04/30/2014 06:08 EDT | Updated 06/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Ashley Smith inquest sparks federal project for mentally ill inmates

The federal government announced today a pilot project to send some of the most severely mentally ill women offenders to provincial treatment centres in response to a damning coroner’s report into the choking death of Ashley Smith.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney unveiled the new measures Thursday at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, the first site for the pilot project.

"Correctional institutions are not the place to address the health needs of those with serious mental-health problems. Mental-health facilities are most appropriate for these individuals," said Blaney at a morning news conference..

The initial phase will consist of just two beds at the Centre's Brockville facility, but the federal government is negotiating similar pilot project agreements for facilities in other provinces.

"We realize some people end up in jail and this is not the place that is best for them," said Blaney.

The government also announced a steering committee at the deputy minister level to craft a comprehensive plan to improve mental health services for federal inmates.

The government will also hold consultations with stakeholders to reach a more comprehensive response and action plan by December.

An Ontario coroner’s jury ruled Smith’s self-inflicted death in her segregation cell a homicide and made a series of recommendations to prevent similar deaths in future in a report delivered in December 2013.

Smith was incarcerated at Correctional Service of Canada’s Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., at the time of her death in 2007. Senior staff had ordered guards not to enter her cell as long as she was breathing.

Guards stood outside her cell door and watched as she tied a piece of cloth around her neck.

The death ignited a firestorm of controversy and a national debate about the treatment of prisoners with mental illness.

Coroner's inquest

The coroner’s jury made dozens of recommendations after a nearly year-long hearing that heard from more than 80 witnesses — including that there be no requirement for correctional staff to get authorization to intervene in crisis situations like Smith’s.

Some of those recommendations included ensuring adequate staffing and training for mental health issues, creating a treatment centre for the most high-needs, high-risk women offenders, and abolishing the practice of indefinite solitary confinement for prisoners.

Correctional Service Canada spokeswoman Chantal Guerette said CSC took swift steps in response to Smith’s death, including more thorough screening and treatment for inmates and better training for staff.

"CSC took immediate action in advance of the coroner’s inquest to assess the events surrounding Ms. Smith’s death,” she said. “CSC initiated all available investigative processes to analyze its response to this death in custody and make improvements.”

But Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said CSC has failed to take necessary steps. She estimates at least 20 women with acute mental illness are incarcerated in federal penitentiaries who should be treated as patients in therapeutic settings.

“The treatment of these women with mental illness continues to be a crisis,” she told CBC News.

CBC News Network’s Power & Politics reported in February about concerns that male prisoners with acute mental illness were being held in prolonged isolation, in conditions described as “grossly inadequate,” at Millhaven Institution in Ontario. The offenders were moved to the former segregation unit after the Regional Treatment Centre in Kingston was closed down.