Friday 10 January 2014


The  prison  staff  who  killed  a  prisoner                     


There have been many times when employees of a prison have brought about the deaths of prisoners in their custody. This is done by the sheer stupidity of some of their employees. It is unfortunate indeed that some of our prisons actually have very stupid people running some of them. 

I am going to tell you a sad story of a victim who suffered as a result of the stupidity of many of those who were in charge of her while she was in their custody. Much of the information I got from the Report of the New Brunswick Ombudsman and Child and Youth Advocate on the services provided to a youth involved in the youth criminal justice system and also from other sources.

The victim in this case was a 19-year-old aboriginal woman called Ashley Smith. She was born on January 29, 1988. She was adopted when she was 5 days old. She developed normally, reaching all expected milestones. Up until the time she was in grade 5, there were no significant problems with Ashley. By the time she reached grade 5, when she was approximately 10 years of age, she began developing behaviour problems at school. She was disruptive and talked excessively.

At around the age of 13, Ashley’s behaviour problems intensified. It was mainly during the 2001-2002 school year that some of the more serious problems began to creep up in Ashley’s life and considerably challenge her ability to function within the established school curriculum. Although deemed capable of succeeding, Ashley began exhibiting disruptive and oppositional behaviour, disrespect towards adults in general (both school personnel and visitors alike) as well as problematical issues in her relationship with her peers.                                                                         

From March 14, 2001 through February 13, 2002, the school administration’s incident reports indicate that Ashley had already been suspended from school on six occasions and was assigned to a temporary student placement at an alternate educational site on seven occasions. The motives for these disciplinary actions ranged from use of inappropriate language in class to “playing chicken” in the street with on-coming traffic.

In school, Ashley was refusing to do her work and became very disrespectful to teachers and peers. From September 2002 (she was then 14 years old) to December 2002, there were 17 infractions and many suspensions for being disrespectful, non-compliant with school rules and disruptive in class. These issues progressively became severe to a point where, in December 2002, she was transferred to an alternative educational institution to pursue her schooling.         

Ashley’s case was referred to the Youth Treatment Program and on March 4, 2003 she moved into the Pierre Caissie Center for a 34 day assessment. This assessment program is used when it appears that all community resources for a youth exhibiting problems have been exhausted. She was then 15 years of age. While there, psychological, psychiatric and educational assessments were completed. The psychiatric assessment states under “diagnostic impression”, “learning disorder, ADHD, borderline personality disorder”, although depression was ruled out.

Ashley was originally incarcerated at age 16 for throwing crab apples at a postal worker. At the end of December 2003, Ashley was sentenced to her first lengthy incarceration period at the New Brunswick Youth Centre. (NBYC) Hours after her release on February 26, 2004, while under community supervision, Ashley was arrested for pulling a fire alarm and thereby breaching her probation. Her guilty plea initially got her an additional 75 days of secure custody. However, subsequent criminal charges were laid while she served her custodial time and 75 days quickly cumulated into several months. Ashley remained in secure custody until her release on February 10, 2005.

Four days after her release, on February 14, 2005, Ashley received fifteen more days of secure custody for pulling a fire alarm in a public building. Following this short custodial sentence, Ashley was placed back to reside with her parents but was soon charged with stealing a CD from a local store. As a result, she was placed back into secure custody and would spend most of the remainder of her time as a young person as an incarcerated youth.

She had upwards of eight hundred documented incidents that took place at the NBYC over a three year span. Hardly a day passed that Ashley didn’t run into some sort of difficulty. Even the slightest of incidents seemed to get her in trouble.

On April 11, 2005, in an effort to inform the court about Ashley’s understanding and insight into her actions, she was ordered to the Restigouche Hospital Center (RHC) to undergo a court-ordered assessment. She remained there for 36 days. At the end of her stay, the RHC’s psychiatrist determined that “Ms. Smith clearly understands her responsibilities and their consequences and can control her behaviours when she chooses to.”  On May 18, 2005 Ashley appeared back in court. As a result of the assessment at the RHC she was sentenced to 180 consecutive days (six months) which was to be added to the sentence she was already serving.

The most frequent types of actions taken with Ashley when she was institutionally charged were placing her in restraints.  These actions were not so much for disciplinary purposes, but were for protective measures to prevent her from causing self-harm. Often upon returning from a court appearance or exercise time out in the yard, Ashley would refuse a mandatory skin search. The searches were conducted to ensure she was not concealing any type of contraband that she could use to harm herself. Therefore, uncertain of what Ashley may have in her possession, staff at the NBYC would place her in restraints and confine her to her cell until she decided to comply with the search. This would ensure that she could not free up her hands to inflict harm, and also provide for “eyes on” and video surveillance monitoring.

On September 6, 2006, staff members found bruises on Ashley’s neck. That came about because she constructed a noose and tied it to a ceiling vent in her cell. She told staff members that she was scared of receiving more charges that would prolong her sentence and therefore she wanted to die.

Ashley had over one-hundred and fifty self-harm related incidents in a span of three years. Being locked down and placed in restraints did not appear to have any beneficial effect on Ashley’s behaviour.

It must have been obvious to anyone who was dealing with this unfortunate woman that incarcerating her was actually detrimental to her mental wellbeing. It makes me wonder how she would have coped if she had been placed in a group home instead of a correctional institution.

From a custodial perspective, the turning point in Ashley Smith’s life occurred upon the successful application by the Superintendent of the New Brunswick Youth Centre to have her transferred to a provincial adult institution because she was still a youth.

On October 24, 2006, Ashley appeared in Adult Court and was given an adult sentence for criminal charges laid while she was still at the NBYC. As a result of the additional 348 days of custodial time added to the already existing 1,455 days, Ashley was to serve the remainder of her sentence in a federal institution due to the fact that this totality exceeded two years. All of this because she threw apples at a postman.

In the course of her eleven and half months in federal custody, Ashley was transferred nine times between the following facilities: Nova Institution for Women (Truro, Nova Scotia), Prairies Regional Psychiatric Centre (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), Joliette Institution for Women (Joliette, Quebec), L’Institut Philippe Pinel (Montreal, Quebec), Grand Valley Institution for Women (Kitchener, Ontario) and then to the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (Nova Scotia provincial facility). She had spent the past year of her life in segregation, (solitary confinement) shunted among prisons in five provinces. She finally died in the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, a federal prison at the age of 19.

Over half a century ago, I was in a prison and was in solitary confinement for four months because I refused to disclose the names of some of the rioters I had dealt with after I was asked to talk half of the prisoners into not rioting.  (I succeeded) It is a terrible experience to endure.  Fortunately, many of the guards felt sorry for me and brought me books to read. The superintendent on the other hand was a real jerk and he was fired after an inmate who was extremely ill was forced to work at hard labour and subsequently died on the job.

Here is where stupidity raised its ugly head and remained aloft to the very end of this unfortunate young woman’s demise. Guards were ordered to stay out of Ashley's segregation cell to remove any ligature around her neck unless she stopped breathing.  The result was Smith choked to death while guards watched and did nothing to save her. Now one is forced to ask why the dolts did nothing to rescue her.

Ashley was 19-years-old when the dolts went into her cell and found her unconscious. She died in hospital of what police would only describe as ‘self-initiated asphyxiation.’

A report by a psychiatrist, Dr. Beaudry, previously prepared for the correctional investigator, that there was no imminent risk to Smith's health or the safety of others. Would you really want this man who in my opinion has to be a quack to care for one of your loved ones?

As a direct result of their stupidity of doing nothing to save Ashley, three prison guards and their immediate supervisor were fired following an internal investigation into the death of this young woman. Four other employees were suspended without pay for 60 days. The three fired prison guards and their supervisor are facing criminal charges of criminal negligence causing death.

Criminal negligence involves not doing your duty to the person you have a duty to protect. For example, if you are a lifeguard in a public pool, you have a duty to every person in the pool. If someone is drowning and you refuse to go in and save them because your supervisor tells you to ignore the person in need of help because your supervisor thinks the person really isn’t drowning, and the person drowns, you and the supervisor will be convicted of criminal negligence causing death. These four fools had a duty to protect Ashley from herself and they failed to do this because their supervisor told them not to.

The firings, suspensions and charges laid were most appropriate. The guards were told not to intervene whenever Smith appeared to be harming herself by tying items around her neck, unless she stopped breathing.

Instead they watched the complexion of her face change from white, to pink to purple and they still stood there with their rhetorical fingers up their arses doing nothing to save her.

A coroner’s jury was convened and after eight months, the jury of five women concluded that that Ashley Smith’s death was a homicide and that she had not committed suicide.

I remember many years ago reading about a man in the Kingston Penitentiary having been placed in solitary confinement in a small building on the prison grounds screaming day after day that he was in serious pain. When they finally checked up on him hours after he stopped screaming, he was dead.

Many years later when I did group counselling in three correctional facilities, I saw guards sleeping on the job when they were supposed to be watching the inmates. Some insulted inmates and were indifferent towards the needs of the other inmates. Although there are decent and conscientious guards who have the wellbeing of the inmates at heart, there are a great many of them that couldn’t give a rat’s ass about those they are guarding. They only choose to being correctional officers for the money and the power they have over human beings. And of course, many of them are outright stupid. There was one of those guards in the facility I was in in 1962 who was called Dum Dum. He truly was one of the stupidest guards I ever saw. How he managed to get a job with the prison service is beyond all reason. I think the same can be said for those eight correctional 0fficers who let Ashly Smith die needlessly because of their outright stupidity.

What has been learned from this fiasco? Since Ashley’s death, several actions have already been taken by federal authorities to improve the way that prisoners with mental health needs are managed in a prison setting. This involves inmate screening, mental care and training for re-integration into society as a reasonably normal person.

A prison is not an ideal setting for prisoners who suffer from various forms of mental illness.  Further, there should not be a requirement that front-line officers have to ask permission from a supervisor in order to step into a cell when they see a prisoner who is in dire need to get help. Solitary confinement only acerbates the problem of unruly prisoners. It should be used sparingly and only if nothing else works. Further, anything over two weeks in solitary confinement without anything to activate the mind such as books to read etc., will only increase the anxiety of the inmate even more.  And finally, all correctional staff should be trained in how to deal with prisoners who show signs of mental illness, no matter how slight the signs might be.

It is unfortunate indeed someone has to die before we learn from that person’s death what should have been done.  Ashley didn’t die in vain.



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