By Linda Nguyen, Postmedia News May 17, 2011
A long-awaited coroner’s inquest into how a mentally troubled teenager Ashley Smith fatally strangled herself while in an Ontario prison was set to get
underway Monday, nearly four years following her death.
TORONTO — Before she was transferred into the federal prison system where she ultimately died, 19-year-old Ashley Smith had spent years of her young life at a New Brunswick youth facility under restraints and in isolation, a police detective testified Tuesday at a coroner’s inquest looking into the troubled
The anticipated nine-month-long inquest, presided over by Ontario deputy coroner Dr. Bonita Porter, is tasked with looking into the circumstances surrounding Smith’s death at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., on Oct. 19, 2007.
The mentally ill teenager was found in a segregation cell by prison guards after she had tied a ligature around her neck and choked herself to death.
Video surveillance of the death, contained in nine hours of video to be played during the high-profile proceedings, show guards choosing not to intervene until Smith had stopped breathing. The guards allegedly were told not to stop the teenager while she engaged in “attention-seeking behaviour.”
On Tuesday, the first witness at the inquest, coroner’s investigator Acting Det. Patrick Colagiovanni, relied on numerous reports to describe Smith as an
inmate who was believed to have suffered from a learning disorder, a borderline personality disorder and narcissistic traits. Smith had numerous run-ins
with authority and the law, beginning at age 13 when she was first arrested for causing a disturbance, he said.
Citing a report by the New Brunswick ombudsman, Colagiovanni described to the five-person jury a vicious cycle that Smith found herself trapped in at the age of 15 when she was first jailed for causing a disturbance, and stayed in after accumulating hundreds of charges while in custody.
In one instance, she was given a 50-day sentence for pulling a fire alarm but then racked up an additional 475 days for a number of in-custody charges,
including uttering threats.
Most of these charges, ranging from assaulting a peace officer to disobeying orders, meant that two-thirds of the three years Smith spent at the New Brunswick Youth Centre was in “therapeutic quiet” isolation or in head-to-toe restraints. She was also pepper strayed.
During this time, the centre documented 800 incidents involving Smith acting disruptive, not following directions or trying to harm herself.
Coroner’s counsel Eric Siebenmorgen instructed the three-woman, two-man inquest jury that it will be their ultimate job to find if Smith’s death was an
accident or suicide.
“The evidence does not point in only one direction,” he said, warning them that some of the evidence will be disturbing and difficult to watch. The jury
will also have to conclude if Smith’s psychiatric condition was adequately addressed by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), hear about her stay and treatment at the federal prison where she died and whether prison staff were given proper instructions on how to care for her. It will also be tasked to
look into Smith’s state of mind at her time of death.
Tens of thousands of documents were anticipated to be entered into evidence during this inquest. Nine hours of video, including surveillance footage of
Smith’s death, will also be shown to the jury. More than 100 witnesses — the majority of whom are Corrections Canada staff and psychiatrists — have also
been scheduled to testify.
Janice Sandeson, a former manager at the Grand Valley Institution, was expected to testify Wednesday on her dealings with Smith prior to her death. The
inquest will also be shown five hours of prison videos from the institution, the majority of which show Smith in countless attempts desperately tying herself with ligatures.
During her time in federal custody, Smith was transferred 17 times to various institutions across the country in the months leading up to her death due
to bad behaviour and overcrowding.
Critics charge that Smith never received sufficient psychiatric help for her mental issues and that her death may have been an accident.
“Certainly she’s being displayed as someone who was constantly out of control,” said Kim Pate, the executive director for the female inmate advocacy group, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
“In this situation, it is clear the response she received from (prison) staff actually exacerbated, actually made worse her behaviour.”
Earlier this month, her family reached an undisclosed settlement with Corrections Canada in an $11-million wrongful death lawsuit.
Last week, CSC requested that a sweeping publication ban be placed on the high-profile inquest until the jury returns with their verdict. Porter ruled that
in the interim, media will be able to access exhibits until she hears the motion next week. A last-minute application was brought Tuesday by Smith’s family lawyer, Julian Falconer, and lawyers for the media, stating that instructions by Porter that they will risk contempt if they give filed exhibits to reporters contravenes guaranteed freedom of expression rights.
Almost every seat was taken inside the coroner’s courts Tuesday, but Smith’s parents were not present due to health problems, said their lawyer.
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