The first recommendation of the Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Ashley Smith was: “That Ashley Smith’s experience within the correctional system is taught as a case study to all Correctional Service of Canada management and staff at the institutional, regional and national levels. This case study can demonstrate how the correctional system and federal/provincial health care can collectively fail to provide an identified mentally ill, high risk, high needs inmate with the appropriate care, treatment and support.”1
On October 19, 2007, 19 year old Ashley Smith, an imprisoned young woman at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, was pronounced dead. Her cause of death was ligature strangulation. She had been on administrative segregation status, commonly called solitary confinement, since her admission to the federal correctional system. She had a longstanding history of mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts. The Correctional Investigator cited her death as “preventable”, noting that the correctional system created the circumstances that led to her death. This young woman, barely an adult, had been on suicide watch throughout her time in federal detention. She experienced inhumane conditions while in segregation, such as being left to sleep without clothes or bedding. In the last week of her life, she slept on the floor of her cell.2
Many Canadians have strong feelings about the need for harsh punishment of people who have committed a crime, in spite of the fact that this punishment does not work to dissuade or rehabilitate. Nonetheless Ashley’s story sparked outrage. How was it possible that administrative segregation, guised as a safety precaution for Ashley, proved to be the most unsafe place for her? How was it possible that this young woman was left to suffer and die in some of the most undignified circumstances possible?
Isolating the Vulnerable
The idea of penitentiaries in North America was first developed by the protestant Pennsylvania Prison Society, whose members included many Friends. Penitentiaries were intended as a more humane alternative to the prevalent dungeon-style prisons of the time, in which bribery, filth, and violence were rampant. Solitary cells were meant to allow the opportunity for contemplation and penitence.3 Administrative segregation has been a disciplinary practice in Canadian corrections since the 1820s under this assumption that isolation would lead to reflection. The practice remains in frequent use, often for behavioural issues such as making threats or fighting. It is also used in instances where an imprisoned person presents as a safety risk to himself/herself. Examples of safety risks include self-harming acts or suicidal ideas.
According to the Correctional Investigator, a high proportion of imprisoned persons have engaged in self-harm. Of these individuals, 86.6% have had admissions to segregation. Indigenous and black imprisoned persons are disproportionately subjected to segregation and also experience longer stays in segregation.4 Many individuals who commit criminal offenses have mental health issues, or face serious systemic discrimination. These people often don’t cope well in prison. Prison workers rarely have the training or capacity to adequately help these individuals by addressing the root causes of their problems through social programs that tackle health, mental health, and social issues. Instead, the data suggests that prison workers often further punish these people by segregating them.
Fostering Loneliness and Hopelessness
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has denounced the use of solitary confinement, citing this practice as harsh and potentially physically and psychologically damaging. The Special Rapporteur also notes that solitary is counterproductive to the goals of rehabilitation and reintegration. In fact, people who have spent time in segregation have worse prospects for reintegration after release from prison.5 These statements come as no surprise, as the physical space of segregation fosters deep feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.
In 2015 the John Howard Society of Canada and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association launched legal action against the federal government. Their aim is to get the government to severely limit or entirely eliminate the use of segregation. Ontario has since reduced the maximum amount of time someone can spend in segregation from 30 days to 15, changes that have not been adopted nationally.
The progress in Ontario is welcome, but CFSC will continue to work with others to seek an end to the use of segregation full stop. The reasons are simple: segregation often targets those who are most vulnerable and marginalized, is devoid of human compassion, and does not work to repair or prevent harm. Our work to stop the use of segregation includes issuing public statements, attending related events, and contacting members of parliament to express our views. At its core, this is a human rights issue. It is easy to ignore people like Ashley Smith when they are incarcerated. CFSC is strongly led not to ignore them, and to work for corrections practices that address their needs.
This article was written by the members of CFSC’s criminal justice program committee. Yugita Hogan was staff of the committee and has left CFSC, while continuing her PhD in criminal justice issues.
- Correctional Service Canada. (2014, May 21). Coroner’s Inquest Touching the Death of Ashley Smith. http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/publications/005007-9009-eng.shtml ↵
- Correctional Investigator. (2014, April 28). A Preventable Death. http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/rpt/oth-aut/oth-aut20080620info-eng.aspx ↵
- Magnani, Laura. (2016, June 2). Did Quakers Invent Solitary Confinement? Quaker Speak. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfMIA-B931s ↵
- Correctional Investigator (2015, May 28). Administrative Segregation in Federal Corrections. http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/rpt/pdf/oth-aut/oth-aut20150528-eng.pdf ↵
- United Nations General Assembly. (2011, Aug 5). Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. A/66/268. ↵