Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ashley Smith's Mom Speaks at Fundraiser - Moncton

Coralee Smith, Ashley Smith's mother spoke to a crowd gathered in Moncton recently to raise money for local mental health service agencies.  She has and unfortunate and somewhat unique experience to share about mental health service provision in our very broken system.  I say somewhat unique because the kind of cruelty that her daughter experienced, being criminalised for mental health issues, denied effective and proper treatment, ignored or further endangered as a response to her issues ~ these are common occurrences in our healthcare and prison systems.  What has been more unique is the rightful publicity Ashley's situation attained.  Rarely is the system ever exposed as widely as it was after Ashley's death.  Rarely is there such a public outcry in the face of a prisoner death.  Ashleys was not the first and more than likely wont be the last instance where a person with serious mental health concerns has been imprisoned and then been ignored when in serious mental or medical distress, ignored and denied assistance right up to the point of their death.   

Perhaps the likelihood of future deaths and the possibility of waking people up before it occurs is one of the reasons why Coralee Smith continues to speak out.  Here is what she had to say as reported by the Canada East News Service;

Ashley Smith was destroyed by prison system: mother

Coralee Smith holds a journal from 2003, kept by her then 15-year-old daughter Ashley Smith, as she speaks at Women & Wellness at MacNaughton High School in Moncton on Saturday. CanadaEast News Service
Coralee Smith holds a journal from 2003, kept by her then 15-year-old daughter Ashley Smith, as she speaks at Women & Wellness at MacNaughton High School in Moncton on Saturday.

Published on February 5, 2012

MONCTON – Coralee Smith has a journal from 2003 kept by her then 15-year-old daughter Ashley Smith, in which the girl wrote touchingly about her "babies," the four children under age five she often babysat for Zalmen and Aida Stiefel and when Zalmen was the rabbi at Tiferes Israel Synagogue.
"She had a big soft heart," Ashley's mother recalled for an audience of nearly 500 at the ninth annual Women and Wellness event at Bernice MacNaughton High School. The event raises funds and awareness for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Moncton.

As most know, Ashley Smith was a troubled Moncton teen whose term of probation for throwing apples at a mail carrier eventually led to an accumulation of more than 100 charges and four years in custody, mostly for incidents that occurred while she was behind bars, mostly in isolation. She died while on suicide watch as guards looked on.

While Coralee Smith has spoken to reporters on a few occasions in the past, the speaking engagement in the MacNaughton High School auditorium stands out for the size of the audience who got to hear some of Ashley's family's story.
Coralee says her daughter also had an independent streak. When Ashley got her first two-wheeler, it had training wheels on it. After making sure she had the hang of it, Coralee and her husband Herbie Gorber let the little girl take advantage of the family home's two driveways, which were configured in a way so she could circle the house safely.

When Ashley disappeared out of sight and then failed to reappear around the far side of the house, Coralee went to look for her.
"When I looked up the other side of the house she was already getting the man next door to take off the training wheels for her."

For all her spunk, Ashley had some definite limits imposed on her growing up, her mom says. In the urban neighbourhood they lived in, where a higher incidence of crime is a fact and the heavy traffic in the area is a fright, the pre-adolescent Ashley usually had a set of concerned grown-up eyes looking out for her. She wasn't allowed to go to the playground by herself, or take her bike more than just around the block.

As she got older, of course, she was gradually allowed to take her bike on rides a bit farther from the family's home in Moncton's east end.
Soon, "cheese strings and granola bars and stuff like that," were disappearing from the Smith and Gorber household.

Eventually, about a year after Ashley first incarceration at a youth centre for the postal worker incident, she finally admitted to her mother where the snack foods had disappeared to. She used to bike down Moncton's Riverfront Trail to feed old Joe, a well known Moncton street person who lived under the old Gunningsvillle Bridge before it was demolished.

Coralee says she eventually ran into Joe outside the Irving Convenience Store in Dieppe after Ashley died in prison and took the time to ask if he remembered Ashley.
He said he did remember the dark haired girl on the red bike who brought him food and was his friend and asked why he hadn't seen her in a long time.
"I told him she passed away and Joe cried, so there were tears out there for Ashley."

Joe has not been alone in crying for Ashley Smith in the past four years or so, as details of her appalling life in prison and her death in front of prison guards who did nothing to stop it have emerged.

Tragically, Ashley Smith's cries for help have mostly been heard long after it was too late to save her. During the roughly four years she was incarcerated, it often seemed as if the old cliché figure of speech was actually true, that society had locked her up and thrown away the key.
Ashley was a troubled person before her incarceration, but her mother says her daughter was not suicidal until she faced an ever growing series of sentences for misbehaviour inside prison walls, sentences that she eventually realized (perhaps correctly) would never end.

Before things completely descended into hopelessness, mother and daughter talked about her coming home whenever they had the opportunity to talk.
"Ashley's biggest wish was to get home to her room, get in the Jacuzzi tub and to hold her dog." Coralee said. "Ashley did not willfully commit suicide."
She was in the youth centre for 36 months, 27 of which were spent in TQ.
Ashley Smith's Orwellian nightmare of imprisonment came with the requisite euphemistic jargon. TQ stands for "temporary quiet" a placid and pretty sounding name for what prisoners, those who actually have to do the time in TQ, call the hole.

"It's segreation, where you're segregated for 23 hours a day and maybe if you're on good behaviour, you get out for an hour a day. That includes shower, shampoo, brush your teeth time. "
Coralee says people shouldn't mistake segregation for prisons cells that inmates get to themselves, where they have a few amenities and are allowed to have books or buy televisions for companionship.

Segregation means you're in there with nothing but yourself and your cell, she said, noting that in many TQ cells the lights are on 24 hours a day until you even lose your sense of day or night. The only human contact is with the hand that pushes food through the slot in the door, light fare like sandwiches in the name of not providing the segregated inmate with cutlery. 

While we like to think of Canadian prisons having enlightened standards when it comes to basic rights like food, it's troubling to note Ashley's mother says her daughter lost 90 pounds in the last 11-and-a-half months of her life.
Her toilet paper ration was four or five sheets at a time, so even the basic dignity of maintaining her own hygiene was denied her. Ultimately, she was allowed no clothes other than a "suicide coat" a garment that made it difficult for her to even conceal her breasts, not that she ever got any visitors.

Coralee Smith asked her audience Saturday what they thought would happen were any of them to take their "15-year-old child and lock them up for three years and segregate them for 27 months. We're talking about a young girl who hadn't stayed out overnight except at her sister's, a young girl who hadn't gone to the movies on her own, just a young girl trying to grow."
Ashley turned 18 at the youth centre and though they could have kept her another year, they shipped her out to adult institutions, first in Saint John and then to the Nova Institution for Women in Truro.

"She had a couple good months there," Coralee recalls of Nova. "She had a psychiatrist who was working with her and she seemed to be doing all right. But while he was on Christmas break they shipped her out to Grand Valley Institute."
Grand Valley Institution is Kitchener, Ontario would ultimately be the last of the 17 facilities Ashley had been bounced to and from.
"Ashley's story is long and sad," her mother said with an audible sigh. "Those four years must have felt like 40, to be alone and in such dire straits."
Saying Ashley had, like most inmates, kept much of the horrors she was going through mostly to herself, Coralee said, "you only hear about the horrors after the fact ­- in our case, only after Ashley passed away."

Noti· g the two news documentaries made to date about Ashley's life and death both won prestigious Michener Awards, arguably Canada's most prestigious journalism awards for reporting in the public interest, Coralee said her daughter, "has raised some people's hearts."

But it (treatment like Ashley received) has to stop. It's still going on."
Coralee and Herbie recently donated $20,000 to assist programs to help women who have been incarcerated, a gift acknowledged by Kim Pate, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies who shared the stage with Coralee.
As for the Women & Wellness event, it raised $41,720 for a number of local mental health initiatives.

Herbie and Ashley's sister Dawna Ward were in the audience to support Coralee as she told her tragic story, Dawna in an ironic twist winning the evening's top prize, a package valued at $2,150.
Somehow, even as she continues to live the ordeal of coming to terms with Ashley's passing and the idea so many other Canadians battling mental illness are in prisons whose very conditions seem guaranteed to break the fragile further, Coralee Smith's natural warmth and wit shone through as she made her first ever speech to an auditorium full of people.

No one was expecting to laugh Saturday night, but a few times they did. Quite likely, because most have already heard so much of the Ashley Smith case these past four years and either hardened themselves to it or started blocking much of it out, most of the women in the audience probably didn't expect to cry. But many did.

"What Ashley went through none of us can begin to understand," her mother said. "There's not a person in this room, myself included, who knows what that little girl endured," she said. "I'm embarrassed to death to say this is Canada. And it's still going on."

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