New Brunswick

Ashley Smith's mother says little has changed since daughter died in prison

The mother of Ashley Smith is speaking out about the treatment of inmates, after a CBC News investigation found more than 919 suicide attempts and life-threatening self-harm incidents inside New Brunswick's six provincial jails since 2003.

Coralee Cusack-Smith says jail and prison guards are unprepared to help inmates suffering with mental illness

Coralee Cusack-Smith says little has changed since her daughter, Ashley Smith, took her own life while she was a prisoner in Ontario. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

The mother of Ashley Smith is speaking out about the treatment of inmates, after a CBC News investigation found more than 919 suicide attempts and life-threatening self-harm incidents inside New Brunswick's six provincial jails since 2003.

Coralee Cusack-Smith said this week not much has changed since her 19-year-old daughter choked herself to death with a strip of cloth in an Ontario prison in 2007.

She is calling for more mental health supports inside New Brunswick jails and an end to segregation.

"You might be relatively normal when you go into these situations but how were you supposed to cope with that lifestyle? Our government is not doing enough," Cusack-Smith said.

"Ashley was a child. You know just because you turn 18 doesn't make you an adult."

Ashley Smith took her own life inside a federal prison in 2007. (Submitted by Ashley Smith's family)
Ashley Smith was a teenager when she was sent to a youth detention centre in New Brunswick after throwing crab apples at a mailman. Her one-month sentence stretched into nearly four years in 11 institutions in five provinces.

Cusack-Smith remembers her daughter as a loving and generous girl who just wanted to get back home to her bedroom.

"She was very attached to home and that was her biggest wish when she was away, just to come home to her room and get in the bathtub."

The CBC's Julianne Hazlewood talked to Coralee Cusack-Smith, mother of Ashley Smith. 8:10
Ashley Smith spent her last 11-and-a-half months in federal prison, most of it in segregation. Her mother said during that time she attempted suicide 102 times before she succeeded.

"Absolute torture ... she was my child. She was not a grown-up. Like, she'd never had sleepovers with her friends and never had gone to the movies by herself — she was just a young girl when she left home," Cusack-Smith said.

'We don't have support for our people'

Cusack-Smith isn't surprised by the number of suicide attempts in New Brunswick jails.

An Ontario coroner's jury ruled in 2013 that the self-inflicted choking death of Ashley Smith in her segregated prison cell was a homicide. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)
She watched her daughter's mental health deteriorate during her time behind bars and believes more has to be done to help inmates in provincial jails who are struggling.

"I think they have to look at mental health first. And I think they have to have professionals," she said.

Do I think that the N.B. government has done enough? Certainly not.- Coralee Cusack-Smith

"Not just guards who only have to have 12 weeks training. They are not prepared. They are not. I think we have to look at the mental health issues and quit putting our people in prisons."

Cusack-Smith doesn't believe anything has changed since her daughter died.

"Kids are still going to the youth centre. There are not enough facilities. Do I think that the N.B. government has done enough? Certainly not, but we have to have our laws changed, have our system fixed. It's broken."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story said more than 919 inmates have attempted suicide or inflicted life-threatening self-harm inside New Brunswick's jails since 2003. It is 919 incidents of self-harm or suicide attempts, not individual inmates.
    Oct 25, 2016 3:42 PM AT

with files from Julianne Hazlewood