Ashley Smith was a very troubled teenager.
She first entered the correctional system at age 13 — for throwing crabapples at a mailman. From that point on, her life was a neverending revolving door in and out of prisons, hospitals, homes and care. And every time she went in, it seemed, the care was worse than before.
Ashley was subjected to forced injections, extended periods in isolation, pre-emptive pepper spray, involuntary body cavity searches, confining suicide-prevention outfits and a complete stripping of dignity.
Ashley responded to her brutal treatment with increasingly furious rages, throwing feces, attacking guards and extreme self-harm. As her treatment at the hands of her state-sanctioned tormentors worsened, so too did her behavior, making the treatment in turn even worse.
Her repeated requests for help, for programs, for the ability to call her family or anyone she trusted, were ignored. At age 18, she was transferred from juvenile detention into federal custody, where she was shuttled to 17 separate institutions across Canada in the span of 11 months — all of it in solitary confinement.
Ashley was a difficult child, there is no question. But the way in which she was treated was inexcusable. The final insult was in October 2007. Ashley had taken to tying ligatures around her neck, counting on the guards to intervene and save her, which branded her a “problem inmate” and leading the prison to issue an order to the guards not to intervene as “long as she appears to be breathing,” so as to not give into her manipulations and avoid paperwork.
On October 19th, she tied a strip of cloth around her neck in full view of 7 prison guards. They watched through her cell bars as she turned purple, waiting to intervene until whatever arbitrary line was crossed before their intervention appeared “necessary.” They waited too long. Ashley died.
After her death, the prison ombudsman filed a report stating that her death was entirely preventable had the girl ever received proper care. Her family filed suit against nearly everyone involved in her care: over 20 organizations, including 20 defendants. These included the Attorney General of Canada, the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, and multiple prison wardens and guards. The Toronto Star reports that the suit “alleged corrections staff engaged in a conspiracy that endangered Smith’s life by unlawfully segregating her for nearly a year and not taking proper action after she was declared a suicide risk.”
Ashley’s parents announced yesterday that they have settled their lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.
An inquiry into Ashley’s death and the actions of the correctional system is scheduled to begin shortly. We can only hope that no other child is subjected to the torture that Ashley Smith had to endure.
Photo credit: Tim Pearce, Los Gatos on Flickr