WATCH: A coroner’s inquest into the death of Ashley Smith found serious flaws in the handling of inmates with mental illness. The federal government has just days to respond to recommendations, but Smith’s mother fears she will be let down again. Jacques Bourbeau reports.
OTTAWA – When Coralee Smith hears about inmates in segregation at Canada’s prisons, she thinks about her daughter choking to death on the floor.
It has been more than seven years since 19-year-old Ashley Smith strangled herself in prison, triggering a 2013 Ontario coroner’s inquest that ruled her death a homicide.
The federal government has yet to respond to the inquest’s 104 recommendations into her death, and a promised pilot project to treat mentally ill offenders only has space for two women.
“I feel like nobody’s listening still today, because things haven’t really changed,” Smith said in Ottawa on Wednesday.
Ashley Smith was a self-harming inmate who was transferred 17 times during her 11 months in federal custody, and spent most of her time in segregation.
She died when she strangled herself on Oct. 19, 2007 at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont. Prison guards, acting on orders not to enter, stood outside her cell and watched.
The coroner’s recommendations were made on Dec. 19 last year. They include an “absolute prohibition” on placing female offenders in long-term segregation, and for the Correctional Service of Canada to negotiate with provincial health care facilities to provide long-term treatment to female inmates who chronically self-injure.
Watch: NDPs question Tories on use of solitary confinement for mentally ill
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney’s spokesman said the government’s response “is coming in the near future.”
In question period Wednesday, Blaney said the government has put in place a mental health action plan to detect problem cases, train staff and increase medical supervision.
“This is an issue we take seriously, and I’m anxious to see the results from Correctional Services following the coroner’s report on the tragic death of Ms. Ashley Smith,” he said.
A CSC spokeswoman said the coroner’s office requested a response by December 2014 and “CSC is going to meet this request.”
In an interview with Global News, Smith said the government’s silence over the past year has left her feeling disappointed.
Watch: Coralee Smith talks about her daughter’s death a press conference in Ottawa.
Other inmates have passed away since her daughter’s death – including Kinew James, who died in 2013 from an apparent heart attack behind bars after allegedly calling for help, and Edward Snowshoe, who spent 162 days in segregation before he killed himself in 2010.
“This is not just an Ashley story,” Smith said.
“This is the story about how our prisoners are being treated –mistreated I should say. The dire conditions that they’re living under. Something has to take place. We have to do something.”
Pilot project, for two
Kim Pate, an advocate who regularly works with female offenders, said the delay is “incredibly concerning.”
“There was an opportunity for the Correctional Service of Canada to act before Ashley died, there was an opportunity to act after Ashley died before the inquest. There’s been ample opportunity throughout the inquest for them to act,” she said.
“We’re now nine days away from the first anniversary of the recommendations, more than seven years since Ashley died, and still no concrete actions.”
Last spring, the government announced a pilot project for mentally ill female offenders to be placed in provincial treatment centres instead of prisons.
Blaney continues to say that people with mental health issues should not be in penitentiaries, but in psychiatric hospitals.
His spokesman said that since July, through an interim agreement with the Royal Brockville Mental Health Centre in Brockville, Ont., two beds are currently available.
But Pate said from what she knows, only one woman has been placed in the secure hospital.
Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman said he’s less than thrilled about his own government’s pace on the pilot program.
The former Ontario corrections minister said the Brockville facility, which operates as a hospital with correctional security, has had enormous success – reducing recidivism by 45 per cent.
“We can save money for the government, for taxpayers,” he said.
“I’d like to see that be taken advantage of to a greater extent than a pilot for one or two years, or one or two patients or one or two inmates.”
For Coralee Smith, there’s still no way of knowing whether any lessons were learned from her daughter’s death.
She’s still waiting for a response.
WATCH: Smith says she’s discouraged the government has taken almost a year to respond to a coroner’s inquest into her daughter’s death
“They haven’t stepped forward and let us know what their opinion is. They’ve made no statement, they’ve made no public statement, they’ve made no changes,” she said.
“This is Canada. I really expected someone to stand up and say, ‘This can’t continue. Let’s do something.’
“But where is that person?”