The Fifth Estate documentary series exposes the cracks in the Canadian prison system in Ashley Smith: Out of Control, a harrowing and provocative investigation into the unfortunate death of a young inmate.
Smith was adopted shortly after her birth. Her home was like that of any traditional loving family. Her behavioral problems began with the onset of puberty, and were marked by episodes of defiance and poor school performance. After pelting a mailman with crabapples, she was incarcerated for assaulting a public employee. What was designed to be a short sentence stretched into a number of years and multiple institutions. Her journey eventually concluded with her tragic suicide inside Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ontario.
The centerpiece of the film is never-before-seen surveillance footage that shows Smith undergoing a string of physical punishments at the hands of prison guards, including painful dousings of pepper spray, 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, a lack of adequate toiletries, and barbaric constraint.
Smith clearly suffered from some form of undiagnosed mental illness. The prison system was ill prepared to deal with her unruliness; in fact, the disciplinary abuses she suffered only exacerbated her already fragile state. Astonishingly, Smith's treatment in these prisons was touted as therapeutic. It's clear that she did not receive the level of compassionate rehabilitation that could have transformed the course of her life.
In the course of their investigation, the filmmakers speak with Smith's grief stricken parents, a fellow inmate and correctional institution officials. Together, they paint a vivid portrait of a flesh and blood young girl overwhelmed by the delirium in her mind, the apathy of her captures, and the hell of her environment.
Smith's story is not unique. Mentally ill inmates are frequently moved from prison to prison across the Canadian landscape. Their mental instability is further unhinged by inhumane treatment, which often inspires them to commit more and more drastic offenses. It's a vicious cycle that betrays the purpose of reformation.
Ashley Smith: Out of Control is a probing indictment of a badly broken system, and a highly disturbing account of one of its victims.