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FTW Friday: Better health care for mentally ill inmates … maybe

Kelsey Braithwaite

The Ashley Smith inquest has encouraged Ottawa to make the first steps towards improving the lives of mentally ill female inmates at provincial health centres.

Recently, Steven Blaney, minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, launched a pilot mental health plan. The idea is to begin sending intensely ill offenders to treatment centres. The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre offered to be one of the first spaces for the project. They hope to provide adequate bed space for these female inmates at their Brockville centre. However, Brockville only has two beds available to the inmates but L’Institut Philippe Pinel in Montreal has 12.

Blaney says the plan will enforce five main ideals in prison systems: timely assessment, effective management, sound intervention, ongoing training, and robust governance and oversight.

Ashley’s adoptive mother Coralee Smith and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), a group that “work with and for women and girls in the justice system“, are critical of the pilot project.

“Women who have serious mental health issues should not be in jail,” Toronto lawyer Breese Davies of CAEFS told the Star. “It’s two more beds than we had before, but not nearly enough to address what is an obvious problem.”

Smith believes more has to be talked over and done about the handling of women who are thought to have behavioural problems instead of mental health issues, like her late daughter.

A history: Ashley Smith committed suicide by strangulation while under custody at Grand Valley Institution for Women in October in 2007. She was 18 years old and had been in juvenile court many times for minor offences while she was living in New Brunswick.

In March 2003, at her second mental assessment at Pierre Caissie Centre (PCC), she was diagnosed with ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality traits. Ashley was released from PCC for unruly behaviour but then eventually taken to New Brunswick Youth Centre (NBYC).

This is where she became the subject of several hundred incident reports and spent many nights alone in solitary confinement

September 2006, after much push and pull and court dates with NBYC staff, she was transferred to Nova Institution for Women in Nova Scotia after about 20 attempts at suicide. After Nova, Ashley was transferred to six different institutions over the course of eight months. After April 2007, she was moved once every month.

At this point, she made so many suicide attempts that her facial blood vessels burst, which left her permanently discoloured. She had constant nosebleeds and lost sight in one eye.

During her last suicide attempt, guards stood and watched Ashley strangle herself until they took her down and she was pronounced dead. Last December, Ontario coroner’s jury ruled Ashley’s death a homicide.

The constant mistreatment she suffered through has been noticed too late. But if the government continues to recognize their neglect, there is a least some hope we could see a future with no more Ashley Smiths—and that no one will ever suffer the way she and her family did.

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