Ashley Smith was 15 years old when she went to prison for throwing crabapples at a mailman suspected of withholding her neighbourhood’s welfare cheques. The probation violation at first netted her a 15-day sentence, but, because of disciplinary infractions, it ballooned into over four years, practically all of which she spent in solitary confinement. It wasn’t the first time she’d been subjected to such nightmarish treatment. The teen had spent much of the prior three years segregated from other kids in a “therapeutic quiet unit” in the New Brunswick Youth Centre, where she’d return until she was transferred to adult prison at the age of 18.
While in custody, she experienced countless indescribable horrors — including being strapped to a “restraint chair” for eight hours, pepper sprayed, and frequently strip searched. On Oct. 19, 2007, her 1,047th day in solitary, while on suicide watch, Smith choked herself to death as guards looked on. Even as she turned blue and purple, they were told not to enter the cell while she was “still breathing.”
A coroner's jury eventually ruled her death a homicide, although there was never any criminal or civil liability. Finally, last November, 12 years after Ashley took her last breath, the Trudeau government addressed her death with Bill C-83. Theoretically, it made solitary confinement illegal in Canada. In practice, not so much.
Not only does the cruel punishment persist (more on that later), its use inflicts exceptional harm on the over 6,000 women currently in Canada’s prisons. In addition to the emotional strain, suicidal ideation, and sleep deprivation prisoners of all genders experience when in segregation, research shows women in isolation are more vulnerable to retraumatization, staff sexual misconduct, lack of proper reproductive healthcare (including access to contraception, prenatal care, abortion services, and menstrual products), and further disruptions in their roles as mothers. While there’s a disturbing lack of data on racialized women in Canadian prisons, we do know Indigenous women are more likely than non-Indigenous women to serve time in involuntarily isolation, accounting for 50% of placements, and for longer periods of time. Already reeling from years of intergenerational trauma, their risk of retraumatization is especially high.
Even outside of solitary, Canada’s prisons are problematic from the very moment women enter the system. Many women land in jail for poverty-related crimes or addiction issues, and the violent offenders among them are often those who acted in self-defence. A stunning portion (67%) of the female prison population suffers from mental illness or the aftereffects of physical and sexual abuse. Female offenders are twice as likely as male inmates to have a mental health diagnosis at time of admission and more than two-thirds report being sexually abused at some point in their lives.
Effectively, the Canadian penal system serves as a catchall for all the women society has failed. “Prisons are being used because we don't have sufficient supports for women who've experienced violence,” says Senator Kim Pate, a longtime advocate for women’s prison reform. “But prisons are not and should never be a substitute for treatment centres or homeless shelters.” It’s a failure of our healthcare system, adds Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), which advocates for criminalized women and gender-diverse people. “The extremely toxic prison environment then exacerbates these mental health conditions, especially if you’re put in solitary confinement.”
Prisons are being used because we don't have sufficient supports for women who've experienced violence. But they are not and should never be a substitute for treatment centres or homeless shelters.
Senator Kim pate
The United Nations considers more than 15 consecutive days of solitary confinement to be torture. Conveniently, Canada’s Bill C-83 to reform segregation allows inmates to be isolated for up to 15 consecutive days (with exceptions in the fine print). It also replaces solitary confinement with “structured intervention units” (SIUs), although the cells remain the same in everything but name and the fact prisoners can only spend 20 hours a day in them instead of 23 hours. They are still smaller than your average parking space with concrete walls and heavy metal doors. It’s no wonder critics call the legislation “little more than a rebranding.” Ashley Smith’s family publicly criticized the bill, essentially calling it useless.
Just as scary: No one can tell if the new rules, however lacklustre, are actually being enforced. Incredibly, Canada has long lacked comprehensive data on exactly how many inmates are segregated each year — or for how long. An independent panel tasked with reviewing the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)’s practices and the implementation of SIUs disbanded in August, saying it was powerless to accomplish the job. In late October, after much public criticism, CSC finally provided some data, which resulted in a damning report that 16% of SIU stays are still two months or longer and, by and large, prisoners still aren’t getting out of segregation cells or meaningful human contact for the legally required amount of time. In response, the CSC claimed there were “data integrity issues.” Either way, there are no good or clear answers. “We're very, very concerned,” Coyle told Refinery29 before these numbers were released. “Particularly because we haven't been able to get eyes on what's happening in the prisons during COVID-19.”
Solitary confinement is only one of the many issues that plague women’s prisons in Canada. After researching and listening to accounts from advocates describing what life looks like on the inside, it’s hard to describe the system as anything less than a hellscape. Regular strip searches continue despite a UN resolution directing this archaic practice to be replaced by body scans. Strip searches are “state-sanctioned sexual violence,” says Coyne. “Women are touched in places and in ways that are extremely triggering.”
We’re also failing imprisoned mothers and their children. At least 70% of Canada’s federally incarcerated women are mothers to children who are five times more likely to end up in foster care than the children of male inmates. Pate would like to see Canada follow the lead of the late Nelson Mandela. One of his first acts as president of South Africa was to free all incarcerated women with children under the age of 12. He recognized that to jail mothers was to predestine future generations to marginalization and trauma, something Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, has seen firsthand. “When women are separated from their children, it leaves a mark on their children, who are one day going to be adults,” she says.
Change can’t come soon enough as the number of incarcerated women skyrockets in Canada, having increased at the federal level almost 40% in the last 10 years (compared to a 6% increase for men). Women, and in particular Indigenous and Black women, are the country’s fastest growing prison population due to overpolicing and systemic racism in the justice system. (For example, Black women typically receive harsher sentences than white women for the same crimes.) Unfortunately, the system is rigidly resistant to reform. In 2013, the Ashley Smith inquest produced 104 recommendations for the Correctional Service Canada. They took a full year to respond before rejecting some and flat-out ignoring the rest.
While it’s critical to keep pressure on politicians to make changes inside prison walls (and produce data to track those changes), Pate, Coyle, and Whitman all agree real change must come from the outside. “If we create a more equal society — and that includes things like guaranteed livable income, free post-secondary education, pharmacare, dental care, mental health and health care — the number of those who are essentially jailed because we don’t have any other supports in place will reduce drastically,” says Pate.
Crucially, women’s prison reform can’t simply be lumped in with a generic solution and it must specifically address the lived experiences of racialized and Indigenous inmates. “We need to ask the women what they want, not just do what we think is best for them. That's what got us in this problem,” says Whitman. “The colonial system thought we needed to change to accommodate their system. Well, it failed and we better start doing something different because these women deserve a quality of life.”
In the case of Ashley Smith, she deserved to live. What happened to her, and what continues to happen to Canadian women in our prisons is a national shame that requires much more than the half-hearted rebrand that is Bill C-83. The status quo is criminal.