Death in the penitentiary

Whether it is the result of social or psychological influences, people who want to die will find a way to do so. But, at the pre-suicidal stages, this unfortunate reality is a preventable one. It is possible to address the very issues that cause suicidal tendencies as they emerge, so that the breaking point won’t occur. This is why 19-year-old Ashley Smith’s suicide at Grand Valley Institution for women in Kitchener, Ontario this summer was not inevitable. Smith had near daily incidents of self-choking and multiple recorded cases of assaulting guards, including throwing feces, spitting and biting, to the point where the supervisor ordered that no one intervene unless she stopped breathing. For following orders, these guards and their supervisor face criminal negligence charges. They claim that her aggression caused too much risk for the guards’ liability regarding the use of force. Plus, the guards were only doing their job– Correctional Service Canada does not require that prison guards provide psychiatric treatment or behavioural therapy.

The CBC reported that Pierre Mallette, president of the union representing Canadian prison guards, accused local and senior managers of being “more concerned about public relations than what was happening inside our institutions for women.” This may be true, however it is not the only issue here. This institution is a place where individuals such as Smith shouldn’t be in the first place. We must ask why and how someone such as Smith could be juggled through the penal system (over a dozen prisons within six years) and still not receive the psychological care that she required.

Clearly, as evidenced by the report released by the New Brunswick Office of the Ombudsman, Smith was in need of mental health treatment. Despite the Grand Valley Institution boasting a correctional approach promoting an open and supportive environment reflective of community living, Smith was confined in a prison-like cell. Her environment lacked any guidance to enable her “to make meaningful and responsible law-abiding choices with a focus on safe and timely reintegration,” as the Grand Valley Institution claims for its inmates. Smith was treated as an everyday criminal, yet her continual history of desperate attempts at self-destruction confirms that she required significantly more therapeutic care than prison guards had to offer. Non-interference was not the answer, nor was it the answer six years ago when this young girl’s behavioural problems became apparent.

Howard Sapers, the ombudsman for Canada’s federal prison system, noted that “she did not receive a comprehensive psychological assessment while in federal custody” and1 was deprived of “adequate mental health services.” Had Smith been directed to the appropriate facilities, she could have been treated long before further crimes and her eventual suicide were even possibilities.

Drug addictions and the trauma issues and mental instabilities that lead to criminal and destructive behaviour must be tackled at the root in order to offset incidents such as this from occurring in the future. The institutions of criminal punishment and mental health must be applied separately where necessary, not only in cases concerning adolescents and women, but for all convicts. This will avoid tax dollars, and lives, from being sent in the wrong direction.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that Pierre Mallette accused guards of being concerned about public relations, but he in fact accused local and senior managers. The Gauntlet apologizes for any confusion.

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