Seeking Accountability by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) for its treatment of Women with Mental Health Concerns
After 107 days of evidence and testimony in the Ashley Smith Inquest, the five woman jury declared Ms. Smith’s death a homicide. Ms. Smith spent her brief adult life inside federal segregation cells across Canada, having been transferred seventeen times in less than one year. On October 19, 2007 nineteen year old Ashley Smith died by ligature asphyxiation in a segregation cell at Ontario’s Grand Valley Institution. Although she was on “constant observation” and “suicide watch”, her death was witnessed by correctional officers following a directive not to intervene until she was no longer breathing. 104 recommendations are contained in the verdict.
Some of the 104 recommendations by the Coroner’s Jury include:
- That there be adequate staffing of qualified, mental health care providers with expertise and experience in treating mental health issues, self-injurious behaviours, suicidality, and trauma at every women’s institution;
- Use of indefinite solitary confinement should be abolished;
- Use of segregation or seclusion be restricted to a maximum of fifteen consecutive days;
- No criminalized person should be placed into segregation for more than sixty days in a calendar year;
- Increased access to family and supports (and, at minimum, weekly contact), in person or via technologies, when criminalized women are detained outside of their geographic region;
- Opportunity for women to meet with advocates from non-governmental organizations, such as the Elizabeth Fry Society, at any time;
- Adoption of a revised Code of Ethics, applicable to all CSC staff, that highlights their obligation to preserve life and provide timely access to medical services;
- Independent audits into implementation of jury recommendations be conducted, with their findings released to the public.
- Audit of CSC by the Auditor General of Canada
As noted in the jury’s verdict, Ms. Smith’s case demonstrates how Canada’s correctional system and federal/provincial health care can collectively fail to provide an identified mentally ill, high risk, high needs woman with the appropriate care, treatment and supports. CSC reports that 29% of women in detention are identified at admission as presenting with mental health problems, an increase of more than 120% since 1996/1997. Further, as the 2012 Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, noted, there was a dramatic increase in the number and prevalence of serious self-injury incidents (often an indicator of an underlying or untreated mental illness) in federal prisons in the last five years. Sapers also noted an increase in use of force interventions, citing the fact half of all use of force incidents involved women with identified mental health issues. Further, two-thirds of all use of force incidents in the regional facilities involved Aboriginal women inmates. His report also stated that: “In the last five years, the number of federally incarcerated women has increased by almost 40% while the number of Aboriginal women has increased by over 80% in the last decade.”
Taken together, the reports of the Correctional Investigator of Canada, and the verdict of the Ashley Smith Inquest jury tell us that there is much work to be done to address the chronic issues in Canadian prisons. Women in detention are an extremely marginalized group who are often in prison as a result of larger systemic reasons. While the jury recommendations are welcome, the root causes of women’s detention such as poverty, racism, colonialism, and violence - fundamental issues affecting women’s equality that start outside of prison walls - must be addressed in order to prevent women being incarcerated in the first place.
The Ashley Smith case is unfortunately one among many instances of cruel and inhumane treatment of women in detention in this country. Canadians now know about her case, but we should not assume it is an isolated case, and nor should we do anything less than call upon the government to address the systemic causes of the increasing imprisonment of women with mental illness in this country.
In the meantime, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) welcomes, and awaits, the government’s adoption of the jury’s recommendations.