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  • Kismet Reuss

Canadian Prisons: Legalized Brutality

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Ashely Smith, born and raised in Moncton N.B., never truly knew peace. Depending on who you’d ask, from a young age, Ashely was either bold or a disturbance. She spent much of her teenage years a rebel, leading to several appearances in juvenile court before she was 15. She struggled with severe mental illnesses and, at 19, she was transferred to Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. There, Ashely built a life, often writing to centre managers, advocating on behalf of other inmates. However, her face-to-face interactions were not so civil, usually resulting in violence; both by Ashley and the Grand Valley staff. When working with her, they would abandon the encouraged de-escalation techniques, using pepper spray and physical restraint instead. After months of conflict, Ashely was placed in solitary confinement.

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow found that hallucinations, paranoia, and concentration/memory loss can begin after just 7 days in confinement (PBS 2014). The neurological impacts of long-term isolation are alarming, and often irreversible. But this did not stop the correctional officers of Grand Valley Institute from holding Ashely in isolation for 1 047 days. After all these months, Ashely got respite not from release, but by killing herself. In prison, this mentally ill, 19 year-old girl was treated inhumanely, and driven to her death in October of 2007.

For far too long, the treatment of minorities in prisons has not been explored in detail by the public or government. The most recent government-ordered report, aimed at covering the conditions inside the Canadian prison system, was released nearly 80 years ago. Yet, as malpractice and mistreatment infect many of these prisons, oversight and accountability are reduced.

In June of 2016, a report published by Ombudsman identified that the government of Canada—by increasing sentencing lengths, excessively using solitary confinement, and failing to provide prisoners with essential services—has moved away from the original, rehabilitative intention of prisons (Ling, 2019).

Within many prisons like Grand Valley Institution, mental illness makes you the target of officers and other inmates. The lack of regulation on using physical force has led to 666 reported incidents from 2015-2016 of mentally ill inmates being brutalized (Chan, 2017). Moreover, a 2013 report found that in many similar cases, officers worked together to conceal these instances (Marin, 2013). As a result, many victims across the country suffer in silence, with names and stories we will never hear.

However, assault is only one form of abuse in these facilities. Barely regulated solitary confinement units are used in almost every prison. To make matters worse, the government of Canada neither has an effective system to track how long prisoners are left in isolation, nor a plan to change that. Time and time again, people argue that solitary confinement is an inhumane practice that “should be banned in most cases” (UN News, 2011). This is cited on the extreme tension one undergoes while in isolation, almost always leading to suicidal ideation and life-long trauma.

Along with mentally-ill prisoners, racial minorities are disproportionately subject to mistreatment. A report detailing systemic racism in the criminal justice system found that prisons are oftentimes very hostile and discriminatory environments for Black inmates. And in recent years, this has shifted from outward forms of racism to more covert acts. Black inmates, constantly stereotyped and alienated, have recorded instances where their health needs and personal requests were completely ignored.

Discrimination and racism permeates our criminal justice system; from police interactions to the courts. In the name of profitable punishment, black and indigenous people (BIPOC) are convicted at disproportionate rates, only to face far more racism in prisons itself. The Canadian government’s 2016 incarceration-rate statistics show that Black people account for 10% of inmates in prison (but 3.5% of the general population) and Indigenous people account for 26% of prisoners (though only 5% of the population) (Chan, 2017).

As I read deeper into the lack of accountability and rampant discrimination present in these prisons, I wondered where one could even begin to counteract years of injustice. Howard Sapers, an Ombudsman Prison Watchdog, presented several ideas in his (2016) report. Sapers proposed:

  • The involvement of mental health organizations in self-injurious behaviour response protocol

  • A mandatory requirement for a psychological review/autopsy to be conducted (by a registered mental health clinician) into each prison suicide

  • Mandatory reporting for any use of chemical/inflammatory agents

I also consulted a report published by the Sentencing Project, a non profit organization aimed at reducing the sentencing rates for BIPOC. They outlined that

  • cultural competency and bias training, especially the involvement of police chiefs;

  • effective legal representation for defendants;

  • the implementation of race-sensitive policies and practices;

  • more diversity in the legal field; and

  • communication with third party organizations

were some effective measures for reducing BIPOC conviction rates.

The silence from the government has gone on for far too long. Ashley was just one of many victims who suffered and died at the hands of the CSC. Ashley Smith’s family, along with many others, continue to demand that these guilty officers and organizations be held accountable and for new government-implemented policies. Though just the start of an ongoing effort, it’s urgent that both the public and federal government value the lives of their incarcerated citizens, by advocating for structural change. Ashely’s tragedy was one of many, and we have an opportunity to end this cycle. To change the story of the next vulnerable inmate, we too must fight for these (overdue) actions.




(2013, December 20). Retrieved from Ashley Smith coroner's jury rules prison death a homicide CBC News.

Chan, J. (2017, July 20). Everything you were never taught about Canada's prison systems. Retrieved from

Ling, J. CBA National/ABC National. (2019, August 12). Canada's prisons are failing. Retrieved from

Sapers, H. (2016, October 31). Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2015-2016. Retrieved from

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