Smith’s death raises concerns over mental health services: Van Loan

Last Updated: Friday, March 6, 2009
CBC News

Ashley Smith died on Oct. 19, 2007, after she was found unconscious in her cell.

Ashley Smith’s death in an Ontario prison is raising fresh questions about the lack of resources available to people struggling with mental illnesses in Canada, says federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan.

The Moncton teen died in October 2007 after strangling herself at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., under the watch of prison guards.

The federal public safety minister said on Friday that decades ago, people struggling with mental illnesses would be in proper facilities receiving treatment for their disease.

“Now a lot of those folks end up in our prison system that were not originally designed of course to provide mental health treatment. So we’re having to make significant changes to deal with that,” Van Loan said in an interview.

Van Loan said the events surrounding Smith’s death in 2007 leave him “saddened” and speak to a larger problem facing society.

“It speaks to a much broader question of problems with mental health not just in the corrections system but in society at large and whether we are dealing with them properly,” he said.

Van Loan said he’s looking at recommendations made by the corrections investigator to find out how to prevent such occurrences from happening in the future.

Those proposed reforms include assessing prisoners at earlier stages of admission and training prison staff on mental health awareness.
Officers held accountable: Van Loan

In a report issued Tuesday, the federal prison ombudsman, Howard Sapers, said guards previously had been disciplined for intervening too quickly when she tied a ligature – a strap or cord – around her neck and seemed to choke herself.

Sapers, who heads the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada, described her death as entirely preventable. He said it revealed breakdowns in the correctional system and a lack of co-ordination with mental health authorities.

Coralee Smith, Ashley’s mother, said on Wednesday that “these faceless bureaucrats have to be held accountable.”

Van Loan said six managers and staff at Corrections Canada have been fired and another six have been suspended as a result of Smith’s death.

But in an interview Friday, the federal minister said he did not believe it was necessary to start naming the individuals involved in Smith’s death.

“There has been accountability for the actions and I think [that] is what Canadians want to see,” he said.