Ashley Smith inquest finally underway a decade after teen’s fatal incarceration

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew

A coroner’s inquest into the death of teenager Ashley Smith, who strangled herself to death inside a women’s prison cell more than five years ago, is supposed to offer some answers, some closure, and a path forward from the shocking and shameful death.

A full decade after Smith entered the prison system as a 14-year-old troubled soul, Canada is finally asking why. Why a child diagnosed with mental illnesses was left to fend for herself for so long.

CBC News reports that Dr. John Carlisle, the presiding coroner, called the process "the best memorial we could give to Ashley."

[ Related: Ashley Smith coroner calls inquest a 'memorial' to teen ]

What is sad is that it is the truth. This is the best we can offer Ashley Smith now. It is too late for anything else, too late to show sympathy or understanding as she fought mental instability and prison guards. Too late to chart a course for the troubled girl that does not end in self-strangulation, the only recourse she could find in her tortured existence.

Smith died on Oct. 19, 2007 at the age of 19. She was in the Grand Valley Institution for Women — her ninth prison — three years after she was given brief sentence for a youthful indiscretion.

This is why Ashley Smith's time in prison began: She threw a crab apple at a postman.

Dennis the Menace did worse in his time.

The 30 days in custody to which she was sentenced was extended again and again as she spat at guards and inmates, threatened everyone including herself with harm, was strapped to gurneys and plied with sedatives.

It ended when she wrapped a ligature around her neck and died of asphyxia in her prison cell, with no intervention from the prison guards watching nearby. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Scores of question were left unanswered. And left unanswered again when a previous inquiry was abandoned amid lawyerly bickering. The hope this time around is that something can be learned to stop the tragic events from happening the next time.

As the Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno writes, it will do nothing for Smith:

The woeful saga, Ashley’s punishments, can be quantified. A cold record of violations and punitive reckonings has been neatly collated, because that’s what institutions do best —keep track of the paper and the electronic trail, their institutional auditing. But the physical and psychological hurt heaped on that poor girl — evidence that perpetrators long fought to keep under wraps — is only now emerging in its totality.

Carlisle is right that this is the best memorial we can offer Ashley, but there are few options to which it can be compared. If we deliver anything less than results this time around, it will be a far greater insult. We imprisoned her, treated her with disdain and left her to fight mental illness alone.

[ Related: Inquest hears how Canada's women's prisons work from warden ]

We watched her die in her cell, and we have been in no rush to find answers.

Two weeks from now, were she still alive, Smith would have turned 25 years old. It is beyond time we understand why she will never reach that age.