Ashley Smith, a nineteen year old, mentally ill, inmate committed suicide while under suicide watch at a Correctional Institute in Canada. Ms. Smith was imprisoned at fifteen for throwing apples at a postal worker. During her imprisonment she suffered multiple cases of emotional and physical abuse. The first and mildest abuse she suffered was being denied sanitary products and adequate toilet paper during her menstrual cycle. The worst abuse she suffered was a combination of emotional and physical, and occurred when Ms. Smith was transferred between nine different institutions seventeen times. When she was transferred between institutes she was restrained by officers so she could be hooded and duct taped to her seat while she pleaded with them to stop hurting her. Ms. Smith spent most of her incarceration in isolation; because each time she was transferred her seclusion sentence was reset. She was transferred multiple times to hide the abuse she suffered and to extend the amount of time she could be kept in seclusion. The constant transfers and seclusion only worsened Ms. Smith’s mental condition, and at no time was she given a psychological assessment to check her mental wellbeing. Ashley Smith was denied her basic human rights for four years until she hung herself to end her suffering.
According to the Canadian Bill of Rights, enacted in August 10, 1960, every Canadian citizen has the basic rights to life, liberty, and security of person. The last inclusion, “right to security” can be seen as an expansion of the rights prohibiting the use of torture and any other punishment deemed as cruel or unusual. Most importantly, it can also be implemented in regard to the rights of prisoners of the Correctional Services of Canada. According to Correction Services Canada (CSC), between 2003 and 2008 there were 66 instances of suicide committed by inmates in federal custody.
Stuart J. Murray and Dave Holmes. “A New Form of Homicide in Canada’s Prisons: The Case of Ashley Smith,” Truthout, March 10, 2014 http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22321-a-new-form-of-homicide-in-canadas-prisons-the-case-of-ashley-smith
Stuart J. Murray and Dave Holmes, “A New Form of Homicide in Canada’s Prisons: The Case of Ashley Smith”, Truthout, March 10, 2014. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22321-a-new-form-of-homicide-in-canadas-prisons-the-case-of-ashley-smith
Jennifer M. Kilty and Nicole LeBlanc, “Prison – Ashley Smith (1988-2007): A predictable death”, Policy Options, December 2012. http://www.irpp.org/en/po/talking-science/new-policy-options-article-7/
Canadian Legislation, “Correctional Services Regulations”, Government of Nova Scotia.http://www.novascotia.ca/just/regulations/regs/CORserv.htm
Student Researchers: Brittney Clark & Caylin Rose, Indian River State College
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College
The mass security and austerity of a correctional facility is meant to preserve life, even prolong it. But beyond the barbed-wire fence and concrete walls, is a group of administrators and trained staff controlling every aspect of an inmate’s life. From the time an inmate is fed to the number of times they are allowed to bathe in a week, every aspect of a prisoner’s life is controlled. Because of this loss of control over one’s own life, the inmate is now exposed to loss of privacy and self-worth. They are now possibly exposed to hunger, neglect, and even death at the hands of their “facilitators.” All these stressors coupled with an undiagnosed mental disorder could push any person beyond their breaking point. How is it that a government agency that prides itself on respect, professionalism, and accountability allow a mentally ill inmate to strangle herself to death without intervening?
Ashley Smith, a mentally unstable, Canadian resident, was fifteen when she was imprisoned for throwing apples at a postal worker. She spent four years in prison suffering emotional and physical abuse. During Ms. Smith’s imprisonment, she was forcefully restrained, denied necessary toiletries and clothing, and physically and chemically abused. Ms. Smith was not treated like a human being for four years of her life. The abuse she suffered caused her to inflict self-harm and be put on suicide watch.
The two main ethical issues that arose from the Ashley Smith case were the denial of her human rights, and the violation of trust in a public institution. She suffered multiple cases of physical and emotional abuse from her guards during her imprisonment. Constant isolation is a legal form of torture in Canada; and, if an inmate is isolated for more than two and a half months they have to undergo a psychological assessment, but Ms. Smith never received her assessment. She was transferred seventeen times between nine prisons across five different provinces, which allowed her guards to reset the clock on her isolation. Since she never completed a full term of isolation a psychological assessment was never completed. Ms. Smith’s transfers between correctional institutions were inhuman because she was restrained by several guards in full riot gear who placed mesh hoods over her face and duct taped her hands and arms to the seat of an airplane. This is a clear ethical violation because she was not treated like a person and her constant pleas for the hoods to be removed were ignored. The suffering Ms. Smith endured from her transfers and isolation was just part of her physical and emotional abuse. She was denied basic human rights during her incarceration.
Not only did the correctional facility violate Ms. Smith’s human rights, but it also failed to meet some of the Correctional service of Canada policy regulations. The policy states that prisoners must be given necessary toiletries; however, Ms. Smith did not get what she needed. She was denied adequate sanitary products and toilet paper during her menstrual cycle, and when she asked to use the restroom to change them she was told she had to wait. Video recordings show her asking a female guard several times to use the restroom only to be denied every time. The policy also states a prisoner must be given properly sized clothing and underwear on a daily basis, and be allowed to wash them at least twice a week. Once again Ms. Smith never received what she was entitled to. The same videos that show her being denied sanitary products and restroom access also reveal her wearing nothing but a small, dingy security gown with nothing underneath. Although the nurses who attended to Ms. Smith dressed in full riot gear around her, they were all female and should have understood the need for sanitary products. However, all the nurses lacked sympathy when Ms. Smith asked for sanitary products, restroom trips, and underwear.
When guards or nurses interacted with Ms. Smith, her wrists and legs were restrained to the bed forcing her to lie down. Even after the nurses and guards exited her cell they left her restrained to her bed. One video shows Ms. Smith attempting to sit up and free one arm. After she freed her arm and was working on untying the other five guards entered her cell and forced her to lie down again and secured her arms once again. Other times Ms. Smith would be restrained to the bed as well as chemically sedated. Ms. Smith had a fellow prisoner write a formal complaint about how she would be tasered and pepper sprayed. However, her complaint was ignored because she did not write it herself, but Ms. Smith was not allowed to have paper or writing utensils. Ms. Smith had been placed on suicide watch after she began cutting herself when her pleas were ignored. Although guards were stationed outside her cell they were ordered by the warden not to enter her cell if she was still breathing. Finally on October 19, 2007 Ms. Smith ended her suffering when she hung herself inside her cell while the guards who were supposed to stop her watched. Only after she had strangled herself did they enter her cell and attempt to revive her, but it was too late; she had successfully strangled herself.
Ms. Smith was forcefully restrained by guards in full riot gear during transportation between correctional institutions. The female guards in charge of Ms. Smith showed no compassion when she begged for sanitary products or trips to the restroom while on her menstrual cycle. To interact with her, guards would restrain her to her bed and sedate her, and her complaints about the way she was treated were ignored. Ms. Smith suffered the abuse for four years until she hung herself in her cell while the guards watched. Ms. Smith’s human rights were violated; she was treated as less than human, and, not surprisingly, she chose to deal with her abuse by ending her life.
How could Ashley Smith have been saved? Did anyone ever actually sit to listen to Ms. Smith or listen to her story? Many penitentiary systems, including the CSC, pride themselves on their ability to turn offenders around, transforming them into productive citizens. The Ashley Smiths of the world are often subdued, confined, and forgotten. Although the warden who gave the fatal order was fired and the officers charged (charges were later dropped against the officers) there was noone willing to accept responsibility for Ashley’s death. The officers stated that they were simply following orders and the warden stated that he was only following protocol. This case exemplifies a tragedy, an unacceptable way to treat mentally ill prisoners. Hopefully, the case of Ashley Smith will be given the media attention it deserves and lead to a higher level of accountability among all levels of care within federal penitentiary facilities.