Toronto, December 20, 2013—The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO-SACC-CSN) is pleased that the jury in the Ontario Coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of inmate Ashley Smith made several recommendations yesterday that could vastly improve how high-risk female offenders are managed in federal institutions for women.
On October 19, 2007, Smith choked herself to death because Correctional Service Canada (CSC) management forbade correctional officers from intervening in Smith’s regular self-strangulation episodes “unless she stopped breathing.” The order, backed up by threats of disciplinary measures and potential criminal charges, stopped correctional officers at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ontario, from entering Smith’s cell in time to save her life – as they had previously done on hundreds of occasions.
The jury’s recommendations made clear that their determination of “homicide” as a cause of Smith’s death was not directed at the actions of the frontline correctional officers. The jury recommended that, “if frontline staff determine that immediate intervention is required to preserve life, there is no requirement that they seek authorization prior to intervening.”
The jury likewise recommended provisions to allow staff to refuse to follow an order or direction – without fear of discipline or reprisal – that they believe to be illegal.
UCCO-SACC-CSN national vice president Jason Godin said the constant requirement to obtain management approval before entering Smith’s cell was a key reason for her tragic death. “We are satisfied the jury recognized the experience and judgment of correctional officers,” said Godin.
In 2005, long before Ashley Smith was transferred to federal custody, UCCO-SACC-CSN was working to improve conditions for female offenders in long-term segregation. That year the union submitted a report recommending CSC create appropriate infrastructure for high-risk female inmates that would enable them to receive programming, treatment and to engage in activities. The report also called for 24-hour nursing services.
“The Coroner’s jury echoed the need for appropriate rehabilitation and health services for these inmates,” said Mr. Godin. “We will work with the Correctional Service to ensure these recommendations are implemented.”
The only problem, Mr. Godin, is that recent budget cuts by the Harper government will make it very difficult for CSC to implement many of the jury’s recommendations. Last year, despite a growing inmate population and rising rates of violence, the Harper government slashed $300 million from the CSC budget.
“It’s time for the federal government to step up and assume its responsibilities,” emphasized Jason Godin. “As the jury made clear today, simply warehousing inmates does not lead to the outcomes Canadians expect of their penitentiary system.