Recommendations at the Ashley Smith Inquest

One of the key issues that most/all of those testifying at the Ashley Smith Inquest are being asked is about their recommendations … what alternatives might have saved Ashley Smith? Were there any alternatives to (not) maintaining her in segregation? What would they have done differently?

Aside from stating the obvious – she should not have been there – few have offered any real practical alternatives.

A special centre of excellence which could offer highly specialized treatment is about the only real suggestion … an expensive and unlikely to happen any time soon plan – and even if/when it does, it seems highly likely that CSC will manage to stuff it up so that the people who most need it won’t qualify.

It is what they do.

Need examples? The dog training program at Nova, access to the Healing Lodge, DBT, educational programming, and inpatient psychiatric treatment at RPC or other facilities…. in each and every case, high need inmates like Ashley Smith do not qualify.  Have to be a consistently good girl for CSC to trust you with anything that can be remotely considered special or a privilege, don’t you know? Yes, even the treatment you need.

And yes, I’m being a ~tad~ sarcastic about the whole thing… I have read the Arbour Report, and Creating Choices, along with a great many other reports and resources, and it is clear that CSC is very ~good~ at bastardizing recommendations during implementation …. they are made in good faith, but by the time CSC finishes twisting them through their power-and-control culture, they generally no longer have much to do with the original intent. In fact, in many cases, recommendations meant to help women will be twisted in such a way as to be ~implemented~ but in ways that harm or punish.

In any case… back to my original topic, which is the lack of solutions that people who are testifying are able to offer. This is not, to me, the least bit surprising.

The inquest is examining only Ashley’s time in CSC custody. Which was a ridiculous, brutal comedy of errors, bad judgement and nonsense that clearly contributed to…caused, even …. Ashley’s death.

But the problems to which solutions are needed did not begin with CSC.

By the time Ashley Smith arrived at CSC, she was already an extremely disturbed and difficult to manage young woman, with next to no ability to self-manage her behaviours in any sort of appropriate or productive way.

Clearly, segregation was doing nothing good for Ashley – but by the time she got to CSC, the possibility of managing her safely in any other setting was slim to none.

The damage was done – not by CSC, but by the agencies, mental health professionals and systems, schools, counselors, and most especially, the youth ~justice~ system which dealt with her in the 3+ years before she was sent to CSC.

The problems that led to Ashley Smith’s death began with her criminalization for nuisance behaviours… and spiraled out of control with her inability to be a ~good girl~  within the youth criminal ~justice~ system. She did not co-operate with searches, restraints, or video monitoring.

When they said jump, she did not ask how high, she said no, and dug in her heels but good… even if that meant pepper spray, tasers, the wrap, duct tape ….

It’s easy to suggest that everything that happened as a result of her “failure” to co-operatively relinquish control of her body to others was Ashley’s own fault… that her death was her own fault… and indeed, that is a recurrent theme of those testifying at the inquest. Oh, they never say it outright… but it’s there, under the surface….

She refused to comply, she refused treatment, she demanded transfers, she never asked…, she waived her right to a parole hearing …  it sickens me.

The problems did not begin at CSC. And in fact, I would bet that the same could be said about many of the other ~problem~ women in CSC’s ~care~ (using the term very loosely).

Just imagine if people could get mental health treatment when it was needed.

Children like Ashley Smith…. Kinew James…. and thousands of other Canadian young people.

And adults too.

I will never forget the case I heard about shortly before I quit working with people who suffered from mental illnesses in any capacity.

A middle aged woman with a serious mental illness was refused treatment, repeatedly. Her family kept taking her to emerg, begging for help… but being turned away.

One day, a teenage girl was pulling a wagon with a 2 year old innocent child in it…and the woman killed him. Stabbed him to death… devastating so many lives. The ill woman and her family’s … the family of the child…. the teenage girl….. and probably others as well.

Sure, sometimes people with mental illnesses refuse all treatment and do not ask for help – but when they – and their families DO – and we, as a society, say no, no, no… you are not sick enough to qualify for help….   no, she/he will be fine….  no, but we’ll put your name on this wait list and get to you when we can ….

what the HELL do we think is going to happen?

Fortunately, most mentally ill people will never act out to such an extent that innocent people are killed or maimed. But it does, in a small number of cases, happen.

And even if they are not likely to actually kill anyone other than themselves – is that a reasonable criteria to require before we, as a society, can be bothered to CARE? To provide support? To offer treatment?

When they – or their families –  know they need help and ASK FOR IT?  Appropriately, even?

How can we say no?  I couldn’t – that is why I left the field of mental health after Mike Harris became premier of Ontario.

In my ideal world, people with mental illnesses receive just as much support and treatment – with just as much urgency – as people with a diagnosis of cancer.  We know that treating cancer early saves lives…. well guess what?  Treating mental illness early – before people lose their jobs, connections, self worth, housing…. also prevents suffering and saves lives.

NOT offering treatment and support costs society in every way that matters.

Criminalizing people with mental illnesses – which is what we did to Ashley Smith – costs society in every way that matters.

People suffer. Families suffer. Communities suffer. And people die.

As much as I dislike many of CSC’s policies and practices, and as much as I blame them for failing to keep Ashley Smith…and Kinew James… and all of the other far too many inmates, both male and female, alive, I think that expecting them to fix people like Ashley Smith is ridiculous.

NBYC had Ashley for much of the 3 and 1/2 years between the time she threw crab apples at the mailman and the time she was bounced to CSC.  THEY couldn’t manage her, they engaged in ridiculous power struggles with her, they punished her by continually adding to her charges so that she earned enough time to qualify for transfer to CSC, and they kept her in segregation – sorry, ~therapeutic (my arse) quiet~ for the majority of the time she was with them.

If we really cared about solutions and alternatives, we would be looking at what actually happened … from the beginning, not just at CSC’s failures.

CSC has a LOT that they need to do a LOT better. And when it comes to Ashley Smith, they have a lot to answer for. BUT the problems did not develop there, and the solutions or alternatives will not be found there.

A proper inquiry is needed.

Unfortunately, as long as the Harper Cons have a majority, we’ll have no such thing… and no actual resources for anything BUT punishment.

But that’s a topic for another rant.



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