Ashley Smith’s Legacy

February 6, 2014

From our reporter inside Grand Valley

By Michelle L. Erstikaitis

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As I write this follow up to my earlier Your Ward News exclusive “Knowing Ashley” (published March 2013) it is New Years Eve, and I am currently housed in the maximum security segregation unit of Grand Valley Institution for Women. The very unit on which Ashley Smith died six years ago.

I came back to Grand Valley on November 20th, 2013, and I have been housed on the segregation unity for exactly twenty-four hours at the time of writing. I am currently being held in cell number five, just four doors down from cell number one, the infamous cell in which Ashley lost her life.

However, my current stay at Grand Valley has been fraught with difficulty of unbelievable proportions, and I have not only been housed in cell number one myself on two separate occasions on High Intensity Suicide Watch, but I have actually been tied down in preventive self harm restraints which correctional personnel refer to as “pinel restraints”, nicknamed after the Philippe Pinel Institute in Quebec. There have been infamous media videos of Ashley Smith tied down in these same restraints. Ashley Smith’s doctor Renée Fugère testified that pinel restraints are only to be used as a “last resort, when all interventions fail.”

During this particular stay at Grand Valley, I have been in the exact same living conditions which Ashley Smith herself experienced, and I believe that I am able to offer some first hand insight into what Ashley may have felt. Further to that, I also believe that the recent ruling rendered by the jury at Ashley’s inquest that her death was an act of homicide was certainly the right decision, given the behaviour and actions of Grand Valley prison staff. Not only were the staff negligent and even cruel when dealing with Ashley to the point that it almost certainly caused her death, but I am able to reassure both readers of Your Ward News as well as members of the public that Grand Valley staff have NOT learned a single thing, and what happened to Ashley will undoubtedly happen again.

Grand Valley Institution for women is rife with staff corruption, and extremely poor management. As I write this article it is almost midnight, and one of the correctional officers working the segregation unit tonight was actually the acting correctional manager on the morning that Ashley died. This whole past week she has been working on the segregation unit, and I have spoken with her numerous times, and I simply can not believe how absolutely self centred she is. The first day that she was on the segregation unit, I showed her a copy of my previous article for Your Ward News ‘Knowing Ashley’ and I said to her “Have you seen this?” She glanced at the headline and snapped “That is a really sensitive subject, I lost my job over that!” Of course she must have noticed my name under the title and been curious about what I wrote. She was back at my door forty minutes later saying “I changed my mind, I want to see that article!”

I said to her “I am suicidal and need to be put on a suicide watch.” The officer stared to me and did not reply for what seemed to be nearly a full minute, and what she said was “you don’t look suicidal to me.” It was just after 10 P.M. I replied “well, I AM suicidal, and I’d like to be placed on a suicide watch.”

The officer smirked at me, and said “I’ll see what I can do” and left. I waited patiently, listening to the inmates on my unit laugh at me and mock me for saying that I was suicidal, and the waiting period stretched on. After at least fifteen minutes, probably closer to twenty I finally pressed my cell call button again, and waited for about five minutes before staff came onto the unit. Yet they were not there to answer my cell call, they were there to do a regularly scheduled unit check, and they tried to walk past my door. I knocked on my door, and insisted. “I am suicidal, and I need to be put on a suicide watch! I spoke to an officer almost twenty minutes ago, what is going on???”

This was a different officer, and this one said to me “we are just waiting for the correctional manager.” I could not believe my ears, and I only wished that I had been clever enough to smuggle in with me some kind of voice recording device. My calls of help were ignored as I was left waiting. I guess I should not have been surprised, given how many times that poor Ashley had been put through the exact same thing.

Exasperated and more then a little bit ticked off, I rang my cell call button for the third time and when the staff arrived this time there were three of them. They opened my door this time, but rather then take me directly to segregation and put me on a suicide watch as I had requested nearly an hour earlier, they brought me to an interview room. The acting correctional manager and three officers actually proceeded to attempt to talk me out of going on suicide watch.

It was incredible… they told me that I did not look suicidal, and even when I told them that I was in fact very depressed despite appearances because a fairly close friend of mine had just passed away, they were clearly set against putting me on a suicide watch.

I was not crying, interestingly Ashley Smith rarely cried, if ever at all. Near the end of our lengthy meeting I glanced on the clock on the wall an noticed it was midnight. Still I was arguing to be placed on a suicide watch. “You know I’ve been trying to get on suicide watch for two hours now. Did you guys do this to Ashley Smith? I am going to call the media and the correctional investigator if you do not put me on suicide watch right now!” That did it.

“Fine” one of the officers snapped, after conferring with her colleagues privately. “Your getting your wish” she said as if doing me a huge favour. The abuse was soon to follow. I was brought down to segregation cell number one where I wore a suicide gown, and had a correctional officer seated outside of my door. It was a Sunday evening, so perhaps I had inadvertently interrupted a staff poker game, or something.

The following Wednesday I submitted an official complaint detailing the difficulty I had encountered after disclosing that I was suicidal. One week later I was returned to the general population. I once again reported that I was suicidal and was locked in a visiting room for nearly an hour. I passed the time singing some of my favourite songs which is what I had been doing six years ago when I met Ashley. I was laughed at, mocked and called names by two of the correctional officers who were assigned to peer at me. So I began to swear at them, exactly as Ashley Smith used to do. I want to remind readers that I was on suicide watch and these officers are supposed to be entrusted with my well being. Yet the officers invited three other inmates to join in causing me more stress. Also I would like to remind readers that I was on suicide watch in the very same area where Ashley Smith died, and all this was taking place while Ashley’s inquest was all over the news.

I was placed in pinel restraints after harming myself. It was a rather surreal experience and I suppose that it feels like a cross between a peculiar form of torture with minimal pain. After I was tied up for 22 hours straight with heavy restraints, I called the Office of Correctional Investigations and talked to a Shannon Stewart. I complained about how I was treated. She refused to help me and told me not to call her office again.

This is not to say Ashley’s experiences were the same as mine, but Grand Valley staff still have not learned from her death. Ashley Smith is still dead and nothing can be done to give her back her life that she lost. The only thing we can give to Ashley is a legacy of chance within correctional facilities across Canada. Clearly staff need to be much better trained in areas of sensitivity and suicide prevention. I am sad to say until this happens Ashley’s death will remain a homicide rather then a suicide.

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