By Donovan Vincent & Diana Zlomislic
A seemingly normal child, Ashley Smith fell into an abyss as a teen. Locked up at 15, the New Brunswick girl spent most of her youth in solitary confinement until, at age 19, she choked herself to death while on ‘suicide watch’ in a federal prison, with guards standing by as she took her last breaths. In a new ebook, The Life and Death of Ashley Smith, two Star journalists who covered the story, Donovan Vincent and Diana Zlomislic, synthesize testimony from her inquest and facts gathered in their own reporting in an attempt to make sense of an individual and family tragedy that became a national shame.
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The Life and Death of Ashley Smith
“You know how it is when you get a feeling that something big is going to
happen? Well, it wasn’t like that for me. In fact, that Thursday started out
like any other day.”
— Sarah Gilmore, the title character in the novel Sarah’s Legacy
Ashley Smith loved to read. She often had two or three books on the go at the youth jail in Miramichi, ordering them monthly — if staff permitted — with the small allowance given to inmates at the New Brunswick Youth
Centre.Reading was a much rarer pleasure in the penitentiary. The women’s prisons where she served most of her time in solitary confinement would not allow her to have a pencil, pillow or piece of paper, let alone a book. The prison
service said it wasn’t out to punish the teen but to protect her from herself(more on that later).
Her tastes were eclectic: Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul,The Dragonology Handbook: A Practical Course In Dragons, Angels Everywhere, Jewish Holidays (she had a deep interest in Judaism, inspired
by the man who helped raise her), everything in the Harry Potter series up to Half-Blood Prince. One of her favourite novels was Sarah’s Legacy by Valerie Sherrard, a fellow Maritimer who had mentored Ashley at Miramichi youth jail (in fact,
one character in the novel is based on Ashley). It’s the story of a 12-year-old girl who lives with her single mother in a run-down apartment in Belleville,Ont. Sarah’s mom is struggling to make ends meet as a waitress when she
inherits her “nutty” great-aunt’s much grander estate in Miramichi. Thatleads to a journey of escape and self-discovery.These were familiar themes to Ashley, who was going through the natural
transformation of adolescence in a most unnatural setting.Did Ashley, unlike the fictional Sarah, have a feeling that “something big” was going to happen to her? Did she think pitching crab apples at an
unpopular neighbourhood postman in Moncton would make her a hero? Whatever she was thinking, surely Ashley did not imagine the train of events that followed: facing a criminal charge, which would lead to
probation to breaking probation to jail to “therapeutic quiet” (the youth jail’s term for solitary confinement in a cell with no bed) — including at least one 20-day stretch — and then to acting out as a result, which angered staff who
laid institutional charges for bad behaviour, which tacked on years to heroriginal, 60-day sentence, and to being catapulted to the adult system because the youth workers were fed up with her.
Nor would she have anticipated that one day she’d be deemed such a threat to herself and others that RCMP pilot Stéphane Pilon would personally duct-tape her to the seat of an aircraft during one of 17 moves among federal
institutions. At the coroner’s inquest, an eight-month proceeding in Toronto that wrapped up in December, Pilon testified that Ashley was disruptive even though her hands and wrists were bound and her head was covered in
two layers of black netting — a contraption the prison service calls a “spit shield.” It’s hard to know how Ashley had imagined her life unfolding, what ending she pictured for herself, before choking herself to death in a segregation cell
at the age of 19.She kept diaries until she lost the privilege of having notebooks to write in. She wrote poems and letters, sometimes combining the two. She sent one of
these hybrids to her mother. Titled “Waywarde Dream,” undated, and written on pink paper, it’s an ode to the things regular girls take for granted — buying heels and hanging out at the mall. Written in a steady hand on
pink paper, the verse is undated. Signed only, “To: MOM. Love Ash. A copy for both of us. xoxoxoxo.”
It’s impossible to write the definitive story about Ashley Smith. There’s so much the public didn’t see and likely still doesn’t know. We have relied on thousands of pages of government documents about her time in custody,
turned over to the courts reluctantly after drawn-out legal battles, as well as inquest testimony and candid interviews with family members who have said very little publicly about their personal tragedy since Ashley died on
Oct. 19, 2007. They agreed to speak with the Toronto Star in the hope that prison conditions will improve for other women and that mentally ill inmates will receive the treatment they need, not segregation. They are also
desperate for accountability in her death. “The public needs to know that people are still living like this,” Ashley’s mother, Coralee Smith, says. “They didn’t build Grand Valley Institution,
cell segregation unit No. 4 for Ashley. She’s not the first one in there. And she’s not the last.
“Ashley was not ready to leave this world. She was not. She wanted to come home.”
This is Ashley’s story, as we know it.