Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

The Case of Ashley Smith: Policy Window or Policy Failure

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Social Policy

The Case of Ashley Smith: Policy Window or Policy Failure

Article excerpt


In his report, A Preventable Death, The Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers (2008), offers a summary of the immediate events surrounding the death of Ashley Smith:

On October 19, 2007, at the age of 19, Ms. Smith was pronounced dead in a Kitchener, Ontario hospital. She had been an inmate at Grand Valley Institution for Women (GVI) where she had been locked in a segregation cell, at times with no clothing other than a smock, no shoes, no mattress, and no blanket. During the last weeks of her life she often slept on the floor of her segregation cell, from which the tiles had been removed. In the hours just prior to her death she spoke to a Primary Worker1 of her strong desire to end her life. She then wrapped a ligature tightly around her neck, cutting off her air flow. Correctional staff failed to respond immediately to this medical emergency, this failure cost Ms. Smith her life (p. 3).

On December 19, 2013, six years after the death of Ashley Smith in an Ontario women's correctional facility, a Coroner's Jury determined that the death of Ashley Smith was a homicide (Chief Coroner Province of Ontario, 2013). This article reflects on the circumstances surrounding the death of Ashley Smith and considers whether this event created a focus on the issues pertaining to the criminalization of incarcerated women, acting as a catalyst for policy change or, alternatively, simply represents a missed opportunity and a tragic symbol of a larger systemic policy failure. This article considers policy theory related to focusing events, policy windows, problem definition, and policy communities, and speculates on how a tragic event, such as this one, can be highlighted as a policy window and leveraged for social change.

The Criminalization of Women

While the intent of this paper is to advance a theoretical policy discussion regarding the opportunities for policy change presented through focusing events, any discussion of Ashley Smith, and incarcerated women in general, must be situated in women's lived experience. This is an experience that includes the criminalization of women through inattentiveness to the social and structural factors of crime, an experience compounded by the state's neoliberal agenda. Neoliberalism has facilitated a policy shift away from social support set in a strong social welfare state to an emphasis on a competitive market and the promotion of independent individuals who are responsible for their own welfare (Brodie, 2007; Larner, 2000; McCoy & Peddle, 2012). Neoliberal policy has impacted incarcerated women through a focus on the responsibilization of women at the individual level, rather than acknowledging the social issues that contribute to their involvement in the justice system (Comack, 2014). Alfred and Chlup (2009), for example, point to the impact of policies that result in poverty and illiteracy, and are a factor in the increased incarceration of black women in the United States, as an illustration of how the neoliberal state contributes to the criminalization of women.

Critical feminist scholars draw attention to the ways in which incarcerated women are constructed and managed under an umbrella of risk; once characterized as risky subjects, techniques of regulation become justified (Balfour, 2014; Hannah-Moffat, 2013). The current neo-liberal era, underpinned by neoconservative politics, emphasizes responsibility at the level of the individual without consideration of the social and structural causes of marginalization and oppression (Garland, 2001). Ignoring the structural causes of crime and situating blame on the individual is a form of neo-liberal governance that regulates women toward socially accepted norms (Rose, 2000), justifying the use of techniques that place blame at the individual level, including pharmacological intervention, therapeutic interventions, and a range of punishment-based controls such as the use of isolation (Kilty, 2014). …

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