Former inmate describes system in which Ashley Smith died

As a coroner's jury toured the Grand Valley Institution for Women, where 19-year-old Ashley Smith choked to death in 2007 as guards watched, the CBC's Evan Solomon talked with a former inmate about what it is like inside that system.

A former inmate at Grand Valley Institution – the federal prison for women where Ashley Smith choked to death while guards watched on – believes the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates is a "systemic" problem in Canada.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News Network’s Power & Politics, "Petey" – whose identity is protected by law because she was only 16 years old when convicted of first-degree murder – described a grim environment behind bars for those suffering mental health problems.

"Unfortunately we don't hear a lot about the deaths in prison, but staff, or guards, and prisoners have come out and said they're not trained to deal with mental health issues," she told host Evan Solomon.

"And security will always trump mental health. So if someone is in crisis because of mental health issues, they'll be treated like they're a security risk – and usually that means being thrown in segregation." 

A coroner's inquest is being held into the choking death of Ashley Smith while she was an inmate at the federal Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

The coroner’s inquest into the Oct. 17, 2007, death of Ashley Smith visited the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., Thursday to get a first-hand look at the prison and cell where she strapped a piece of cloth around her neck and choked to death.

The teenager was bounced around to various institutions across the country and was subjected to prolonged segregation, restraints and repeated use of force.

After years in juvenile detention and a provincial jail, Petey was transferred to Grand Valley two weeks after Smith’s death. There, she said she was handcuffed and shackled and treated "like an animal." She was never placed in segregation, but cleaned the quarters while incarcerated. She described it as "bleak."

"I can’t even imagine the horrors of such isolation and sensory deprivation," Petey said.

Ashley Smith spent years being shuttled back and forth between the country's prisons and was in isolation much of the time. She died Oct. 19, 2007, after she tied a ligature around her neck, as prison guards stood outside her cell and watched. (Courtesy of Ashley Smith's family)

Petey, who is now finishing a university degree and hopes to attend law school, considers herself "lucky" that she didn’t act out in the way Ashley did.

"I truly believe that when she threw crabapples at a postal worker that she wasn’t intending on spending the rest of her life in the prison system in a small cell," she said.

While Petey has been released from custody, she still has three years of her sentence to serve under community supervision, where she is monitored by probation authorities and must follow certain conditions. She said most prisoners have a traumatic past and weren’t given a "fair shot" in life.

Yet instead of helping prevent violent acts of desperation by addressing the root causes, the system remains reactive.

"The money that is now being pumped in for mental health services has to be taken out of the prisons and put into the community, because these people should have that chance to rebuild their lives before they’re criminalized for making a bad decision," she said.

Petey said her criminal act was committed after years of abuse and no support.

"I had a very difficult life and then when I was 15, after years of build-up of abuse that was emotional, physical a lot of neglect and dealing with alcoholism and violence, I basically couldn’t handle it any more and when all the avenues of help that I had sought basically ran dry, I ended up causing the death of a family member and was given the maximum sentence under the Youth Criminal Justice Act for first-degree murder."