Thursday Thinkpiece: Looking for Ashley — What Re-Reading What the Smith Case Reveals About Governance of Girls, Mothers and Families in Canada

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Looking for Ashley: What Re-Reading What the Smith Case Reveals About Governance of Girls, Mothers and Families in Canada
© 2015 Demeter Press. Reprinted with permission.

Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich, Professor, Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University (@RebeccaBromwich)

Excerpt: Chapter 1: The Project

Telling Stories

Once upon a time, many years ago, I bought a typewriter. It became one of very few things I owned. I also owned a field hockey stick because I played on my high school team. That, my clothes, my winter coat and my journals, were about all I had put on or stuffed into plastic garbage bags and carried off. I hadn’t remembered to take a toothbrush but by then I had bought one. It was winter in Calgary, –30 Celsius, cold enough to take your breath away, so cold there was no point in crying because tears would just freeze on my face. I had ridden the C-Train to Value Village, about an hour’s trip each way, and walked several blocks through blowing dry prairie snow carrying that small black ancient typewriter back to the train. It cost all of my money: $15. I bought it and then I stole food.

I had a plan. I bought a typewriter so I could tell my story. I wanted to tell a story about my interactions with health, child welfare, education, family and criminal legal systems and how angry I was about them, how disappointed I was in everyone. In a dark rented basement room, hunched over that typewriter with my field hockey stick near me for protection against any possible intruders, clothes folded on the floor as I had no hangers, at sixteen I promised to write. I clacked away, hammering out the first pages that I promised myself would be a transformative story about what it was like to be limited, restrained and oppressed as an adolescent girl in Canada. It was slow going. The “a” stuck. Every time I typed an “a” I had to pull the key back up.

There are a lot of years between the writing of this book and that promise. I have tried to fulfill it in a number of ways. I became a lawyer to large extent to remedy what I experienced and perceived as injustice. I did criminal defense work and represented young mothers in child protection and domestic violence proceedings. Now, I do law reform work, attempting to make changes to the formal discourses of legislative and regulatory provisions. When I did my LL.M., I was actively involved (in a very junior capacity) in advocacy accepted in the crafting of Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) in 2001. I have a lot for which to be very grateful. I have a lot to be happy about. Many of the legislative changes I sought to include in the YCJA have been made. Now, ironically, I am, to a very large extent, someone else: not an adolescent girl but the lawyer mother of three girls (and a boy) soon to enter adolescence. I can’t really write the story I wanted to tell. I have the pages I wrote, somewhere. I don’t know what became of that typewriter. We all use computers now.

I am worried in light of recent cases and in particular the case of an adolescent girl who died in prison named Ashley Smith, that the law reform work in which I have been engaged is not getting to the heart of the problems I experienced. Feminist theorists have contended that hegemonic discourses in late modern liberal discourse define and socialize adolescent young women as something less than we are: they move us from an experience of ourselves as agents to a relegation in a particular space defined by our relationships with men. I wonder how contemporary discursive figurations of the girl, how we talk about adolescent young women, continue to affect the agencies of variously situated adolescent young women in their experiences with criminal and quasi-criminal legality. Restlessly, I wonder how the conditions of possibility for young people in Canada could be transformed; I feel a sense of growing urgency as time passes; how might changes be effected before my own children enter adolescence?

Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so literal in remembering my plan. Maybe the central question for me to consider is my longing, the longing that led me with my last few dollars to go to Value Village on the C-Train and walk those long cold blocks carrying the black typewriter back, enjoying seeing in my breath like smoke over it — a confirmation of my existence — my hands burning from the cold despite the gloves over them. More than anything else maybe what I felt was a desire to speak, to talk back, to have a role in authoring my own story, not just on paper but to actively, agentically, find and make meanings in, be actively involved in constructing and narrating my own life.

Defining the Project

We now ask you to speak for Ashley.

—Dr. John Carlisle, Coroner for Ontario,
Charge to the Jury in the Inquest of Ashley Smith,
December 2, 2013

Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, wrote that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” (Angelou) Probably because, many years ago, when an adolescent girl, I was in a great deal of trouble with various systems, I was not surprised to learn that it was as a result of minor disciplinary infractions that she was found to have committed while in prison that Ashley Smith accumulated hundreds of criminal charges. However, what struck me about Ashley Smith’s case is one fact in particular: shortly before her 2007 death at age 19 in solitary confinement in Grand Valley Prison, guards took away her access to paper and a pen. [1] Because she was divested of her ability to otherwise tell her story, I wondered whether it could be that Ashley Smith subsequently used self-harm, at least sometimes and partially, meaningfully, either communicatively, or as political resistance, or both. I wonder what Ashley Smith’s own story about her case might have been had she been accorded an opportunity to tell it, and what she might have contributed to authoring in dialogue with other systems, agents and forces in constructing her life had she been able to live it.

The very first of the recommendations of jury in the verdict in the Inquest into the death of Ashley Smith is that her death should be reviewed by Corrections Canada management and staff and used as a “case study.” [2] However, not a lot of energy has been expended on asking, not assuming, of what “type” Ashley Smith is a “case.” Further, it doesn’t seem that the question of what Ashley might have wanted, let alone wanted to say was particularly bothersome, or even thinkable, for experts engaged in writing, arguing, commenting or otherwise speaking of Ashley Smith as her inquest progressed. Also given very little consideration are ways in which being a particular type of “girl” might have been relevant to how she was governed, disciplined and punished. In a variety of interlinked social sites, figurations of Ashley Smith have become symbols and representations used to suit various agendas. Almost without exception, she is pathologized while various forms of expertise retrench their power and individuals working in the justice and correctional systems are condemned.

There is very little attention paid in explanations of Ashley’s case to constructions of the girl and to gender. This study looks critically at why and how is there is such a dearth of interest in to what extent and in what ways it mattered that Ashley Smith was a specifically embodied as a particular female adolescent in corrections custody. Also missing from arguments in, policy analyses of, as well as media narratives about her case is an accounting for Ashley Smith’s agency. This study looks at how, and posits analyses as to why, she is not being portrayed as a meaning-maker. This critical discourse analysis looks at why and how it is that very few texts say much, if anything, about what meanings Ashley Smith was agentically engaged in making through her actions.

This book studies figurations of Ashley Smith as girl as technologies of power that emerge in three discursive sites: formal legal documents, docudramas and print media texts. In this book, I conduct a critical discourse analysis that unpacks what stories were told about Ashley, what stories are still being told about her and how these stories engage discourses of the girl. I look critically at how Ashley Smith’s case is constructed, what Ashley Smith is a “case” of, and at what alternative imaginings of Ashley Smith’s case are possible. I cannot reasonably or realistically offer a book that tells “the” “true” story of Ashley Smith. Were I to try to tell Ashley’s story, I would just create another representation of her that would be problematic in many of the ways existing representations are problematic. Ashley Smith’s internal self will be forever unknown and unknowable. Rather, what I can know and examine and what readers can understand better through this project is a reading, a history, a genealogy of her representation within her case. I look at when and how certain representations of Ashley Smith are constructed and certain figurations emerge while others, which are supportable and plausible, do not. Each figure of Ashley Smith analyzed in this book enacts power in discourse and is deployed in the construction of the Smith case as a case of a particular sort of social problem. Multiple stories are told about Ashley Smith. I seek to critically examine these tellings.

Commonly Accepted Facts of the Smith Case

In this book, I work from an understanding of the Smith case as a unit of inquiry in the social sciences that constitutes an enactment of governmental power. I am relying on the definition of “caseness” advanced by Lauren Berlant. (2007) “Caseness” is a state in which the singular is both individual and marked as an exemplar: “the case can incite an opening, an altered way of feeling things out, of falling out of line.” (Berlant, 666) The Ashley Smith case is a site where discourses and forms of expertise intersect, collide and otherwise meet. In this case, power is negotiated at a variety of levels: between agents in spaces designated as correctional facilities, between discourses, and, at the macro level, between interlocking systems of power. In the discursive formations generated by the texts that comprise the Smith case, a variety of representations of Ashley Smith overlap, oppose one another, smash together, and compete for dominance. Imaginings of Ashley Smith can be analyzed as producing certain figures of Ashley Smith. These figures construct the “caseness” of Ashley Smith: they set her out as an example of a particular type and, in so doing, they define social problems, call for particular treatment, militate for particular remedies and thereby do governmental work.

Below, without claiming these “facts” to be “true,” I summarize a standard narrative of what have come to be the commonly accepted and widely understood facts of the Smith case. In the rest of this book, I look closely at the assumptions and truth claims in this widely accepted narrative, paying close attention to the assumptions on which the claims are based and to the sources to which the truth claims are attributed. [3]

Ashley Smith was a middle class, Canadian white girl who died from self-strangulation in prison on October 19, 2007 at age 19. She died while several prison guards watched and videotaped her last moments, not intervening for 45 minutes as she lay dying then dead. Ashley Smith was born January 29, 1988, in New Brunswick. She was adopted when she was five days old. It is widely accepted that she had a normal childhood in Moncton, New Brunswick.

However, immediately upon passing into adolescence, Ashley started to get into trouble with various authorities and questions began to be raised about her mental health. She was tall and over-weight. At age 13 or 14, her parents report that they saw distinct behavioural changes in her. By age 15, she had been before juvenile court 14 times for various minor offences such as trespassing and causing a disturbance. In March 2002, Smith was assessed by a psychologist who found no evidence of mental illness. However, her behavioural problems continued and she was suspended from school numerous times in the fall of 2002. In March 2003, after a series of court appearances, Ashley was admitted to a mental health centre for assessment. She was diagnosed with various mental conditions, including “ADHD, learning disorder, borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality traits.” Ashley was discharged early from the Centre for unruly and disruptive behaviour.

Ashley Smith was first incarcerated as a “youth” at age fifteen in 2003. Smith was initially sent to “custody” for a single offence: throwing apples at a postal carrier. There is no indication that anyone was injured by the apples, but the target was an agent of the state, so the apple throwing incident was taken very seriously. Ashley had been in trouble for minor things before, like disobeying teachers and stealing a CD. Her initial sentence for throwing the apples was to a period of one month in custody. However, she ended up in solitary confinement for what corrections officers determined to be disruptive behaviour on her part on her first day in custody. While the original sentence was a short one, as a result of the accumulation of hundreds of further convictions against her arising from disciplinary incidents that took place while she was in youth prison, she remained in custody.

In January 2006, Ashley Smith turned 18. On the same day, a motion was made under the YCJA by the Crown to transfer her to an adult facility. Ashley retained a lawyer to fight the transfer, but was unsuccessful. On October 5, Ashley was transferred to adult prison. Ashley spent most of her time there in segregation. While there, she was also subjected to repeat cavity and strip searches, tasered and pepper-sprayed. After being transferred to adult custody, Ashley was transferred a total of 17 times between eight institutions over a period of eleven months. She was under the care of a series of psychiatrists, several of whom prescribed psychtropic drugs for her. She was sometimes given these drugs by force. Smith was also periodically given an opportunity to speak with a series of psychologists, but only through the food slot in her cell. It is widely understood that Ashley Smith had very serious issues with mental illness that were never properly assessed and went untreated.

Although she was initially sentenced to one month in prison, Ashley was involved in more than 800 reported “incidents” while in custody. She was also charged for new offences as a result of situations that arose while she was in “open custody” foster homes. Corrections officers also documented at least 150 attempts by Ashley to physically harm herself, some of which were treated as disciplinary infractions. She was never released. She was held in prison on a series of accumulating charges for four years. For long periods of her time in solitary confinement, Smith was not given soap, deodorant, adequate sanitary supplies, clean underwear and was prohibited from having writing material or paper.

While in adult prison, she died by self-induced strangulation while being videotaped by guards who stood outside her cell and watched.

In 2011, Ashley Smith’s family filed a “wrongful death” lawsuit against Corrections Canada for $11 million. The suit was settled confidentially in May of 2011 for an undisclosed amount. The warden of the prison where she died was fired.

Ashley Smith’s death has been the subject of two inquests, or investigations, by the coroner in Ontario. The first was complex and involved many legal challenges as well as a change of coroner before it finally ended as a mistrial in September 2011. A new inquest into Ashley Smith’s death began in September 2012 and concluded in December 2013 with a surprise verdict of homicide.

In response to this homicide verdict, government actors and social reformers have been looking at how the mentally ill, and in particular mentally ill women, can be better addressed by the prison system and at how to limit use of solitary confinement in prisons. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) released a report in December of 2014 that essentially claimed it had already addressed the concerns raised by the recommendations of the Smith inquest. In this report, CSC rejected the recommendation that they place limits on the use of solitary confinement and rejected the further inquest recommendation that their management be independently overseen. The Ashley Smith case remains unresolved in that a homicide verdict has been entered but no one and nothing in particular have been officially blamed or held accountable for her death.


This book explores governmental work done by figures of Ashley Smith as a “case” of three types: an inmate, a child and a patient. It analyzes how configurations of power relations are maintained, retrenched or challenged by these figures. It critically evaluates what is gained, and what is lost, in discursive processes through which Ashley Smith is turned into an exemplar of different social problems. In Chapter 2, I review literatures in existing academic works with which this research is in conversation. I explicate the theoretical foundations of the project, the methodology employed in the research and the specific methods and research design used. Then, I move on to my analysis. In Chapter 3, I look at discursive figures of Ashley Smith that foreground her status as a carceral subject or “inmate.” In Chapter 4, I look at figures of Ashley Smith that give pre-eminence to her status as a “child.” The last analytical chapter concerns what have come to be the commonly accepted discursive figures of Ashley Smith: these representations foreground her mental health as the most significant aspect of her beingness and treat her as a “patient.” In the final chapter, I then present my conclusions. I summarize the research and my analysis and make the following set of claims.

In this book, I demonstrate how dominant constructions of Ashley Smith — as inmate, child and mentally ill person (“patient”) — allow for certain understandings of her case while they make opaque, unimaginable and unthinkable others. My central claims are:

•The death of Ashley Smith can be understood as a predictable outcome of intersecting logics of risk and security in necropolitical [4] affect adolescent young women in particular, and more broadly endanger us all;

•In none of the dominant constructions of Ashley in the Smith case is her agency adequately made legible: in none of these constructions does her voice get heard nor does her expressive, creative or political agency get taken seriously.

•The illegibility of Ashley Smith’s agencies in the Smith case functions as a technology of governance that serves to maintain the invisibility of, and even further obscure, the agencies and voices of adolescent young women from the formal discourses of law while supporting racist, classist, unequal valuations of which mothers are “good” and count;

•Reform activism has been implicated in the necropolitical processes that successfully effected Ashley Smith’s social, juridical and biological deaths; and

•Discursive processes that transform Ashley Smith into a mental patient once she becomes recuperatively represented as a “good” girl raise serious questions about the statistical discrepancy between the putative criminal offending rates of adolescent girls and boys.

Dominant narratives of Smith, which all deny her agency, are operating on other young women, and even on older women, particularly mothers. Widely held assumptions about Ashley Smith’s family in general and mother in particular, are working to bolster governmental processes that continue to classist, settle colonial normativities. Ashley Smith’s unthinkability as a subject within the category girl sets the stage for her necropolitical exclusion. The social, juridical and biological deaths of Ashley Smith begin with girlhood, and more specifically with discourses of the girl that make an agentic, disobedient, willful girl an unthinkable subject but can imagine a girl martyr. Once her agency is finally extinguished, it is as a passive, deceased subject that Ashley Smith becomes thinkable within the category of girl. And, once she is thinkable as a girl, her socially dead status is repudiated, but at the cost of her existence as a meaning-making, world-creating agent. Activists have participated in configuring Ashley Smith in ways that fit her into accepted discourses of who can be a noble victim. These configurations reinforce narrow, profoundly racist and classist, confines to categories, confirming the monstrosity of those who cannot easily fit within available categories of girlhood, and sustaining the illegibility of adolescent girls’ agencies. I posit that the pathologizing of adolescent girls’ resistances as mental illness may follow almost inevitably from widely accepted cultural constructions of the feminine and of mental illness. This suggests that behavioural differences relating to resistance and criminality between adolescents may well be significantly less predictable or regular along binary gender lines than has been assumed. I contend that statistical differences between boys’ and girls’ criminal offending rates may reflect not that they are different but that they are governed differently. In other words, it matters very much that Ashley Smith is a girl.


[1] This is reported in various sources, including testimony at her inquest by Kim Pate, who, on behalf of the Elizabeth Fry Society, had to take a dictation of Ashley Smith’s grievance about her treatment. On September 24, 2007, Ashley was permitted nothing in her cell except her gown: see e.g. “Ashley Smith Looked Hopeless and Dejected, Inquest Hears” Toronto Star (October 15, 2013). This disciplinary confiscation of Ashley’s writing implements is nowhere denied and is also documented in the 2008 Report of the New Brunswick Ombudsman.

[2] Smith (Re), 2013 Canlii 92762 (ON OCCO) Inquest Touching the Death of Ashley Smith, December 2013, Recommendation #1.

[3] See generally, Vincent and Zlomistic “Excerpt: The Life and Death of Ashley Smith” The Toronto Star (15 December 2013); CBC Timeline: The Life and Death of Ashley Smith” CBC: The Fifth Estate Unusually, Wikipedia provides precisely what I mean to summarize in this section, that being the widely accepted (but not necessarily plausible, supportable, evidence-based or verifiable) story of Ashley Smith:

[4] As will be discussed later in this book, I am referring to the concept of “necropolitics” as developed by Mbembe and Agamben, as a relationship between sovereign power and control over life and death. See Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen: Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Print.

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