Letter to Prime Minister Harper re: Ashley Smith Inquest

A second coroner’s inquest is currently underway regarding the death of Ashley Smith, a 19-year old prisoner who choked herself to death in 2007 while prison guards watched. The facts which are coming to light during this inquest are deeply disturbing. This young woman with recognized mental-health problems was repeatedly assaulted and restrained through force and drugs. She spent the last year of her life in prolonged segregation and was transferred 17 times among nine institutions in five provinces. Her story is tragic. But unfortunately, it is not an isolated case.

Below is a letter based upon one drafted by Ottawa’s Criminalization and Punishment Education Project. I encourage anyone concerned about how individuals with mental health are mistreated within the Canadian criminal justice system to copy and adapt this letter and send it to the Prime Minister.

 

23 January 2012

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, P.C.,
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister:

I am deeply concerned with our current criminal justice practices that penalize vulnerable people who, with the proper resources, would be better served in our communities. Where the death of Ashley Smith is a tragedy, it is unfortunately not an isolated incident. As Prime Minister of Canada, you are in the unique position with the combined authority and responsibility to act on behalf of and protect the people of this great country – today, I urge you take that step.

As I am sure you are aware, in his Annual Report to Mr Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety, the Correctional Investigator of Canada estimates that one in 10 men and nearly one in three women in federal prisons have mental health concerns. According to a recent CBC news report, the Ottawa police respond to more than 4,000 calls involving the Mental Health Act each year, and they estimate that there are about 20 times more calls a year with a mental health component. The policing and subsequent criminalization of those with mental health concerns is an ongoing and increasing reality that will not be resolved by a crime control agenda.

Prisons are not treatment centres, nor are prison staff mental health professionals. Prison staff are trained to enforce prison policy, not to recognize mental health concerns in prisoner conduct. In prisons, mental health concerns are repeatedly viewed through a lens of security and risk, rather than treated as a health related issue. The result is that far too many prisoners, like Ashley, are responded to in punitive ways that only escalate health problems rather than resolve them. Punitive responses to mental illness directly interfere with and undermine the goal of correctional facilities to rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals serving custodial sentences.

I am writing to request that you take that first step to protect our most vulnerable so that people are treated for their health concerns in appropriately resourced settings and not in ‘corrective’ institutions where security takes precedence over all other concerns.

Under Section 29 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act:

The Commissioner may authorize the transfer of a person who is sentenced, transferred or committed to a penitentiary to
(a) another penitentiary in accordance with the regulations made under paragraph 96(d), subject to section 28; or
(b) a provincial correctional facility or hospital in accordance with an agreement entered into under paragraph 16(1)(a) and any applicable regulations.

The protocol for the transfer of persons to appropriate facilities designed to address mental illness is designed to ensure that men and women with mental health concerns are receiving the right kind of care. Through your direction and leadership, the Correctional Service of Canada will be in a better position to utilize Section 29 and fulfill their mandate to ensure the safe rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals serving federal sentences.

Today, you have the authority and acumen to do what is right and just. I urge that you not let the practice of jailing our most vulnerable people in Canada continue. I urge that you use your leadership to protect others like Ashley Smith and to uphold the dignity and rights of everyone, so that I can live in a country where I am proud to be Canadian.

Sincerely,
Anita Grace

cc. Randall Garrison
Public Safety Critic

Elizabeth May
Leader of the Green Party of Canada

Tom Mulcair
Leader of the Official Opposition and New Democratic Party of Canada

Daniel Paillé
Leader of the Bloc Québecois

Bob Rae
Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada

Francis Scarpaleggia
Public Safety Critic

The Honourable Vic Toews
Minister of Public Safety

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Mother’s Day

Prison mom

Cali Farmer, 4, hugs her mother Netta Farmer at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere, but especially to mothers living in poverty, trying to choose between food and rent, and to mothers in shelters, seeking safety for themselves and their children.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers behind bars, cut off from their families and children, to the mothers of inmates, living with the stigma and fall-out of their children’s crimes, and to the mothers of victims of crime, too often left with wounds but no voices.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers coping with mental illness, sickness and disability, and those raising children in hospitals and treatment centres.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of missing women, of children on the street, of the lost and the wounded.

The brave, the broken and the battered mothers, the strong, the sick and the scared ones, may we all find strength and love today.

Homelessness

EMCP, Carleton University

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