Cracking down on Ashley Smith?
I should probably write something about the results of Monday’s federal election, but I am too damned depressed. For my… ahem… international readers, Canada just handed a majority government to the only Prime Minister in its history to be found in contempt of parliament. Roughly the equivalent to re-electing Richard Nixon after Watergate.
Still, the election does provide a bridge to this post, since one of Stephen Harper‘s first orders of business will be a “crackdown on the handling of violent and repeat young offenders.” This is ironic, given that the family of one of the most tragic victims of our existing treatment of young and young adult offenders has just settled an $11 million lawsuit against Correctional Services of Canada. (Note to aforementioned international readers: in Canada, $11 million would have been astronomical damages. Courts here don’t hand out millions because McDonalds failed to warn us that their coffee is hot.)
In 2007, Ashley Smith died in her federal cell of self-strangulation while her prison guards watched. She was 19 years old.
This morning I read the damning reports on her treatment as a young offender in a provincial jail and of her death in adult custody. It is depressing stuff. The story is long and complex, best summed up by saying that she was jailed at 13 for throwing crab apples at a mailman and spent the rest of her adolescent life being bounced between prisons, displaying increasingly disturbed behaviour that a ten year-old could identify as serious psychiatric problems but receiving next to no psychiatric help.
Ashley Smith was a deeply troubled and incredibly difficult young woman to deal with. She started showing signs of behavior problems as early as 9 or 10. Although the crab apple incident seems a ridiculous reason to send a youth to secure custody, she had already accumulated a long history of serious behaviour problems. By the time she was 13, she was already a violent and repeat offender. The reports don’t talk much about her mother, but there is no indication of an abusive or neglectful family, and lots of evidence of the early onset of serious psychiatric problems. At various points in her brief life, Ashely Smith had been diagnosed with servere Borderline Personality Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADD, and Aspergers Syndrome. None of these conditions were adequately treated. None. Instead, the system cracked down on her.
While in custody, she hit, bit, and spit on correctional officers, smeared feces on the windows of her cell, and tore up clothing and mattresses to fashion ligatures to strangle herself with. Pretty much daily. The sheer magnitude of her disruptive behaviour ought to have been a sign that something was deeply wrong with this young woman and that she needed serious psychiatric help, right? Sadly, it was not.
Probably the most depressing thing in both reports combined is a quote from a psychiatrist who evaluted her: “Ms. Smith clearly understands her responsibilities and their consequences and can control her behaviours when she chooses to.” (Note to psychiatrists: the fact that a person with a mental illness understands that their behaviour is wrong and is able to control it at times does not mean we can expect them to do this every fucking day.)
The reports don’t draw the line, but it’s pretty easy to imagine how that kind of assessement would lead to correctional staff to see her as bad rather than sick. That’s the kind of attitude that causes us to crack down.
If Ashely Smith is just a rotten kid, then she is choosing to be violent and self-harming. She has other options available to her and is able to use these options every single day, but somehow she prefers to be physically restrained, pepper-sprayed, tazered, straigtjacketed, and locked in solitary confinement for up to 60% of her time, rather than participating in the youth jail’s arts and gardening programs. This is her choice.
If Ashley Smith is mentally ill, even though she knows how she ought to behave and she knows that what she does is wrong, she often loses control of her behaviour and poses a threat to her own safety and the safety of others. She needs to be restrained, controlled, and even isolated at times to protect her and others. But she also needs treatment.
Ashley Smith spent five years in the correctional system with no comprehensive psychiatric treatment plan and almost no therapy. Attempts were made, but she was never allowed to stay in a facility long enough to be properly assessed and to get help. In the 11 months before she died, she was transferred 17 times.
Segregation seems to have been the most popular element of cracking down on Ashley Smith. In the youth centre, it accounted for up to 60% of her time. And as described in the federal report on her adult incarceration:
In the weeks prior to her death, Ms. Smith spent all of her time in a security gown, in a poorly lit segregation cell, interacting with staff only through a tiny food slot and with absolutely nothing to occupy her time.
Experts agree that much of her very problematic behaviour was probably caused or exacerbated by being in segregation, where the only access to human contact she had for days on end was being physically restrained. As one report concludes, prolonged isolation leads to all the symptoms and behaviour for which she was being isolated:
negative attitudes and affect, anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hypersensitivity, ruminations, cognitive dysfunction, loss of control, irritability, aggression, rage, paranoia, hopelessness, lethargy, depression, a sense of impending emotional breakdown, self-mutilation, and suicidal ideation and behaviour.
Violent and repeat young offenders, by definition, need help. I am not saying they should not also go to jail, but a crackdown mentality is not going to make them stop. But the Conservatives have majority government now, so that means we will have no choice. Once again, Stephen Harper comes through for the Apocalypse.
The Apocalypse: 29
(Days left to the potential rapture of Stephen Harper: 16. Pray hard, readers. Pray hard.)