MONTREAL, May 19 /CNW Telbec/ – The evidence presented this week at an Ontario Coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of federal inmate Ashley Smith reinforces the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers’ belief that she might still be alive if the Correctional Service of Canada had implemented a union proposal to construct special secure units for high-risk female offenders.
Since 2005, the union has been pushing for a special facility that could safely and more humanely house inmates who pose a high risk of harm to themselves and others.
“Ashley Smith spent almost her entire time in federal custody confined to a segregation cell, where she lacked stimulation of any kind,” noted UCCO-SACC-CSN Ontario Regional President Jason Godin. “Like other high-risk female offenders in the federal system, she had no access to programs and could not work at an job. Her verbal interaction was limited to talking through her food slot with other highly disturbed inmates housed in segregation units at the various institutions she was held at across Canada.”
According to the union’s proposal, an adapted unit would create opportunities for greater participation in programs and activity schedules, so that high-risk female inmates could eventually rejoin the general inmate population in a healthier and more secure fashion.
Only after the death of Ashley Smith did CSC agree to create a joint union-management committee in 2008 to examine this proposal. More than three years later, however, high-risk female offenders on the so-called management protocol are still held for months or years at a time in segregation cells.
“This situation is unacceptable,” said Mr. Godin. “It’s only a matter of time before we see another Ashley Smith. The Correctional Service must stop dragging its feet on this file.”
Officers at risk
Mr. Godin said the union is also concerned about a court order this week to publicly release penitentiary incident videos without blurring the faces of correctional staff, and he invited media outlets to use prudence when broadcasting excerpts or printing still photos from the footage.
While the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has always said the full truth of the Ashley Smith saga needs to be public and therefore supports the release of this video footage, publicly identifying correctional staff is a dangerous outcome that puts these men and women at risk.
“These videos demonstrate that our members did their job with courage and compassion,” said Mr. Godin. “Despite the constant assaults from this troubled inmate and the incoherence of CSC management’s directives involving Ashley Smith, correctional officers saved her life almost on a daily basis during her 11 months in federal custody.”
Mr. Godin recalled that CSC implemented a policy preventing correctional officers from entering Ashley Smith’s cell to remove ligatures during her near-daily episodes of self-choking unless they perceived that she had stopped breathing – a near impossibility for non-medical staff forced to listen for the inmate’s breathing patterns through the food slot of a segregation cell door.
After inmate Smith died October 19, 2007, three correctional officers were fired by CSC before they were completely exonerated of charges of criminal negligence causing death, while four others were suspended for three months without pay. The union succeeded in overturning all the dismissals and suspensions.