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  • Rebecca Bromwich

Theorizing the Official Record of Inmate Ashley Smith: Ten Years Later

My article in the fall 2017 issue of the Manitoba Law Journal is called: “Theorizing the Official Record of Inmate Ashley Smith: Necropolitics, Exclusions, and Multiple Agencies". This article is being released in October 2017, exactly ten years after Ashley Smith, at age 19, on October 19, 2007 died, alone, at Grand Valley institution, having spent four years, largely in solitary confinement, for a series of behavioural infractions in custody that tracked back to very minor crimes.

In 2013, a coroner’s jury verdict found her death to be a homicide, blaming the correctional and criminal justice systems at large for it.

Following up on my 2015 Demeter Press book, Looking for Ashley: Re-Reading What the Smith Case Reveals About the Governance of Girls, Mothers, and Families in Canada, this article critically inquires into how Ashley Smith’s preventable homicide in custody remains relevant to us today, as people working in the criminal justice and correctional s systems, and as Canadians. The article addresses developments since the publication of my earlier research and presents findings from a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of public texts, revealing how sense was made of Ashley Smith in the official record, where she was configured as a carceral subject: an inmate. Smith's is a case fundamentally like those of many inmates. I argue that this can be better understood if a new language is deployed for theorizing these recurring deaths.

Smith’s death can be read not as an isolated system failure, but as a necropolitical success. CDA of this official story reveals that the Smith case is an extreme result of everyday brutality. It is not anomalous, but rather a predictable and recurring result, of a society and bureaucracies’ gradual necropolitical exclusions.

Drawing on theorizations about logics of exclusion from Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe, the article argues that forms of governance in power and knowledge that allow some people, and in particular certain women and girls, to be categorized as homo sacer, neither alive nor dead, were actively involved in Ashley Smith’s death both before and after her transfer to CSC custody. These forms of governance remain in operation with widely felt consequences in prisons, not just in Canada, but across neoliberal societies, and not just in prisons, but also in those societies in general.

In this article, I contend that the death of Inmate Smith speaks to a need for broad-based and fundamental change to operating logic deployed in the operation of the criminal justice and correctional systems, and in consequence, it is quite correct for reference to the Smith case to be situated in Prime Minister Trudeau’s Ministerial Mandate letter to Justice.

The death of Ashley Smith was caused by many things, and one of the crucial contributing factors leading to her death are the ways people are dehumanized by the bureaucratic ways they are coded and processed in the criminal and correctional systems.

As is suggested by the 2015 Ministerial Mandate letter, the figure of Inmate Smith may yet be effectively deployed to confront the operating logics of risk and exclusion; it may be used towards making it imaginable to write another ending to the story, where the mirrors of surveillance reflecting in on each other are shattered and the inmate – the one in carceral solitary confinement, and also the neoliberal subject in general - is (more) free.

By law, the focus of the inquest in the Smith case was limited to the 11 months she spent in federal custody. However, without absolving CSC for responsibility in her death, it is clear from this analysis that much of what went wrong in the Smith case reveals problems with how she got there. A series of social, political, and juridical exclusions that were effectively forms of death are as much a part of the story of what led to the homicide of Ashley Smith as is solitary confinement. CDA of constructions of Inmate Smith in Ashley Smith’s case reveals problems within the justice and correctional system generally, and solitary confinement in particular, that have not yet been remedied, and will not be corrected by small tweaks to ways in which a tiny subset of offenders, however defined, is dealt with. On this analysis, the Smith case speaks to not just a need for change to the treatment of a small subset of mentally ill/female/ youthful, offenders in a narrow range of exceptional circumstances but rather to revolutionary change in how the and correctional, and the criminal justice systems in Canada are performed and conceived.

I hope you read my work. I hope it challenges how we think about justice and how we think about girls. I thank Robson Hall and the Manitoba Law Journal for publishing it and continuing to consider how Ashley Smith, in life and death, should not be forgotten, and remains important.

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