If the walls of Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institute could talk, they’d probably have something to say about how to treat mentally ill prisoners.
But as reality may have it, the details surrounding the incarcerated life and October 2007 death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith – where she tied a cloth around her neck and pulled tightly as guards stood by – came to light only after a high-profile public inquest.
Seven years later and 14 kilometres down the road from the now-notorious Grand Valley Institute for Women, a group of students at the University of Waterloo have been researching and connecting with Smith’s story in an effort to tear down the walls surrounding mental health.
The group of students, led by professor and director Andrew Houston, have created the production From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith and an interactive exhibit, Small Acts of Repair Toward Mental Health: A Space For Engagement, to complement the show.
The project will share personal and professional insights into mental illness, providing narratives and question periods to discuss how advantageous medical treatment can be.
The interactive exhibit began March 10 at the Modern Languages (ML) Gallery at the university, running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and until 10 p.m. on performance days.
The production will run from March 18 to 22 – including matinees to include high school students – at the Theatre of the Arts in the ML building with a general admission of $17.
Smith entered a youth detention centre at the age of 15 after throwing crab apples at a postal worker.
While at the youth detention centre, she incurred 50 additional charges for prankish behaviour – such as putting toilet paper on her cell window – and found herself in the federal prison system by February 2005.
Smith began to show clear signs of mental health struggles by 2006 – with frequent acts of self-harm such as cutting her arms, self-strangulation and banging her head.
To make matters worse, she was shipped from prison to prison a total of 17 times without a proper mental health diagnosis.
Her sentence of six years and one month tragically ended on Oct. 19, 2007 when the 19-year-old committed suicide while prison guards stood outside her cell, allegedly following orders from the warden not to intervene from this perceived stunt.
Smith’s constant shuffling throughout the prison system, her prolonged periods of isolation in solitary confinement, significant episodes of self-harm and failing to provide psychological help, captured national attention.
Her life and death in the prison system became heavily scrutinized as the high-profile public inquest began in 2011.
Causing more controversy, the coroner ultimately ruled her death a homicide in December 2013.
Correctional investigator Howard Sapers published a report of his findings called A Preventable Death in 2008.
The report indicated that the teen’s death was a matter of individual and systemic failures, which sparked a national conversation about the management of mentally ill prisoners within the Canadian judicial system.
The notion that her death should and could have been prevented with adequate mental health support is something that resonated with the students involved in the Waterloo production.
For Natasha Melfi, a legal studies major and drama minor student involved in the performance, “Ashley’s case jumped out at me because it was a complete mismanagement of a young teenager within the prison system.
The way that her self-harming was viewed – it was viewed as needing punitive response when it should have been reviewed for mental health … we all could have found ourselves in her situation at some point,” Melfi said.
The University of Waterloo’s project began with a minimal 19-page script, exploring the case and others like it.
“We’re calling it an auto-ethnographic form of story – so what we have is Ashley Smith’s story intertwined with our own … so it is not just facts spewed out,” she said.
But this show is far more personal than what Melfi is used to.
“I feel pretty exposed because you don’t get to hide behind a character.
You’re kind of exposing who you are. Our cast mates talk about some really, really personal issues and struggles … we play sort of an exaggerated version of ourselves,” she said, adding, “There’s even photos and videos of our own families within the play as we’re talking.”
Following a dramaturgy class instructed by Houston, whose content is often controversial subject matter – such as the land dispute in Caledonia, gambling addictions or the Occupy movement – the cast began with a rough version of the script, written by UW alumna Melanie Bennett. Through a series of workshops and planning, the story developed to include personal and family struggles of the 15-person cast.
“The (students) could offer as much or as little as they wanted about their personal struggles,” Houston said, explaining that he often focuses his projects on local problems that require more than one response or approach to a collective issue.
Houston’s concept for the project emanated from a few different influences.
The locality of such a heinous death, the personal challenge of raising two teenage sons and the substantive connection and impact of mental health on Kitchener-Waterloo enticed Houston to pursue the subject.
“I try to think of ways in which theatre productions can have more of a connection to a community. I am more interested in building community than audience,” he said.
After teaching at the University of Waterloo for 12 years, Houston said that he understands the pressures young adults face which are doubly difficult if one is experiencing poor mental health. So in researching the Smith case, he immediately related her struggles and sense of isolation to his students.
“Where I work – this is an institution. The University of Waterloo in some ways is disturbingly similar to a prison. The way institutions are – educational or punitive – responding to mental health needs some work. The prisons and the universities need to work on how they handle mental health within their walls … (young adults are) being judged on professionalism and ability to perform. I think there’s a perception among students that if they were to speak openly about the challenges they’re facing with their mental health management, they would be seen by the institution as some kind of liability,” Houston said.
While the project does not expect to deliver all of the answers, the crew believes this will at least open up the lines of communication within the community about mental health and begin to address institutional flaws.
Small Acts of Repair Toward Mental Health: A Space for Engagement will examine what mental health is, challenges associated and different coping skills. Because it is an interactive exhibit, engagement team member Brianne Haydon said they hope to cover a range of issues such as isolation and anxiety, stemming from the Smith case.
“Right now we have a lot of artwork from the fine arts department at the University of Waterloo. We’ve collected quite a few submitted, anonymous stories from students regarding different struggles with mental illness in a university setting such as stigma, pressure to compete and that kind of thing. There is an auditory component of some recordings that simulate university student anxiety. We have one (display) that tries to demonstrate what an Alzheimer’s patient might struggle with, so we’re trying to cover all ages of mental illness, as well as looking at orders Ashley was given when she was in prison.”
A mock cell will be set up to recreate the sense of isolation Smith faced during her many months in solitary confinement. At one point in the production, Melfi’s character references the fact that Smith spent 27 of her 36 months in prison in solitary confinement.
Mental health services information, a list of the inquest jury’s recommendations, lots of artwork and the opportunity to reflect on how our community can repair these common issues will be showcased.
“We’re also hosting a symposium on March 21 at 4 p.m. and that’s where we’re going to bring in a few guest speakers – some from counselling services, some from accessibility services, a couple professors from the University of Waterloo who study and do research on mental health,” Haydon said, adding that the engagement team will be present to explain and engage the attendees.
“Mental health is mental health. It shouldn’t be stigmatized the way it is in society.We need to start this conversation about it, talk about its prevalence and what we can do to help people who are dealing with that,” she said.
For more information on the exhibit and production, visit www.solitary2solidarity.com.