Ashley Smith 'could very easily have been me'

Tona Mills spent 10 years in prison before being diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Nova Scotia woman now finds it ominous that her story is almost identical to that of Ashley Smith, whose controversial death in an Ontario prison is now the subject of an inquest.

Tona Mills' story mirrors that of teen who died in Ontario prison

Tona Mills finds it ominous that her story is almost identical to that of teenager Ashley Smith, who died in an Ontario prison more than five years ago and whose controversial death is now the subject of a major inquest. (CBC)

Tona Mills shudders as she thinks how close she came to killing herself inside a federal prison, all because of her mental illness.

The Nova Scotia woman finds it ominous that her story is almost identical to that of teenager Ashley Smith, who died in an Ontario prison more than five years ago and whose controversial death is now the subject of a major inquest.

Tona Mills has a tattoo on her right arm that means 'survivor.' (CBC)

Mills, now 40, has spent more than half her life in custody. It started with break-ins and unruly conduct, but most of her time was on charges she accumulated in prison.

She spent 10 years in federal prisons, six of those in solitary confinement. She was eventually transferred from the prison system to the mental health system close to five years ago and finally diagnosed with schizophrenia.

She's now on medication and living in the community in Dartmouth under a mental health supervision order.

"I'll show you this," Mills says, rolling up her right sleeve to show a tattoo.

You can hear Maureen Brosnahan's full documentary on Tona Mills' story this weekend on The Sunday Edition.

"It's Chinese for survivor. That's what I think. I'm a survivor to make it through that because now with the Ashley Smith inquest, that could very easily have been me in that situation. My heart goes out to her family because I lived through it and she didn't."

Mills, like Smith, was adopted when she was only a few days old. Like Smith, Mills' problems began when she was about 13. She started acting out. Her mother, Helen, embarked on an odyssey of going from doctor to doctor in the Maritimes trying to get her help.

Looking for a referral

Time and again, doctors told Helen Mills there was nothing wrong with her daughter. They said she was just spoiled and a behavioural problem.

At one point, Helen Mills says, she refused to leave a doctor's office without a proper referral for help.

"I said I'm not going and he said you’re leaving or else you’re going to jail."

Tona Mills, shown as a toddler, was adopted when she was only a few days old. (Courtesy Tona Mills)

The doctor ordered her off the hospital's property.

Speaking through tears, Mills describes how she was told to give up on her daughter. She was even referred to a grief program for parents who had lost children.

"That’s what [the doctor] told me, he said she is who she is, she’s never going to get better so get on with your life."

Like Smith, Mills' problems began small; she acted out in the community, committed minor break-ins. She was in and out of youth custody but was never accurately diagnosed or treated for mental illness.

At one point, in a desperate attempt to get help, Mills tried to kill herself. Instead, she fired off bullets from her father’s hunting rifle.

'Crying out for help'

"I just wanted someone to call the police and report me because I was crying out for help and I was listening to the scanner to hear if anybody reported me and nobody did."

In the end, Mills reported herself. She pleaded guilty in court in Halifax in 1993 to discharging a firearm with intent to endanger a life. She was sentenced to four years.

A long way to go

The stories of Tona Mills and Ashley Smith show Canada's prison system still has a long way to go to properly assess and treat women who are mentally ill, says Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"Women in prison are the fastest growing population, particularly women with mental health issues," Pate says.

She blames cuts in health and social services in the community that let women such as Smith and Mills fall through the cracks.

Click here to read the full story.

Her family was told she would get help in the federal system. Instead, Mills said, she was isolated and abused. Her four-year sentence turned into 10 years as she accumulated new charges for acting out and assaulting guards.

She was sent to Kingston’s Prison for Women, which closed after a major inquiry by former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour. Mills describes being terrified.

"I was scared to death. I was 21 years old. I weighed about 90 pounds. I was only small."

Shortly after she arrived, she slit her own throat. She was placed in segregation.

"I remember I went a whole month with just a goonie gown on like a security gown, with a blanket and I laid in my cell for a whole month with that and nothing else."

Lashing out

Mills said the guards wouldn’t speak to her. She said the isolation got to her; she lashed out at them in frustration.

"They were terrified because every chance I got I would hit them, really impulsive but it was because they were being so harsh with me and the way they were treating me just made me angry."

She began harming herself, cutting, tying ligatures around her neck. She even managed to put staples in her face; some are still there.

"If I was hurting myself, I knew I was alive, right? I could feel pain and the emotional pain I was in I acted out on my body."

Her actions resulted in even more confinement.

"They had this board they would strap me to," she said.

"It was a brown board, like a stretcher, on the floor, with straps and they would strap you down, arms, legs and waist and the back of your head. And I realized that if I was on the board that someone had to sit with you, so I would hurt myself to get put on the board just so I would have someone to talk to."

Mills was shipped from one prison to another across the country, serving time in Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. She was given injections against her will.

Hearing voices

But her illness got worse. She began hearing voices, urging her to kill people. She assaulted another inmate in Springhill Institution, a men's prison that housed a few maximum security female inmates at the time.

In court on that charge in Amherst, N.S., in April 2001, a judge recognized that Mills needed help. The judge ordered that she be placed in a mental health facility rather than be returned to prison. That took another two years. After a few more minor brushes with the law, Mills ended up at the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth under police supervision.

Devil in My Head

This poem was written by Tona Mills shortly before she left federal prison.

I'm no longer a prisoner behind the wall

But I'm not really free at all

In my mind I do carry

A world that is very scary.

The devil dances in my head

Long tail and pointed, dressed in red

And taunting me, he wants me dead.

 Breath of fire, full of semen

Go away you nasty demon.

It make me angry, makes me mad

A normal mind I wish I had.

"I was relieved because I had shoelaces in my shoes and I thought if they send me back, I’m going to hang myself."

At the forensic hospital, Mills was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After four years of treatment there, she was released into the community under a mental health supervision order.

Mills has not kept in touch with any of the staff at the prisons where she was held. Officials with the Correctional Service of Canada will not speak about specific inmates for privacy reasons and once their sentences are complete, their prison records are sealed.

Today, Mills has her own apartment in Dartmouth and takes daily medication under supervision. She's had a couple of jobs, but found it tough to keep them. She remains close with her family, who continue to support her.

"It's wonderful, I live on my own and it's great. But the only thing is I had to get in trouble to get help," she said.

"I believe a lot of women in prison have mental health issues that aren't addressed and the guards just punish them and think they should learn from their punishment but when they're sick, punishment’s not the answer."