Crab Apples: My Cry for Community Based Health Care

I sobbed for Ashely Smith this evening. I sat up straight in bed, mortified as I watched the video documenting her suicide taken by Corrections Canada Officers who stood outside her cell door and watched as she choked to death from self bondage. For thirty minutes they did not intervene, as her face, still youthful, silently turned purple.

“Are you dead yet?” yelled at corrections officer as she lay on the floor. Ashley Smith, who died at 19, had been sent to to a New Brunswick juvenile facility at the age of 15. Her crime? Throwing crab apples at a postal service worker. Her one month sentence turned in to three year sentence that eventually led her to the Nova Institution for Women, the federal penitentiary where she eventually died after multiple suicide attempts and long term segregation interrupted only by abuse from prison guards.

I wanted to know more about Ashley. As I sifted through the web in search of details of her life, I could hear the sound of her voice as she addressed the correctional officers who stood on top of her, “leave me alone”, she said. They had used pepper spray to and administered injected tranquillizers for the purpose of “constraining” her, which is illegal Canada. I can’t help but wonder why this type of illegal behaviour has gone un-flagged, yet crab apple throwing had resulted in the loss of a young life and dark cloud of embarrassment looming over our justice that time alone will not erase.

Ashley was born in 1988, and adopted five days after her birth. Although her early years were documented as being generally normal when compared other peers, it is said that behavioural issues began to surface as she entered adolescence. These were things such as “disruptive” behaviour in class and excessive talking, both of which were used to describe me too, when I was her age. At fifteen, when she threw crab apples at the postal worker, I was smoking pot and spending days on psychedelics as we stripped malls of their merchandise, evading the security systems. Why was I not subject to the same fate? The only answer that I have is that our society treats worst its member who have mental illnesses, and it just so happened that genetics were on my side.

Reports indicate that at the New Brunswick Youth Centre, Ashley had pushed the staff “to their limits”. There are several hundreds of recorded incidents ranging from refusing to hand over a hair brush, to self harm and suicide. It seems to me, and it would to any carefully trained service provider, that it was Ashley who had been truly pushed to her limits, not the staff. There is a need today for all provincial governments who are providing services to young people in contact with the youth criminal justice system to broaden their scope of responsibilities and to provide tailored education systems to the needs of youth suffering from mental illness. Most importantly, there needs to be consensus on the notion that youths suffering from mental illness or behavioural disorders should not be sent to correctional facilities and certainly not put into prolonged solitary confinement which is known to have harmful psychological consequences such as psychosis. There is a need for more trained professionals to service youth who need continuing clinical services and a review of existing facilities and services that are provided to youth.

This is a cry for hospital, not jails. A cry for handed over sight, thorough testing, frequent training and retraining on life saving methods such as CPR. As corrections officers entered Ashley’s confinement cell after she had self asphyxiated, one of them is heard saying “fuck, I haven’t trained in CPR in 11 years”. They call for the nurse, who is not present at the scene, but it is too late. Ashley’s cries may not have been heard in time by those who could have saved her, but there is still much saving do be done. As John Macfarlane writes, “The pain is hers, but the shame is ours”.

Ashley SmithMy Life

My life I no longer

I’d rather be set free

Get it over with while
the time is right

Late some rainy

Turn black as the sky
and as cold as the

Say goodbye to

Miss me but don’t be

I’m not sad I’m
happy and glad

I’m free, where I want to be

No more caged up Ashley

Wishing I were free

Free like a bird.

Ashley Smith, October 1, 2006 New Brunswick Youth Centre