Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Out of Control: A Disturbing Documentary

Last night I watched Out of Control with Hana Gartner on The Fifth Estate at cbc.ca. It was deeply disturbing and thought provoking in such a way that I am still trying to organize and articulate my views on the problems brought to light in the story. By the look of the comment section, a lot of other viewers have also found themselves powerfully affected by the program.

A number of thoughts, questions and impressions entered my mind while watching the documentary. These mostly pertained to the importance of following protocol and the need to change and modify some of the protocols that are currently in place, the necessity of following through with consequences, the shifting of responsibility and blame, the lack of accountability, the ineffectiveness of certain aspects of the penal and social support systems, and the circumstances in which members of the most vulnerable and misunderstood segments of the population often find themselves. I try to look at all aspects of an issue, and I can honestly say that I still haven't figured out where I stand on some of these points, and suggestions for valid solutions continue to elude me.

I can understand that Canada's corrections workers are obligated to follow the procedures that have been put into place for them and that there must be consistency (and that many of them are tired and overworked due to shortages in certain areas and the crap they have to deal with day in and day out). I also understand the frustration that comes from knowing that some methods one is expected to use are clearly ineffectual and tend to place a huge demand on available resources, yet being caught up in a cycle and powerless to change what has been dictated down the chain of command from the top. Likewise, I can identify with the need to protect yourself and your livelihood by complying with the rules and regulations in the face of threatened disciplinary action.

What I find difficult to grasp is how the public image concerns of institutions and the need for individuals to safeguard their jobs somehow managed to surpass the importance of saving a life in this instance. I don't understand how someone could order others not to help a person who is clearly sick and how this particular situation escalated to that point. When the corrections officers were told not to enter Ashley Smith's cell unless she had stopped breathing, what meaning were they to infer from that? Does "not breathing" mean "passed out" or "dead"? And once that last act of self-strangulation had been put into play, did it really take that long to figure out that she wasn't breathing? Out of an audience of seven attending her death, I would assume at least one had adequate powers of observation to note the absence of breathing before it was too late. Or was it a case of mob mentality/ brotherly solidarity/peer pressure or whatever you would like to call it, with no one wanting to be the first to suggest or attempt going into Ashley's cell for fear of being attacked by the inmate once more or disciplined by the powers that be for disregarding orders?

From the outside looking in, it was clear from a very early point as this tale unfolded that the routines Ashley Smith and her guards fell into did nothing to discourage her behaviours or otherwise improve things. In addition, transferring her from one place to another did nothing to address her the problematic circumstances of her incarceration. If anything, it only served to exacerbate her behaviours and their consequences by teaching her that no one was equipped to deal with her and leaving her new captors to keep using the old methods to no avail.

I guess one can never truly comprehend a given situation unless they are forced to navigate it, but Hana Gartner and The Fifth Estate have certainly reminded us that Canada has some definite issues that need to be worked out...and that will take people much smarter than me to figure out. I only hope that the people who needed to get that wake up call - and anyone who is in a position to create change, really - have received the message loud and clear and plan to act to prevent history from being repeated.

Have any of you seen it? Any thoughts?


  1. I totally concur with your take on this documentary. My wife and I watched this on CBC the other night and were both horrified, shocked, sickened, saddened... well pretty much the whole spectrum of emotions by the lack of action on the part of Corrections Canada to diffuse and deal with this situation long before it came to its unfortunate end. The couple of points that really stick in my mind more than anything were: 1.Ashley had been sent to the Juvenile Detention for one month for throwing crab apples at a postal worker... this somehow turned into her being held in the Federal adult system (in solitary for all of her time too I might add) for almost 4 years before her eventual death, without any treatment which might possibly help the poor girl become a functioning member of society... and 2. Guards when encountering her last moments entered her cell at a couple of different times while she was unconcious and possibly not breathing without even going near her to check on her status. I understand and sympathize with the fact there were orders given and they had been dealing with these "ruses" on a very frequent basis, but one would think the instinct to save and preserve human life would outweigh any order especially when the order was in regards to "entering" the cell, once inside the order is disobeyed anyways so why not check on her status to ensure she was going to be ok, there were enough of them present to deal with any attack she could mount against them, but Ashley lay there for 20 minutes from my recollection before they got close enough to her to realize her poor condition. 3. The biggest fault I could see in this whole fiasco was the passing the buck attitude of Corrections Canada, instead of dealing with the condition of Ashley and fixing the cause, they merely swept her under a rug and moved her around constantly to avoid the mandated evaluations and totally ignored their purpose of rehabilitation in the penal system, God help anyone who acts out and is emotionally unstable since it appears if they cannot handle you physically you will be demoralized and punished without ever seeing the light of day. I as well believe this serves as a wake up call to the whole system and I commend the families courage to put themselves in the spotlight after such a tragedy.

    Great posting Baygirl... your friend in Alberta (MC)

  2. Thank you very much for your comment MC. Very well said. Once again, you have managed to get to the point and say what I was attempting to in far fewer words. You are correct about the 20 minutes if my memory serves me as well. For some reason that slipped my mind while I was writing. It's a scary thought that this sort of thing is happening in our country, and I really do hope it garners the attention required to truly be addressed and bettered in a big way. Thanks for the blog visit, and hope all is well in your neck of the woods. A big hello to your wife as well :0)