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Getting the truth, finally, on Ashley Smith

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How much more do Canadians need to know about the death of Ashley Smith, who choked the life out of herself as prison guards in Kitchener, Ont., watched but did nothing?

For interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, the answer is a great deal more. In fact, he feels so strongly about the issue he's demanding the federal government hold a wide-ranging, national public inquiry to get to the bottom of her tragedy.

Anyone familiar with the details of Smith's death at the Grand Valley Institution for Women and how she suffered for years in provincial and federal correctional systems will share Rae's thirst for justice and positive change.

But anyone who knows how much time and energy have already been committed to uncovering the wrongs done to this unfortunate teenager will conclude Rae's call for a public inquiry is premature -- and quite possibly unnecessary.

Ever since Smith died on Oct. 19, 2007, various governments and public agencies have been in reaction mode. Waterloo regional police quickly investigated to determine whether laws had been broken. While they charged four former Grand Valley prison guards with criminal negligence, those charges were eventually dropped. Yet the quest for truth continued.

Within days of Smith's death, Bernard Richard, the ombudsman and child youth advocate for New Brunswick, launched an investigation that focused on her incarceration in two of the province's correctional facilities over three years. Eight experts joined him on the investigative team which in 2008 published the Ashley Smith Report. That document concluded with 25 recommendations for changing how New Brunswick handles young people who become involved in the youth justice system.

One of Richard's starting points was his understanding Smith had been haunted by mental illness and severe behavioural disorders. It's no wonder, then, that he pleaded for improving how the correctional system handles people who have mental-health problems.

Similar work at the same time was being done by Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator. In June 2008, he published his report on Smith, titled A Preventable Death. It exposed the inadequate mental-health resources that existed in federal prisons and strongly advocated drastic change.

Sapers followed this up just last month with an annual report that renewed his call for the prison system to do a better job of helping inmates who have mental-health problems. He said an alarming increase in the incidence of self-injury among female and male prisoners should be treated through mental-health services -- not as an issue of security. Furthermore, he again urged a ban on the placement of mentally ill inmates and those at risk of self-harm or suicide in segregation. That echoed one of Richard's main recommendations from four years ago.

And there's even more to come. Early next year, an Ontario coroner's inquest will begin hearings into Smith's death. Already, the scope of this inquest has been expanded beyond what such a probe would normally consider.

It will take many months and millions of dollars for this coroner's inquest to complete its task. When it is through, its findings, conclusions and recommendations should be reviewed along with the findings, conclusions and recommendations of all these other reports. If there are still gaps in the public's understanding of Smith's death and the conditions in Canadian prisons, it will be time for the kind of public inquiry Rae wants.

In all probability, we won't need another government inquiry to tell us what to do. We will simply need to act as the coroner -- and all the other investigators to date -- have advised.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 A17

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