Ashley Smith; homicide or a life that could have been saved

Ashley Smith, the 19-year-old who committed suicide at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007 has shocked Canada and raised many questions on how we deal with people with find annoying, obnoxious, shocking, needy or who simply we do not like.

What is particularly distressing about Ashley Smith’s death is that she was in custody where people in charge had many opportunities to intervene and save her life; it simply did not happened.

Ashley Smith’s life could have been saved like probably many others we do not even know about. Canada, one of the most socially, financially, legally and technologically advanced country on the planet did not do the right thing in Ashley Smith’s case, as simple as that. This is particularly disturbing especially in light of the scientific knowledge Canada has produced in the last 20-30 years. In the field of assessing and finding effective intervention for the rehabilitation of people in trouble with the law Canada leads the way. Without bragging Canada is at the forefront of knowledge, bar none, not even our cousins down south; or better, for a long time we were ahead of the game, now the doubt that we are losing ground is making us uneasy.

I have been in and out of jail since 1989; I am not a jail-bird, I work with people in trouble with the law, from the moment they are charged to the moment their sentence is over. I have worked with young offenders, male and female residents, low and high risk and mentally disturbed people. What strikes me as most upsetting about the recommendations made by the coroner Julian Falconer in the wake of the unfortunate death of Ashley Smith is how these recommendations could be easily transferred to any other class of incarcerated people in Canada (young offenders, male residents, elderly, mental health people in custody). It this would be the case, everybody who has been exposed to the world of rehabilitation would say something like; “Finally!!!!! They woke up!!!!”

People in trouble with the law face problem which do not stop at the prison’s gate (as the recent DSM-V seems to recognize); once in the community most of the people in trouble with the law present with special needs; our societal response is not to help them, but to create a vacuum around instead. Again this is an ongoing source of frustration for people involved in rehabilitation; in spite the dedication and commitment of thousands of private and governmental workers, the support available in my experience is simply insufficient.

We are a society that thinks the world should work like a supermarket; as you need bread, milk, soap, you walk into a supermarket and ten minute later you come out with what you need; unfortunately the supermarket mentality cannot be used when the issues are more complex than picking up milk or soap.

Quick fixes are not a viable option in cases in which mental health, rehabilitation, incarceration, poor social support and special needs meet.

As a society we know what should be done, as a scientific community we have the knowledge and the experience to deliver the services that people before and after Julian Falconer’s findings needs.

My hope is that the Ashley Smith’s inquiry will not turn into self-flagellation or into finger pointing, but that it will create the momentum to create a turning point on how to deal with people who we perceive as different. Canada knows what to do, I see the miracle of rehabilitation at work every day, very much as all the other committed workers in the private and the governmental system know. The coroner’s finds just told us that it is time to do it.

Dr. Giorgio Ilacqua