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)

We want our revolution NOW

 

In many parts of the world, prisons have become the principal sites for people living with mental illnesses. In the United States, jails and prisons increasingly house the mentally ill. It is estimated that, in the United States, for every person living with severe mental illness in hospital, there are three currently in prison or jail. In Arizona and Nevada, the number is ten mentally ill people in prison and jail for every one in hospital. For women, the numbers are worse yet. For women living with mental illness in the United States, prison is the new pink. The final coup de grace is when the inmates living with mental illness are described as putting a strain on the prison system. It’s their fault … of course. The same story occurs elsewhere. In Canada, for example, mentally ill prisoners are said to flood the system. Apparently, this is what democracy looks like.

But what happens when people living with mental illness end up in prison? What exactly is their treatment `protocol’? Too often, it’s long term solitary confinement. Colorado may be the solitary confinement capital of the world. In Colorado, it’s customary to lock up mentally ill patients … for their own good. Of those in solitary confinement, it’s estimated that four out of every ten is living with developmental disability or with mental illness. Despite that arithmetic, reformers have yet again failed to persuade the Colorado legislature that perhaps, just maybe, another prison is possible. The madness continues.

Mary Braswell knows something about this form of State, and corporate, madness. Braswell is grandmother to Frank D. Horton. She is also his `conservator’, or legal guardian. Frank Horton is an African American adult living with mental illness, who has had a number of run-ins with the law. At one point, he missed his parole appointment, and so was taken to prison, specifically to the Metro Nashville Detention Facility, run by Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. That’s when things went from bad to worse to near fatal.

According to Horton’s attorneys, his intake papers suggested a history of psychological and mental illness, with a likelihood of schizophrenia. The system `recognized’ the symptoms. And so what happened? Horton was put in general population, where, within a month, he started fighting, or attacked, his cell mate, and was placed in solitary. His cell mate said Horton was hearing voices.

Once in solitary, not surprisingly, Horton’s condition deteriorated … rapidly. He began refusing to leave solitary. Soon, he was allowed to stay in solitary, permanently. This meant nine months without a bath or shower, nine months with no one cleaning his cell. Nine months.

Nine months of guards walking past, knocking the door, asking if he was still alive, and then moving on. Nine months.

Finally, in January 2008, a guard, Patrick Perry, realized what was happening, stepped in and informed the Metro Public Health Department: “Patrick Perry, an officer at the detention facility from August 2006 to January 2008, began to notice that something was wrong late in 2007. In January 2008, Perry attempted to communicate with Horton, but Horton was speaking “gibberish.” Perry testified that Horton’s cell was filthy, that there were several food trays on the floor and bacteria growing in the toilet, that Horton’s beard and hair were “matted” and “out of control,” and that it appeared Horton had not washed himself or had his cell cleaned for months.”

For nine months, Frank Horton was left to live, or die, in filth that grew worse and worse, until, for some, he became indistinguishable from his surroundings.

Frank Horton was removed to a special facility in April 2008. Patrick Perry was fired immediately, on that day in January. Horton’s grandmother, Mary Braswell, has struggled for three years to get some kind of accountability, some element of responsibility, for the abuse into which her grandson was dumped. Two weeks ago, at last, she was given permission to proceed. CCA, no doubt, will appeal that decision.

On one hand, Frank Horton’s story is a common one, and sadly so is that of Mary Braswell, the story of prisoners living with mental illnesses and of the women, grandmothers, mothers, who try to care for them. At the same time, the story of prison driving people into deeper mental illness is also all too common. Young women and men, largely of color and largely low- to no-income, enter into prison, and when they come out, their minds are never the same.

And they call it democracy, this universe of systematic deprivation and devastation of minds and bodies. Rather call it Charenton, the Bedlam where the patients sing: “We’ve got Human Rights, we’ve got the right to starve; we’ve got jobs waiting for work; we’ve got Brotherhood, we’re all covered with lice; we’ve got Equality, we’re equal to die like dogs ….

“Marat, we’re poor, and the poor stay poor.
We want our rights and we don’t care how.
We want our revolution NOW”.

 

(Image Credit: Goldberg & Osborne)

 

State sexual violence haunts the world

Eman Al Obeidy burst into a hotel dining room in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday, and struggled to tell the story of how she’d been raped and beaten, for two days, by Qaddafi’s forces. She was then attacked, in the hotel dining room, and carried out. Journalists present were disturbed, as much by the treatment they witnessed as by Al Obeidy’s account. The latest report suggests that she is being held hostage at Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Salwa al-Housiny Gouda was one of the proud citizens of Tahrir Square, in Cairo. She was also one of seventeen women, arrested by the Egyptian army, imprisoned, tortured, stripped and subjected to a `virginity test.’

These women’s stories are critical to any understanding of the ongoing struggles in particular places, such as Libya, such as Egypt. They are also part of the treatment of women in prisons around the globe. There are more prisons and jails now then ever before, and women are the fastest growing prison population, globally and in many regions of the world. Across the world, nation states rigorously refuse to address sexual violence. At the same time, across the world, nation states build more prisons in which sexual violence against women intensifies and spreads.

From the United States to Jamaica to South Africa and beyond, rape kits sit unprocessed for months, some times years. In the United States, many cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have failed to process rape kits in a timely manner … if at all. When called to task for the failure, the administrations stonewall or, if forced to reform, drag their feet. Illinois just this past week passed a law “that will force law agencies to submit DNA evidence for testing.” They had to pass a law to make agencies process DNA. In New Jersey, also last week, the State legislature passed a law banning the practice of charging rape victims for the cost of processing the rape kits.

In Jamaica, rape survivors wait an average of two years for their attackers’ cases to be heard. In South Africa, the State has failed to adequately educate police about the appropriate procedures to follow in cases of sexual violence. Sometimes the training is a pro forma run through, with little follow up or evaluation. More often, there’s no training at all.

This is the state of the world. This state is made most manifest in the asylum and immigrant detentions centers. When the United Kingdom set up its fast track asylum processes, it did so with complete disregard for the women asylum seekers who are fleeing sexual violence. For example, one woman applied for asylum. She was part of a dissident movement in Angola, had been tortured, raped, and suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, among other mental issues.  The first official to hear her case, in 2008, decided she was `lying’. She was detained at Yarl’s Wood, despite compelling evidence of both torture and mental illness. All part of the system.

This is just one of many such tales. The asylum system has been described as “simply not equipped to handle rape, slavery, the threat of ‘honor killings,’ or other complex claims”. The simplicity of being unequipped is this: the state chooses not to equip, because women, and especially women of color, don’t matter.

At the same time, women prisoners suffer sexual violence at the hands of prison staff. Jan Lastocy is a woman prisoner in the United States, and hers is a typical story. She was raped, repeatedly, by a corrections officer. The warden made it clear that any reports of problems tagged the prisoner as a troublemaker. Lastocy was a few months from release. For seven months, three or four times a week, the prison guard raped Jan Lastocy. Terrified and desperate, she kept her silence. Upon release, she reported the assaults, and now suffers a sense of great and intense guilt for her silence. According to recent US government studies, the vast majority of sexual violence committed in prisons is committed by the staff.

Prison rape is a human rights crisis in the United States today. It is a crisis in juvenile prisons. It is a crisis in women’s prisons across the globe. This crisis is not accidental nor is it exceptional. It is the crisis of predictable consequence. Rape today is being used in Libya as a weapon. That is terrible. Rape has been used, across the globe, as a tool in the construction of so-called criminal justice systems, in the construction of more prisons with more women prisoners. That too is terrible, and to continue to claim shock and surprise at the use of rape is unacceptable. State sexual violence haunts the world.

 

(Photo Credit: suzeeinthecity/ Mira Shihadeh and El Zeft)