Nova Scotia

Ashley Smith's mother calls for change as details emerge of Matthew Hines's death

Coralee Cusack-Smith, the mother of Ashley Smith, says her heart is broken by the full details of Matthew Hines's death inside Dorchester Penitentiary.

Recommendations from an inquest into Smith's death should be implemented faster, says Coralee Cusack-Smith

Coralee Cusack-Smith, mother of Ashley Smith, says her heart is broken by the details of Matthew Hines's prison death. (CBC)

The mother of Ashley Smith is urging the federal government to move faster on implementing recommendations from an inquest into her daughter's 2007 prison death.

Coralee Cusack-Smith made the appeal a day after a correctional investigator's report revealed new details about the 2015 death of Matthew Hines, a Cape Breton man who was beaten and pepper sprayed by guards at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick.

Like Cusack-Smith's daughter, Hines struggled with mental illness. His family has said he never got the diagnosis or treatment he needed.

"My heart is broken for that family," Cusack-Smith said in an interview from her Dartmouth, N.S., home. 

"I know what they are going to go through."

Smith, Hines struggled to find help

Cusack-Smith's daughter was 19 when she took her own life at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., after a lifetime of struggling with mental illness.

Guards stood outside the Moncton, N.B., woman's cell and watched as she tied a cloth around her neck, a coroner's inquest jury heard. Guards had been ordered by senior staff not to intervene as long as Smith was breathing.

Both Hines and Smith struggled to get proper mental health treatment in small Maritime cities. Their families believe they wouldn't have been in the criminal justice system if they had gotten help.

"The family wonders why nothing was learned from the Ashley Smith case," said Julie Kirkpatrick, a lawyer for Hines's family.

A history of mental illness

In his report on Hines's death, released Tuesday, prison watchdog Ivan Zinger wrote that Hines showed "obvious signs of physical and mental distress before his death."

Hines, he wrote, had a history of mental illness, including psychotic episodes, but was undiagnosed and untreated.

Matthew Hines died in custody at the Dorchester Penitentiary on May 27, 2015. (CBC)

The 33-year-old had been dealing with mental illness and substance abuse from the time he was a teenager.

Just one month before his death, Hines had his parole revoked after police were called to his parents' home.

His family believe Hines was having a psychotic episode at the time. They called police because they were worried for his safety, according to Kirkpatrick.

She said Hines's family was told he would get help for his mental illness when he returned to Dorchester Penitentiary to serve the remainder of a five-year sentence for robbery.

"That obviously was not the case," said Kirkpatrick.

Hines's family believe he may have been having a mental health emergency before his death. They also believe he would have calmed down if officers hadn't moved so quickly to use force.

"What the family knows of Matthew is sometimes he just needed a little bit of time," said Kirkpatrick.

"In their opinion, it would have definitely changed everything."

'A really serious problem'

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has been tasked with implementing recommendations from an inquest into Smith's 2007 death regarding the restricted use of solitary confinement and treatment of those with mental illness.

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said progress has been slow.

Ashley Smith took her own life in custody at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007. She was 19. (Submitted by Ashley Smith's family)

"The resources and ability to be able to effectively deal with the people who are suffering from mental health issues in the prisons is really limited," Latimer told CBC News.

"And I think it's a really serious problem."

In its response to Zinger's report, the Correctional Service of Canada said it plans to develop training that places "more emphasis on non-physical intervention" when dealing with inmates who show signs of mental health distress.

Staff will also be trained to consider how an offender's state of mental health may affect their understanding of a situation during a crisis.

Cusack-Smith said moving quickly to improve conditions for inmates with mental illness starts with someone taking ownership of the issue — something she doesn't believe the current federal government has done.

"It seems like no one is willing to step up and really be held accountable," she said.

"In Ashley's case, no one was accountable. I don't know what's going to happen here."

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