Is Solitary Confinement Cruel & Unusual Punishment: Ashley Smith inquest to probe CSC

by John McKiggan

It is a well established principle of justice that the punishment must fit the crime. But what if the “punishment” involves subjecting the person to “severe psychiatric harm”.

Jailed for Throwing Apples

When Ashley Smith was 15 years old the Moncton, New Brunswick teenager threw some crab apples at a postal worker delivering mail to her house. The postal worker charged her with assault. Ashley was given a 90-day sentence. But she remained incarcerated for more than four years! This ridiculously excessive period of incarceration was supposedly due to disciplinary infractions that occurred while Ashley was in custody.

When she turned 18 Ashley was transferred from a youth facility to an adult prison. She was placed under suicide watch at the Grand Valley Institution for Women (a federal prison) in Kitchener Ontario because of previous suicide attempts. Shortly after her 19th birthday Ashley Smith committed suicide by hanging herself with strips of her clothing while guards at the prison watched her die!

Coroner’s Inquest

In January 2013 a jury is scheduled to start hearing evidence in a coroner’s inquest into what happened to Ashley Smith. The inquest seeks to uncover how a child who was sentenced to 3 month in custody for throwing apples could spend more than four years in jail and kill herself while guards watched her take her own life.

Correctional Service of Canada wants to limit the inquest to the treatment of Ms. Smith during the days just prior to her death. CSC has tried to limit the scope of evidence that will be provided to the jury.

Specifically CSC tried to prevent the jury from seeing disturbing video footage of Ashley Smith being restrained and repeatedly injected with anti-psychotics. Fortunately, Ontario’s Divisional Court ruled that the 30-minute long compilation of footage could be shown in Court.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The National Post has reported the kind of punshments that Corrections staff used to subdue and constrain Ashley during the years she was imprisoned. At various times she was shackled, had her hands strapped down with duct tape, she was pepper sprayed, tasered, had her face covered with a spit guard, and was repeatedly injected with anti-psychotic medication against her will.

Records show she was transferred 17 times in just her last year of incarceration. The injections or “chemical restraints” given to Ashley were prescribed by a psychiatrist over the phone and were given to her as many as 5 times over a period of 7 hours.

According to evidence presented before the inquest, Ashley showed clear signs of deteriorating mental health. But staff at CSC continued to subject Ashley to extended periods of isolation typically referred to as “solitary confinement”.

Solitary Confinement = Severe Psychiatric Harm

Dr. Stuart Grassian, is a psychiatrist who spent 25 years teaching at Harvard Medical School, and a world renowed expert into the psychological effects of solitary confinement.

Six years ago Dr. Grassian wrote a paper titled The Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement . In the very first line of his paper Dr. Grassian writes:

“Solitary confinement – that is the confinement of a prisoner alone in a cell for all, or nearly all, of the day with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction – can cause severe psychiatric harm.”

He goes on to say:

“…solitary confinement often resulted in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition.”

So in Ashley Smith’s case, it is logical to conclude that a psychologically troubled young girl would become even more troubled following a period of solitary confinement.

Harm From Solitary Confinement Known for Over a Century

Dr. Grassian admits that some of his conclusions are in no way ground breaking. In fact, further on in his paper Dr. Grassian states that:

“…the psychiatric harm caused by solitary confinement had become exceedingly apparent well over one hundred years ago.” [Emphasis added]

Did CSC Cause Ashley’s Mental Deterioration?

One has to ask what effect the extended periods of isolation had on Ashley’s mental stability. We would hope that the corner’s inquest will be able to delve into this issue and answer the question of whether CSC’s actions played any role in Ashley’s tragic death.

Deadly Circle?

Experts have known for over 100 years that solitary confinement can cause severe psychiatric harm. Prisoners exposed to this type of punishment may become more unmanageable or aggressive, resulting in further periods of isolation…which serves to exacerbate their mental condition…resulting in further periods of solitary confinement…and so on in a potentially deadly circle.

Did Punishment Fit the Crime?

Ashley Smith ended up taking her own life. Surely we can all agree that the punishment Ashley endured did not match her crime. A 15 year old girl was jailed for throwing crab apples at a postman and ended up committing suicide while being watched by corrections staff after being subjected to what can only be described as severe physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Correctional Services.

Should Solitary Confinement be Banned?

As horrible and tragic as the circumstances of Ashley’s case may be one hopes that the inquest will examine what happened to Ashley and whether it is indicative of a systemic problem facing prisoners throughout Canada.

My partner, Josh Arnold Q.C. practices criminal defence law and he has seen first hand the effects that solitary confinement can have on individuals.

Three years ago the Canadian Civil Liberties Association raised public awareness of an “alarming increase” over the previous ten years in the use of solitary confinement in Canada’s federal penitentiaries.

The United Nations has called on Canada to ban solitary confinement for menatlly ill prisoners. But what if the solitary confinement itself is causing prisoners to become mentally ill as the expert evidence indicates?

In 2009 the Office of the Correctional Investigator recommended to the federal Justice Minister the:

“…complete prohibition of prolonged segregation of offenders with acute mental health concerns.”

The Investigator’s 2011-2012 annual report states:

“I once more recommend, in keeping with Canada’s domestic and international human rights commitments, laws and norms, an absolute prohibition on the practice of placing mentally ill offenders and those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury in prolonged segregation.”

Time to Face the Facts

Expert evidence indicates that solitary confinement can cause severe psychiatric harm and aggravate the menatl illness of vulnerable prisoners. Correctional Services own internal investigator has been recommending for years that the practice of solitary confinement be abolished.

The only logical answer is that the practice of solitary confinement for all prisoners, must be abolished.

I suspect my position on this issue won’t be popular. in today’s conservative “tough on crime” political climate, getting rid of solitary confinement may be seen, by some, as being lienent on people who have broken the law.

How many other Ashley Smith’s are out there? How many other prisoners have suffered severe psychiatric harm after being subjected solitary confinement?

What do you think? Should there be a further inquest into the impacts of solitary confinement on the mental health of prisoners?

Let me know by leaving a comment below.

This article was previously published on the Atlantic Canada Legal Examiner

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