haunt Canada. Now, more than five years later, it’s unclear that even the Canadian prison system feels particularly haunted by Ashley Smith’s death.

What has been clear from the start is the State’s attempt to shut down the investigation. From the beginning to today, the State has fought tooth and nail to bury any evidence of the event.

What emerged early today was evidence that “the State cares.” In the early days after the release of `shocking’ and `damning’ videos that showed how Ashley Smith died, Don Head, Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, wrote to the guards to express his concern for their well-being. Did he communicate with Ashley Smith’s family? No. Did he speak with the Press or, in any other way, with the public? No. But he did write to the guards, to make sure they weren’t traumatized … by the public attention to their practices, that is.

This is reminiscent of the European police inspector who, during the Algerian national liberation struggle, went to the psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, for help. The inspector complained that his work, torturing Algerians, was negatively impacting his home life. Part of the problem, according to the inspector, was that torturing was exhausting. He wanted the doctor to help him: “As he had no intention of giving up his job as a torturer (this would make no sense since he would then have to resign) he asked me in plain language to help him torture Algerian patriots without having a guilty conscience, without any behavioral problems, and with a total peace of mind.”

Are these men tortured by remorse? … The sick police agents were not tormented by their conscience. If they continue their professional practices outside their offices or their workshops—which happen to be torture rooms—it is because they are victims of overwork. “ They “manifest an exemplary loyalty to the system.”

Grand Valley Institution for Women is a prison for adult women. Weeks before being shunted into the adult prison system, Ashley Smith wrote in her journal, “If I die then I will never have to worry about upsetting my mom again.”

Ashley Smith rests in peace, and the system that killed her wants to get back to work, without having a guilty conscience, with a total peace of mind.

(Image Credit: The Toronto Star)

Ashley Smith, who haunts the Correctional Service of Canada


Ashley Smith and her guards

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith, a prisoner under suicide watch, killed herself. Seven guards watched and did nothing to stop her. They were under orders to let her go. Someone wanted to teach her a lesson, not to be `a nuisance’. And so, she died … or was killed by active neglect.

Now, five years later, perhaps, the Canadian government will finally conduct an inquest. The murder of Ashley Smith didn’t stop at her death. For five years, the Correctional Service of Canada has fought tooth and nail to bury any evidence of the event … other than the corpse of Ashley Smith, the pain of her family and friends, and the horror.

For five years, the Canadian prison system first denied the existence of the damning videos released, finally, just recently. They didn’t inform the parties in the inquiry of the existence of the tapes. Then, when the tapes could no longer be denied, the Correctional Service tried to keep the public from having access.

If Ashley Smith were the only young woman prisoner who was effectively tortured in prison, left to die slow death or `self-inflicted’ death in solitary, left to die while monitored in suicide watch, her death would indeed be a tragedy.

But Ashley Smith is not alone in her fate. Many prisoners, and especially women prisoners, living with mental health disabilities, find themselves deep in a system of abuse and exploitation. Many prisoners, and especially women prisoners, find their attempts at self-harm are not viewed as symptoms of a need to be treated but rather as bureaucratic inconveniences. Taking care of mentally ill prisoners `costs’ too much. Caring about the welfare of mentally ill prisoners costs way too much. Caring about the destiny and lives of young women … priceless.

There has been and will continue to be much condemnation, much finger pointing, all of it well deserved. But at the same, Ashley Smith’s death by proxy was precisely part of the `service’ the Correctional Service offers. Adjudicating those involved is important, getting the details of the story is important, too. Transforming the system and the nation and world that built it is necessary.

That won’t bring Ashley Smith back. That won’t mean she didn’t die in vain. But it could mean something for those who follow.


(The Globe and Mail)


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.


(Photo Credit: