Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Real significance of prison videos is not the brutality

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Finally. After two years of legal battle, surveillance videos documenting the prison ordeals of teenager Ashley Smith have been publicly screened. And it's brutally clear why lawyers for Correctional Service Canada and others involved in the doomed 19-year-old's treatment wanted them kept under wraps. They make for painful viewing.

One video shows Smith being hooded and duct-taped to the armrests of her airline seat during an April 2007 transfer from a Saskatoon prison. She says the restraints hurt but doesn't appear to be fighting back against her guards. "How can it get worse?" she asks. "I'll duct-tape your face," comes the reply.

Other footage from a prison in Joliette, Quebec, shows Smith surrounded by guards in riot gear, including gas masks, while she's strapped to a gurney and injected with tranquilizers.

Three months later, on Oct. 19, 2007, she was dead after choking herself with a strip of cloth while guards watched and did nothing at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener.

A Toronto inquest is looking into her fate and presiding coroner Dr. John Carlisle decided Wednesday that the long-suppressed videos are relevant to his inquiry. It was the responsible, right call in this tragic case.

Julian Falconer, the Smith family's lawyer, eloquently summarized the relevance of what happened in Joliette and elsewhere to the troubled girl's ultimate death. "If you mistreat someone often enough, surely that will affect how they behave," he said.

What the videos appear to show, along with other evidence in this case, is a prison system obsessed with the guards' own security and with disciplining offenders at the expense of providing proper care for those in custody.

Smith's deplorable treatment at the hands of Canada's justice system began when she was 15 and was punished for the minor offence of throwing crab apples at a postal worker. That triggered a four-year downward spiral of ever-worsening institutionalization.

In the 11 months before she died, Smith was transferred 17 times between institutions in four provinces, forcibly restrained, injected with drugs against her will and left in isolation for up to 23 hours a day. Obviously, just looking into her final hours at the Grand Valley Institution wouldn't get to the whole truth about what befell her.

Had Carlisle limited the scope of his inquiry and rejected disclosure of these videos, it would have been virtually impossible to determine what happened. Now the focus has been put on the right place -- on the systemic failure of Canada's justice system to properly treat inmates like Smith who are mentally ill.

That's the real significance of the videos. By taking a broader approach, beyond Ontario, it's possible for this inquest to arrive at meaningful recommendations designed to prevent more such tragedies. That way, at least Smith won't have died for nothing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2012 A15

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