Knowing Ashley Smith by Michelle L. Erstikaitis

March 9, 2013

In October of 2007, I met Ashley Smith, the tragic nineteen year old girl who killed herself in prison while prison guards stood by watching the whole thing. Not only did I meet and know Ashley for four days prior to her death, but I was in the prison cell next door to her on the day that she died. My first impression of Ashley was that she was an oppositionally defiant child. She took great pleasure in ordering the prison guards around, and in refusing to follow the direction of staff. Over the span of four days, I would constantly hear the Prison Guards saying “Ashley, stop that,” and Ashley would immediately reply “No!” in a stubborn tone of voice. The poor child was on a constant suicide watch, which meant that she was permitted to have absolutely nothing in her cell, not even a drinking cup for water, and she was not allowed to wear normal clothing- she had to constantly wear something called a ‘suicide gown’ which is a dress made of an oven-mitt like fire resistant material, often referred to by the inmates as an ‘oven mitt’ or a ‘dolly gown’. She had a guard seated on a chair right outside of her cell door 24 hours a day, constantly keeping an eye on Ashley and what she was doing. The fact that in such incredibly restrictive conditions, Ashley could still manage to kill herself is unspeakable and very, very sad. The fact that the guards stood at her door that morning, watching her strangle herself through the cell door window and doing absolutely nothing to stop her, is even more unspeakable, and quite horrifying. There are many, many folks who’ve got troubled teenage children, children who might think it amusing to throw a crab apple at a Postman. For all of her troubles, Ashley was nothing more than a defiant child. Depressed and troubled, certainly; Ashley was an adopted child, and MANY adopted children, including myself, are troubled. Surely there is no mystery in the fact that a child who grows up feeling unwanted might experience emotional problems. The real mystery is that some adopted children grow up experiencing only minimal problems. Ashley, however, was one of the severely troubled ones, and she needed help desperately, help that she never received. Some will say that prison Guards are not social workers or counselors, so they had no real duty to Ashley, but the truth is that at Grand valley Institution for women, the Prison Guards ARE suppose to be somewhat skilled in counseling. When Kingston Prison for women was closed in the late 90’s after the notorious prison for women riots and the infamous media videos of female inmates being strip searched by male Correctional Officers, the chief justice in charge of that case, Madame Louise Arbour, actually ruled that an institution that was sensitive to troubled women should be opened, and staffed with guards who were schooled in handling troubled inmates. That institution was built, staffed, and opened; Grand valley Institution for women in Kitchener. When Ashley died, the prison had been open for less than seven years. In October 2007, I had been returned to prison for smoking marijuana. I was only incarcerated for less than three months, actually being released less than a week after Ashley died. In the last week of my incarceration, I was so upset by my personal problems that I requested to be placed in Grand valley’s segregation unit for a ’break’ from general population, so I was brought down to seg and placed in cell number two, next door to Ashley Smith, who was in cell number one. When I have been incarcerated in the past, like many, many other inmates, I would sometimes sing to myself in segregation, because I had no television or radio to keep me company, and I missed music. I was down there on a Monday evening, singing some Guns N Roses tunes to myself, and Ashley could hear me. “SHUT UP!” she yelled. I told HER to shut up herself, and then we argued back and forth for a little while, and then we called a truce and became friends. Ashley did one of the funniest things I have ever seen done in a prison, on the eve of her death. I have already mentioned that she was on a suicide watch, dressed in a suicide gown, with a guard sitting on a chair outside of her cell door. Well, on the Wednesday evening before she died, the guard assigned to watch her had taken off her Correctional Officer uniform sweater, and set it down on the chair, and then vacated her post briefly to speak with someone. Ashley reached through the meal slot of her cell door and grabbed the guard’s sweater off of the chair, and pulled it into her cell. She knocked on the wall between our cells, and yelled “Michelle, I stole the guard’s sweater!” and she laughed hysterically. I laughed along with her for ten minutes, especially when the guard assigned to watch her came back and discovered her sweater was missing. For the next twenty minutes, a group of Grand valley Correctional officers banged on Ashley’s door, screamed at her, threatened her, and called her names, demanding that the sweater be given back. Through it all, Ashley remained obstinate. “NO!” she would snap. “Ashley, give us the sweater.”, “NO!”, “Ashley, don’t make me come in there, you little bitch!” I was so concerned with the threatening behavior of one Correctional Officer in particular, the one who called Ashley a little bitch, that I immediately stopped laughing, and posted myself at my cell door so that I could be a witness for Ashley if the Correctional Officers became more abusive. Finally, I capitulated. “Ashley, just give them the sweater” I called to her. She answered me back immediately. “No!” Shortly afterward, the guards entered Ashley’s cell and forcibly removed the sweater from her. I could hear the scuffle, and the sound of rubber soles squeaking on the floor as they held Ashley down and took the sweater from her. I knocked on the wall to see if she was okay, and I called “Ashley, are you okay?” and she answered me back in a tired voice. “I’m okay, Michelle, I just want to go to sleep”. That was the last thing Ashley would ever say to me or anyone else. The very next morning, I was awakened at around 5:30 am, by the sound of guards outside of Ashley’s cell door, kicking her door. Now, we all know now that Ashley was strangling herself and the guards were yelling at her to stop it, but at the moment, I had no idea WHY they were kicking her door, and I thought that the guards were picking on my friend, so I hollered “ Leave her alone!” and one of the guards came over to my door and opened the window (which had been shut by sliding a cover over the glass) and said to me “ We don’t need to hear from you right now.” Right at that moment, Ashley was dying. Something that I know that the media has yet to discover since the videotape of Ashley killing herself has not yet been shown at the inquest is that as she was dying, Ashley turned her purple face toward the guards and looked at them imploringly, as if wondering why they wouldn’t come in. Those of us who are close to the case believe that at this point, Ashley wanted to take the ligature off of her neck but couldn’t get it off. Correctional officers are required to videotape any incidents which require a ‘use of force’ and the guards were videotaping Ashley because they probably expected to have to intervene at some point. Unfortunately, they waited too long. By the time they went in to the cell, Ashley was dead. What I remember most about Ashley was how cute she was. Even while being obstinate and defiant, she sounded sweet. Just like a typical teenage girl, she had chatted with me about her favorite band (Nickelback) and her favorite actor (Leonardo Dicaprio) and how much she loved to shop. The day before her death, Ashley and I had been discussing plans to go shopping together when Ashley was released in a month’s time. Ashley Smith will never go shopping again. She’ll never listen to Nickelback, and she’ll never see the latest Leonardo DiCaprio movie. Her life is gone, because those in charge of preventing her death failed. Ashley’s mother is now childless. Her mother has lost a child whose worst crime was throwing a crab apple at a Postman. Obviously, something went wrong, and I pray that a similar event never happens again.



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