Remembering Ashley Smith

By: Shannon Balla & Ian Stumpf of the We Remember Ashley Smith Campaign

October 19th marked the 5th anniversary of the death of Ashley Smith. She died at age 19 in a segregation cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. In the days leading up to her death, despite being on ‘suicide watch’, Ashley’s request for transfer to a psychiatric facility was denied, as was access to her family, lawyer or advocates.  On the day she died, Ashley tied a ligature around her neck and, while staff watched from outside her cell, asphyxiated to death.

Ashley spent most of her teenage life behind bars- first in youth detention facilities, and later in federal institutions.  This experience was defined by segregation and brutal treatment, including forced injections, frequent physical restraints and repeated exposure to tasers.  Without appropriate mental health care and exposed to conditions amounting to torture, Ashley turned to self-harming and ‘acting out’ behaviours, including choking herself. These actions have since been recognized as desperate attempts for human interaction. Studies have demonstrated the severe, damaging effects of prolonged segregation on human beings, and recently Canada's correctional investigator reported that cases of serious self-injury by federal inmates has nearly tripled in the last five years - almost one-third of them in segregation units.  Women are disproportionately represented in these cases.

A provincial corner’s inquest was launched in Ontario in 2011, but was adjourned due to legal challenges and logistical obstacles.  A new inquest is now underway, with formal hearings to begin in 2013.   Again, federal correctional authorities, and now doctors tasked with Ashley’s therapeutic-care, are filing motions to seal key evidence from the inquiry. The motion to seal the video evidence, called a “state cover-up” by Smith family’s lawyer, was struck down on October 24th.

The narrative of Ashley Smith is that of a deeply troubled, dangerous and mentally ill young woman.  But, that picture is entirely defined by an institutional lens.  Those who knew her best, including her mother Coralee Smith, share a very different image of Ashley – precocious, rambunctious, and someone who cared deeply for others. We need to redefine the narrative.  Ashley was not only the desperate girl who died on the floor of a prison cell, while guards watched. She was also a young woman who actively resisted the dehumanizing realities of prison, a person with humour, with compassion, and with a deep sense of justice. 

Ashley Smith’s death in Grand Valley five years ago makes absolutely clear the inherent violence of these institutions, and demands a response from those of us who live in the community where she died.  Remembering her helps us to re-focus our work in ways that recognize the interconnectedness of our struggles. Remembering her makes it impossible to render abstract the hundreds of women who continue to suffer within the prison walls at Grand Valley.
One of the most obvious and profound ways that institutions affect our lives is in their ability to contain, control and even ‘disappear’ us from our larger communities.  They can make us invisible to the rest of the world, put us in cages or in locked wards, and strip us of our connections to all the things that remind us of our shared humanity.   Remembering is a refusal to allow the system to make her disappear, as they tried to do so clearly while she was alive. Remembering Ashley Smith means working against the dehumanizing and brutalizing structures of prisons but, just as importantly, it also means refusing to allow the systems that took her life to define it as well.

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