Ashley SmithI was very upset this week with the story of Ashley Smith and the absolutely gruesome pictures of what the staff did to her. The young woman’s crime? Throwing crabapples at a postal worker. Prison officials kept adding on to her short sentence for misconduct. She was moved from prison to prison seventeen times.

I worry that the problem is more widespread than just those few officers and the warden and deputy warden who were fired over this incident.

Most would admit that there is a clear US and THEM in prison. How can one group help another change when there is almost us/thema war going on between them? Are prison staff required to learn psychology?  Are they given sensitivity training? When a parole officer spends an hour telling a newly-released inmate that he’s going to fail, what is that? When the officer brings up every bad thing the inmate’s ever done and no mention of his abilities, is that a form of abuse? If a psychologist in prison ignores an inmate’s greeting and walks right by him, what is that? When guards openly imitate a hearing/speaking challenged man behind his back, is that abuse? And when an inmate tries to report this, he is told to forget it for his own health.

What’s going on in our prisons? Those who resist change cry that people will lose their jobs. No, they won’t, not if they’re willing to take courses, to take on sensitivity training. It’s up to the staff to change first.

For those not from Canada, the articles and videos are here:

Images courtesy of:

  1. Joanne says:

    Yes, I am certain that the way Ashley was treated was not specific to her case. It seems to me that many who end up in prison begin to believe that they deserve to be treated in this way and do nothing about it. Or they feel powerless to do anything. Ashley fought it all the way and paid with her life. It is a very frustrating system that often seems impenetrable.

    The Correctional Service of Canada, as all other prison systems over the world, needs to have more accountablility to the people they are charged with segregating from society. Prisoners are vulnerable because there is little oversight. There needs to be more and there needs to be an oversight body with the power to do something about the abuses it uncovers.

    The Office of the Correctional Investigator is better than nothing, because at least the public ends up hearing about these atrocities because of them, but they have no real power to effect change. Ultimately, it is left up to the prisoners and their families to fight the system through internal complaints and through federal court. Both of these are onerous and protracted processes that often lead nowhere.

    As for the staff, those who wish to do something about it often become targets of the machine that wishes to maintian the staus quo. In essence those who want change are treated as whistle-blowers. They are ostracized and often end up simply getting out of there because of the immense stress they are placed under.

    I believe that change needs to occur both from within and from without simultaneously. The most important thing to do, in my view, is to change societal beliefs that prisoners need to be punished and that they are inherently bad and unchageable. Only when public opinion changes will it be possible for staff to do the right thing and receive some support for it.

    • I was told decades ago by a person on parole and doing community service, that inside, she realized most guards come from the same sort of background as most prisoners, and that complicates the whole “socal scene” inside…. That is startling to say the least!

  2. The Harper government’s (and Vic Toews’), determination to put as many people in prison for as long as possible is in part responsible for Canadian penitentiaries being the default mental hospitals of our time. And, of course, CSC staff go happily along their usual malicious, incomptent, lazy, dingbat ways to make their treatment of inmates as damaging as possible. The ’11-’12 Annual Report of the Officer of the Correctional Investigator is just out and comments (keeping in mind, this only what his investigators had occasion to observe, not the much worse common reality) that:
    “1. There is inadequate support and training provided to staff managing serial self-injury,
    2. Case management information sharing between front-line and health care staff is often not well communicated, resulting in conflicts between security ahd health care teams,
    3. An over-reliance on control measures and an escalation of the security response, including disciplinary charges, physical restraints, use of inflammatory spray and segregation placements, to manage self-injurious behaviours,
    4. Placements and transfers of self-injurious offenders to maximum security facilities to manage risks that they pose mostly to themselves not others,
    5. Transfers in and out of CSC treatment centres and outside hospitals to address administrative issues (e.g. staff fatigue, lack of bed space, staffing ratios) rather than mental health needs,
    6. Lack of comprehensive mental health needs assessments and treatment plans.”
    In particular, the almost invariable use of solitary confinement caused (again, May 2012) CSC to be censured by the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
    The constant refusal of CSC management and staff to follow the Act, their policies and procedures. and Directives, always to the detriment of prisoners, is their own fault, not that of public opinion, and will contribute to increased crime and public insecurity (is this what they intend?). I have never encountered a government department that behaves so badly. Joan Petersiia’s comment on the “prevailing surveillance-arrest system” of parole supervison applies in fact to all of CSC’s work: “We could not have designed a more ineffective system had we set out to do so.” Perhaps she fails to appreciate the extent to which CSC means it to be this way.

  3. Catana says:

    I read about her a couple of monhs ago, and that led me to the subject of cell extractions, which seem to be universally violent and brutal. There are days when I can’t bear to read another article about the suffering of prisoners, whether they’re guilty of serious crimes or just innocent victims.

  4. prisonsorguk says:

    Changing the attitudes of prison staff requires a clear lead from the top of prison management about what is acceptable conduct – that is where you need to focus your efforts. Without any criticism from the top it acts as a ‘nod and a wink’ that what is happening has management approval.

  5. We started to see this tragic story in the news years ago – and I found I couldn’t watch/read it all — just too awful. And it’s so disgusting that it took years to move this inquiry forward The good news for me – government lawyers are stepping aside and letting things move; also good to see – I read readers’ comments a lot, and most seem to be with Ashley. Canadians need to stay on top of this, and for once make sure the resulting recommendations actually are IMPLEMENTED. What’s that saying? ‘All that is needed for the forces of evil to win in the world, is for enough good people to do nothing.” I sense more people are starting to speak up….

  6. It’s extremely disturbing, Ed. Society changes, hopefully, for the better, BUT society changes slowly – and prisoner reform will always be at the bottom of the barrel because of the way people view prisoners, and because the large corporations that run and build prisons wish to hold onto their moneymaking staus quo.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Sadly you are right, Danielle. I’m working on another book with ten other men who left the Catholic priesthood. I told one of them that I had given up on trying to reform the Catholic Church. For me, it was a hopeless effort.
      And then it occurred to me that prison reform is an equally monumental task

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