Ashley Smith’s Legacy Part Two. By Michelle L. Erstikaitis

February 27, 2014

Barbaric harm reduction methods and cruel staff at Grand Valley Institution. Behind prison walls. From our reporter on the inside. 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) and last month’s “Ashley’s Legacy”, 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. 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.

When I first arrived back at Grand Valley Institution I was treated generally well by most of the correctional officers, yet for reasons completely unknown to me certain staff began a campaign of harassment against me. Even though Grand Valley is supposed to follow a “cross-gender staffing policy”, somehow male correctional officers are still allowed to be on the segregation unit when inmates are showering. As I am uncomfortable with this and suffer harassment from them, I tend to politely decline my shower when male officers are working on the unit.

On the morning of January 12th, two male correctional officers named Chris B. and an Afro-American named Matt M. made derogatory comments about me, contrary to Grand Valley’s policy on bullying. Chris B. & Matt M. were working the segregation unit with a female correctional officer, when I mentioned to her about the incident she simply stared right through me. In my attempts to protest I was shot with pepper spray, dragged from my cell and tied to a bed.

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, 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 Québec. 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. What happened to Ashley will undoubtedly happen again.

Being placed in pinel restraints is a rather surreal experience and I suppose that it feels like a cross between a peculiar form of torture with minimal pain. I was tied up for 22 hours straight with heavy restraints (ten more hours then Ashley herself). During this time I was continuously verbally taunted and harassed by staff members about my personal life. I wish to note how absolutely sadistic and psychopathic certain correctional officers at Grand Valley are. Many were clearly taking pleasure in my torment, and did not bother to hide the smiles from their faces.

Tying a human being up like that for twenty-two hours is absolutely barbaric. I called the Office of the Correctional Investigator, talked to Shannon Stewart and complained about how I was treated. She refused to help me and told me not to call her office again. I am now banned from taking my case to the Correctional Investigator. This mean whatever happens to me I can not get any help or even lodge a complaint. (Editor’s note: after calling the Correctional Investigator to question Shannon Stewart, we were told by a receptionist that they will look into the matter, but they did not contact us back.)

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 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 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.

Shame on Grand Valley Institution for treating human beings that way. Even more so, shame on the Federal Government for giving psychopathic police and prison guards the opportunity to torture and abuse citizens while protecting themselves from punishment. 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. She was NINETEEN years old, and the guards don’t give a damn!

This is not to say Ashley’s experiences were the same as mine, but Grand Valley staff members still have not learned from her death. Ashley Smith is still dead and nothing can be done to give her back the life that she lost. The only thing we can give to Ashley is a legacy of change 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.

(Editor’s note: due to this article most of the author’s inbound and outbound mail has been seized by correctional staff without being delivered. This smuggled article is being published without the permission of the Correctional Service of Canada.)

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