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Looking for Ashley

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The case of Ashley Smith, the 19 year old who died in federal custody in 2007, has been the subject of vast amounts of media attention and scrutiny into Canada's criminal, correctional and mental health systems. Now, almost ten years later, the case continues to be relevant, as calls are being made for the end of solitary confinement, as recommended in one of the inquests into her death.

In her book "Looking for Ashley," lawyer and professor Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich takes a critical look at the case and the different ways that the narrative Ashley Smith has been constructed. Bromwich breaks the book down into three parts, that of Inmate Smith, Child Ashley and Patient Smith. She argues that these configurations are often incompatible with one another, and that the competing narratives fail to tell the whole story.

Within the correctional system, Bromwich argues that 'Inmate Smith' was seen a difficult prisoner who resisted orders and accumulated an enormous number of incident reports and new charges. Of course, many of her actions would not be seen as criminal outside of a prison (refusing to leave her cell, failing to return a hairbrush), but she frustrated attempts by Corrections Services Canada (CSC) to manage her effectively. As a result she was transferred over and over again and spent an overwhelming amount of time in solitary confinement Bromwich argues that this configuration of Smith allows her to be seen an actor who is simply failing to make the right choices while exhausting the resources of CSC.

The next narrative of Ashley Smith emerged through the inquest into her death and various media coverage into her past. Instead of simply being a disobedient inmate, 'Child Ashley' is viewed as a white, middle-class child who lived a normal childhood. The lead up to her eventual incarceration, as well as her behaviour in custody, is framed instead as 'game-playing' in a way that is not meaningfully resisting the mechanisms of Corrections. This narrative also presents Ashley as a good girl who was simply troubled, in stark opposition to Corrections' description of her as "the most difficult inmate in the system." In being seen simply as someone's daughter, Ashley's value is then only relational, as opposed to her being a rational actor in an of herself.

Bromwich identifies 'Patient Smith' as the primary view of Ashley Smith from 2010 onwards, as focus shifted away from CSC and to the complex needs of female offenders with mental health issues. She notes that the media does not separate out the correctional and mental health fields, even though they are often messily enmeshed in one another. Smith's experience is also complicated by the fact that she had no stable diagnoses going into custody, and actively resisted being diagnosed or treated. And while she spent some time in psychiatric facilities, she was transferred back into custody after a short time. Bromwich argues that the dominant narrative turns from inmate and child to simply a mislocated mental patient, who is sympathetic but is not accorded any agency over her own actions.

The book is a challenging read, not only for the subject matter, but also because its academic nature. Still, it manages to pull together a vast array of sources, from official documents and reports to news articles and docudramas, giving a deeper understanding of the case than one would simply glean from the media coverage.

As a practitioner who primarily deals with the criminal courts as opposed to the later stages of corrections, it did make me reflect on what narratives lawyers construct for our clients. From the early stages of a pre-trial negotiations, or even in a relatively brief plea, we sketch out for the courts who our client is, be it good kid who made a stupid mistake, or a person who is driven by their addiction. While these narratives help judges and Crowns to understand the background and situation of the individual, Bromwich's book provided me with a reminder to be mindful of the assumptions that I'm making in constructing a picture of a client for the courts, as well as to consider their agency or ability or make decisions. In the end, Bromwich hopes to leave readers reflecting on the different systems in which Ashley Smith was enmeshed and the potential of the small moments of agency that were within it.

Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich will be signing copies of the book at Chapters in Gloucester this upcoming weekend, on June 26 from 1:00-3:30. Details here.

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