Nobody that attends one of my ligature courses has ever heard of Ashley Smith. After watching the video and hearing the story they can’t believe what happened to her. Especially in a progressive western democracy like Canada. I have even had learner’s who have got so upset that they have had to leave the room. So, what is it about the Ashley Smith story that is so disturbing?
Ashley was first imprisoned at 15 for throwing apples at a postal worker and her initial sentence was one month in prison. Prior to this Ashley had never been custody; previous incidents had only been very minor, not warranting prison time. From the outset she was put into solitary confinement because of her behaviour although the facility called the confinement ‘therapeutic quiet time’. Over time her sentence was added to for ‘in jail’ incidents and her sentence had soon racked up to 3 years. Many of the incidents she had her sentence increased for involved self-harming including the use of ligatures.
Do you think this story is going to have a happy ending? Can you see where things are headed?
On her 18th birthday the authorities made an application to have Ashley transferred to an adult facility. Although her lawyer to legal action to block this move it was unsuccessful and Ashley was sent to a women’s prison where she spent most of her time in what the prison termed ‘administrative segregation’ used for monitoring prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm. About the only thing that set this apart from ‘disciplinary segregation’ was apparently the name! She was isolated for 23 hours day with 1 hour a day for individual exercise in an enclosed yard.
In order to maintain Ashley’s segregation beyond legal limits she spent nearly a year being transferred between different instructions and was subjected to repeated cavity and strip searches as well as being tasered and pepper-sprayed on several occasions. She was prescribed several different psychotropic medications which on occasions were forcibly injected. There were reports that Ashley suffered from serious mental health issues that were never diagnosed or treated.
It was documented that on 150 different occasions Ashley had self-harmed and/or tied ligatures around her neck, many of these incidents were treated as disciplinary issues. Ashley was never released from segregation and was regularly denied access to washing and sanitary products, clean underwear or pen and paper. In order to avoid a confrontation guards were instructed not to enter her cell to remove ligatures and were instructed to only enter once Ashley had passed out. This was called the ‘wait and see’ approach.
This resulted in Ashley Smith dying in her cell whilst prison staff observed and videotaped her through a window in her door. Intervention and CPR were delayed for 45 minutes. By the time they entered to do something it was too late. This video is in the public domain on YouTube and is difficult to watch. The link to the video is below:
There were several enquiries into this incident which ended in the Canadian government ordering Corrections Canada to co-operate with the investigation, a successful lawsuit and the sacking of the prison warden. An inquest eventually recorded a verdict of homicide.
What has this got to do with ligature emergencies in your organisation?
When writing policies and procedures for dealing with ligature incidents it is important to consider the consequences of what you are asking staff to do. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to predict the outcome of the ‘wait and see’ approach employed by the prison and her general treatment which only seemed to exacerbate the very problems they were trying to solve. It is much more beneficial to try and use ‘foresight’ to predict possible outcomes of implementing certain policies and procedures. The big question remains is that if the prison authorities had done things differently when dealing with Ashley Smith, would she still be alive today?
Mark Wigley is the Director of Meducate Training Ltd and owner of www.markwigley.online and www.mwonlinetraining.uk . He has successfully trained hundreds of people in how to effectively deal with ligature emergencies.