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Cracking down on Ashley Smith?

May 4, 2011

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

Humanity: 21.5

(Days left to the potential rapture of Stephen Harper: 16. Pray hard, readers. Pray hard.)

  1. Ugh. I think I know why old people don’t get more involved in politics. The older you get, the more you just feel like punching morons in the face.

    Go Apocalypse. (Incidentally, before reading this blog, I used to regularly misspell apocalypse. I’d be all “apocolypse”. Even though I won the spelling bee when I was a dork, I mean, a kid.)

  2. Don’t feel bad. It’s my blog and I still have to spell check Apocalypse.

    I’m giving self-control another 6.5 years. The day I turn 50, I’m going to start punching morons in the face.

  3. Sharon's baby sister permalink

    Sharon, thank you for this post. I swear to fuckin’ god after 10 years of being away from Canada I am scared to go home and find myself stepping off a plane into a scene from the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’. I am not joking.
    If it wasn’t for wonderful people like my big sister I would have said, “O.K, fuck you Canadians – you got what you deserved…more Harper”.

    As per the Ashley Smith case, if I am correct, she was transfered so many times so that they could keep her in solitary confinement on a consistent basis. A loophole to get around young offender rights as per time spent in solitary confinement. Different location = starting the clock again on how long she was in isolation. I also believe there was a complaint filed by Ashley Smith as per her treatment in custody which was also put aside as per the many moves. This case reeks of cover up – not unknown of course by the lack of checks and balances on our custody facilities in Canada.

    For those of you who don’t know me as well as my big sister, I was trained as a correctional officer (prison guard) and youth counsellor in Canada. Ashley Smith had done nothing I haven’t seen dozens of time in a RESIDENTIAL group home setting – with only a bedroom door separating staff and youth. And no, we didn’t use tazers, we didn’t beat them, and we did not lock them in their room – because anyone who is not a total fuckin idiot knows that only makes things worse, and, because the facilities we worked in would have been shut down for neglect and abuse AND we would have been charged..that really says something doesn’t it. Youth in custody that originate from child protective services are not so fucked around because they have a huge system of people whose arses are on the line to protect their rights and quality of care. That means if you come from a family (such as Ashley Smith) with no history of abuse it is the single family vs. the system of custody – and those parents often find themselves up against a goliath when addressing quality of custody care issues.

    Despite the fact that for decades youth crime in Canada went down, politicians got re-elected on the basis on “cracking down on youth crime”. This happens over and over, and it’s happening now. People buy into it because it sounds like a no-brainer – you do want to be more safe from youth crime, don’t you? Like, you don’t want your baby to die from eating peanut butter – news at 11. Please shit your pants until then (now that you have had P.B.J’s for lunch) so we can increase our ratings/political standing.

    Canada is saturated by the middle class and the elderly who would in a heartbeat stab a teenager through their beating heart to protect their Volvo. Use the voice from South Park when the hillbillies say “They took our jobs” to say “He scratched my car” and you’ll get what I am saying. People over 65 shit their pants over getting “swarmed” at the mall just because someone passes by wearing pants below their ass cheeks. When I left Canada the highest percent of youth crime was crime against property and the divide between “haves” and “have nots” was growing at an alarming rate. Rich people desperate to protect their property, property which most of them can’t afford to actually own, but allows them the appearance of wealth. Maybe the real answer is to give teenager credit cards as easily as the banks dole them out to adults. I am getting off topic…

    The reality is that EVERYONE who works with youth at risk or youth involved in the criminal justice system knows EXACTLY the kind of programs that work. Everyone. The problem is that nobody wants to pay for those programs because most people don’t actually give a fuck about those youths if it means paying for those programs (don’t even get me started on the fake lake……don’t even). Therefore, we have prisons, cheaper on the tax payer (if you don’t count fixing your Volvo) and very, very lucrative for the businessmen/women who run more traditional prison type custody centers.

    Let me try to end off on somewhat of a positive note (although as a girl this would not have helped Ashley Smith and therefore loses some of it’s positivity right out of the gate). On the outskirts of Ottawa there is a facility called the William E. Hay Center. It is an amazing place for youth at risk. It is a 40 bed secure detention (pre-trial) and custody (post trial) facility for male youth aged 12-17. It is comprised of 5 small cottage-like residences which house the most violent young offenders in Eastern Canada. Programs offered range from life skills, conflict management, and cognitive restructuring to physical health (they have an awesome gym), education, and extended programs that address family involvement all geared at positive re-integration into society upon release. All programs are offered in both French and English. Youth are locked in cells at night and monitored as per your usual “jail” type setting but attend programs throughout the day. Staff are trained as correctional officers and also possess strong and extended backgrounds in behavioral and cognitive programming for youth at risk. There were two facilities like this in Canada when I left (I did my student placement at William Hay). There are only two because we DO NOT HAVE A LOT OF VIOLENT YOUNG OFFENDERS IN CANADA (especially if you don’t count throwing apples – smaller crab apples at that). If there is anything individual can do to help youth at risk in Canada it is to make sure places like these do not get closed down after losing a battle with the seemingly unstoppable privatization of youth custody facilities across Canada.

    • Note to readers: This really is my younger sister. As you can see, it runs in the family. We mellow with age (not sure I could get away with the “stab a teenager through the heart for a Volvo”), but not much.

      I think it’s time to give My sister a guest post.

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