Ashley Smith was a young teenager at the time of her first offence and her first offence was not unlike that of a child. Hurling crab apples at a postman because you think he is withholding the welfare cheque is a childish way of wanting to right a bad situation, but once the civil servant decided to press charges, Ashley became a poster child for unsupervised, undiagnosed, ineffective confinement.
Ashley’s childhood was not riddled with childhood adversities or personal tragedy – her adoptive parents can attest to her “very typical” upbringing in Atlantic Canada – yet she went on to break the mould with what’s now almost common place in teenage behaviour: post digital social anxiety, riddled with boredom, impatience and entitlement, served with a side helping of undiagnosed learning disabilities and mental health issues.
She found social solidarity in Juvenile Detention and why wouldn’t you turn life into a Hayley Mills movie to create your own reality? Like most fourteen year olds, Ashley and her new friends loved to provoke the guards. Their antics would be her only source of entertainment for the next four years.
“Ashley Smith had the heart of a child. She packed stuffed animals and CDs to take to prison,” quoted her friend Jessica. Jess also mentioned, “we’d dig holes in the floor until we could hear each other and read Harry Potter. We read the whole series, she loved it. Ashley wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
According to Crown Attorney Margaret Creal, assigned to work with the coroner on the case, one guard named Melissa was quite nice to Ashley. Ashley loved to watch What Not To Wear, a live make-over show helping people with personalized styling. Melissa also testified that Ashley had never worn make up. Melissa promised Ashley she would bring a make-up bag the day she was supposed to get released and do her make-up for her, but, in 2007 Ashley successfully choked herself to death while in solitary confinement.
In 2007, the year she died, she’d spent four and a half years incarcerated with two-thirds of her sentence in “therapeutic quiet” or “solitary confinement”. She’d been tazered twice and incurred over 800 prison charges and violations.
In almost all the footage, the treatment was the same: fully armed guards with full frontal masks, physically restraining her on a gurney while trying to wrap her in what looks like a toboggan with velcro straps and a hockey mask. She was often left overnight in the restraint, soaking in her own urine. And yet in all the footage you can hear her say please and thank you after almost every request.
How did we let this happen? With proper sleep and nutrition being essential to brain and behaviour development, how did we fail so badly here?
There are reports that removal and transfer laws, stating that an inmate cannot be in solitary confinement for more than three months, were circumvented by continually transferring her before the 90 day period, making it nearly impossible to get a diagnosis for psychiatric care, despite the endless resources the prison system has access to. It also proved to be respite for prison staff required to wait until Ashley was “non-breathing” before going in her cell to prevent her from choking.
Ashley wrote to administration, often. She voiced her concern regarding exercise and social engagement – a hard task for most students these days, given the continued decline in social, emotional and academic functioning – and the only thing that really got attention was her attempts to tie ligatures around her neck.
Ashley had no advocates, except for a weekly nurse and a drop-in prison representative who mentioned her repeated requests for someone to talk to but seemingly did not action anything.
Ashley Smith leaves a long legacy. The laws of restraint in Canada are changed forever: no longer will permission need to be granted for emergency procedures, adequate staffing of qualified mental health staff is now mandatory, as well as creating a federally operated treatment centre for high needs, high risk women complete with independent patient
Ashley Smith’s case was the first and only case in Canadian Penitentiary that was tried and convicted as a homicide from an all female jury, resulting in a long list of suggestions and recommendations we should feel ashamed to need.