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Ottawa to respond to details of Ashley Smith inquest on federal prisons

The inside of the prison where Ashley Smith was held, in Kitchener, Ont. is shown on Oct. 19, 2007 in an court exibit photo released by the court on Monday Jan. 21, 2013.

D-Cst. D. Buckley/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government plans to break its year-long silence on the Ashley Smith inquest Thursday, sources say, with a formal response to 104 recommendations on overhauling rules of mental health care and solitary confinement in federal prisons.

It is unclear what the response from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) will actually include, though one federal minister on Wednesday said the government had already acted on some of the recommendations.

The lawyer for Ms. Smith's family is also warning there have been no signs the CSC – whatever its response – will face any new oversight, leaving no way to independently verify what, if any, changes are made. A Conservative senator, meanwhile, said he believes a federal pilot project for mentally ill prisoners, launched this year in the aftermath of the Smith inquest, does not go far enough.

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Ms. Smith died in prison in 2007 from self-inflicted strangulation. Guards did not intervene and a coroner's jury eventually called it a homicide, leading to the 104 recommendations last December.

Her case and others have prompted calls for overhauls of how federal prisons cope with mental illness, and how long prisoners can be kept in solitary confinement, as she had been. In another case, prisoner Edward Snowshoe spent 162 days in solitary confinement before killing himself in 2010.

Ms. Smith's mother on Wednesday took aim at the government for the delayed response. "We have seen and heard nothing," Coralee Smith told The Globe and Mail. "I'm feeling really let down. I think the powers that be just aren't standing up and doing their job. They're not accountable."

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney on Wednesday defended the practice of "administrative segregation," saying in Question Period that it's done for the "safety of the inmates, safety of the personnel and safety of the facility."

He cited the Mental Health Action Plan for federal inmates launched this year to "lay a foundation" to a formal response to the Smith inquest.

A CSC spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny that a response was being planned for Thursday, while a spokesman for Mr. Blaney would only say it "will be released in the near future."

Peter Van Loan, the Government House Leader and a former minister of public safety, on Wednesday acknowledged that Ms. Smith's case was "perhaps an example of what's overall wrong with how our justice system treats those who are mentally ill," but that a "significant number" of the 104 recommendations have already been implemented.

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"Her problems were relatively minor at the outset. She was, you know, throwing apples at a postman, and that should not result in someone in a penitentiary experiencing the difficulties that she should, because individuals like her who face real challenges really need to receive their care in the mental health system," Mr. Van Loan said.

As part of its action plan, the government launched a two-bed hospital pilot project for treating mentally ill female offenders. Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, a former provincial public safety minister, said Wednesday he is "not thrilled" by the pilot project as there's no clear sense of whether it will be expanded or made permanent.

"Certainly I would like to see it done in a faster way and perhaps on a greater scale than what they're talking about," Mr. Runicman said.

Among the 104 recommendations was that Auditor-General Michael Ferguson audit how CSC was implementing any changes. His office has not announced any plans to do so.

"Once the Auditor-General ignored the jury's calls to become involved, that was really a sign of just how unaccountable CSC is," lawyer Julian Falconer, who represented the Smith family at the inquest, said in an interview Wednesday.

"… The family has been completely in the dark. The Correctional Service of Canada has been as unresponsive as we've become accustomed to, sadly, and nothing has changed in terms of their accountability to this family," he said.

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Kim Pate, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies that advocates for better treatment of women in the justice system, warns not enough is being done to care for mentally ill offenders. "What we're seeing is an unaccountable system that failed Ashley in life, and continues to fail Ashley in death and fail many other people. Edward Snowshoe was failed. But there are many more [prisoners] who we don't need to have as more preventable deaths and homicides in this country," she said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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