Tona Mills survived, unlike Ashley Smith (Hr. 2)


If you have a child who's heading off the rails, acting out inexplicably, getting into real trouble, you might have to wait months, even years for the help they need, and a safe place for them to receive it. Psychiatric beds for young people are few. Treatment centres have endless wait lists. But the prison door is always open. And punishment is easier to dole out than care.

Canadian jails are full of young people with serious mental health problems. The young people are difficult and complicated, to be sure. And they often get much worse inside. Sometimes, they end up dead.

Ashley Smith went from throwing crab apples at postal workers to being left in a bare segregation cell with nothing but a security gown to cover herself.

More than five years ago, she choked herself to death in a federal prison while guards stood by and watched. Her death is now the subject of a long-awaited inquest.

Like Ashley Smith, Tona Mills was adopted when she was only a few days old. Her early years were uneventful, but as she grew older, she began throwing tantrums and lashing out.

From then on, she was in and out of trouble. She was in group homes, juvenile jail, provincial jails at both ends of the country, then ten years of federal prison, six in segregation. Through it all, she was watched and assessed, over and over again. But she never got the treatment she needed. Until one astute judge intervened. Finally, after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, Tona Mills was released and admitted to a mental health hospital.


Although still under supervision, and with the help of a lot of medication, she now functions in the world. She thinks a lot about what she has been through, about the lonely, angry, attention-seeking girl she used to be. Tona Mills feels lucky to be alive.

Maureen Brosnahan's documentary is called, Where am I sitting, Mom?

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

Devil in My Head

By Tona Mills

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.

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