“Are you dead yet?” jeered a jail guard at Ashley Smith as she lay dying on the concrete floor of her cell. Those were probably the last words the young woman ever heard. She was nineteen years old.
Ashley had been a rebellious teenager (if that’s not a tautology), getting into frequent trouble in school and in her community. When she was fifteen years old she made the mistake of pelting a hapless postman with crab-apples. That was a breach of probation, and it got her incarcerated. And so she began a hellish four years of torture and neglect—one-third of the time that Karla Homolka served, and under far worse conditions.
The grim story is captured, in part, in this 2008 Report issued by the New Brunswick Ombudsman and Child and Youth Advocate.
Ashley did not adapt well to prison life, resisting authority instead of meekly demonstrating what the state likes to call “compliance.” According to the Ombudsman, “most of the disciplinary measures and incidents involving [Ashley] occurred while she was in prison.” This sort of thing:
“In one of the incidents she was verbally abusive towards staff and refused to hand over a pencil.”
Ashley was pepper-sprayed, Tasered and forcibly drugged. On one occasion she was shot up five times in seven hours by a modern-day Nurse Ratched, assisted by eight jail guards in full riot gear, one of whom pressed her down with a shield.
She was kept in solitary confinement long enough to literally drive her mad: wrote the Ombudsman, “I challenge anyone with a sane mind to live in conditions similar to the ones described.”
In her last year of life she was transferred to the federal “correctional” system. In a real-life version of the Gitmo “frequent flyer program,” Smith was shuttled from prison to prison seventeen times, in five provinces, in that one-year period. On one of these flights a docile Ashley was duct-taped to her seat, and the sadistic RCMP co-pilot threatened to “duct-tape [her] face” as well.
Oddly enough, Ashley attempted suicide on numerous occasions.
A good deal of her Gestapo-like treatment happened to have been caught on video. The federal government and the Correctional Service of Canada have been frantically attempting to cover up their brutality during the preliminaries to a coroner’s inquest in January, fighting unsuccessfully to keep this material secret. Now they’re scrambling to restrict the scope of the coroner’s inquiry to Smith’s last week in custody.
Something is rotten and festering in Canada’s prison system. God knows how many other young people are presently being brutalized and driven to suicide by incompetence and cruelty as I write this.
“Don’t let them get away with it,” said Julian Falconer, the Smith family’s lawyer, to the coroner. Amen to that.