Inquest is 'best memorial' to Ashley Smith, says coroner
Published Monday, January 14, 2013 6:26AM EST
Last Updated Monday, January 14, 2013 10:49PM EST
The inquest into the prison suicide of teenager Ashley Smith, who choked herself to death while guards watched, is the “best memorial we can give,” the presiding coroner said Monday.
As the second inquest into Smith’s 2007 death began in Toronto, Dr. John Carlisle told members of the five-person jury that the tragic incident should help shape the future of corrections care.
"We cannot now reverse the course of history. What is done is done," Carlisle said. "This is the best memorial we can give to Ashley."
Court heard on Monday in an agreed statement of facts that Smith, 19, died after tying ligatures around her neck while guards at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., watched and videotaped. The guards were ordered not to enter her cell if she was breathing.
The lawyer representing Smith’s family said he won't be satisfied until officials at the highest levels weigh in.
“What we would like to see happen is serious explanations for why a 19-year-old mentally ill young woman would have been subjected to absolute torturous circumstances, isolation,” Julian Falconer said.
Earlier on Monday, Falconer said he hopes the federal government and the head of the Correctional Service of Canada will actually answer questions about what happened.
"At its heart, the federal government has to reconsider its approach to simply building bigger warehouses and putting more people in them," Julian Falconer said, before adding that he will be pressing for "numerous levels of accountability."
That includes the doctors who authorized the administration of Smith’s anti-psychotic medication, just as a means of managing her for security purposes, he said.
Meanwhile, the lawyer representing the prison guard union said his clients are looking forward to the truth coming out.
“Ashley Smith wasn’t a regular inmate,” Howard Rubel said. “And you’ll see when we hear evidence of all the transfers, everyone kept saying, ‘This is a very unique person. We’ve never dealt with anyone like this before.’”
Outside the Toronto courthouse, protesters lined the sidewalks as they marched. They are hoping the inquest will shed light on the treatment of mentally ill inmates.
“We know that Ashley is not the only one. We know that Ashley’s case is not unique,” Professor of Criminology Dawn Moore said.
The coroner’s counsel, Jocelyn Speyer, said that jurors will watch “the most disturbing” video of Smith’s death this week.
Later this week they will tour the prison where Smith died and next week they will hear from the guards who were standing outside her cell while she choked. The jury is expected to hear from 100 witnesses.
A first inquest into Smith's death was cut short last year, after the abrupt resignation of coroner Dr. Bonita Porter.
This time round, Falconer said he expects the process will continue to its conclusion, expected to come between six months and a year from now.
Smith, who was adopted when she was just five days old, began getting in trouble at school in Moncton, N.B. when she was 10. When she was 15-years-old, she landed in youth custody after throwing crab apples at a mail carrier
During the three years she spent in provincial custody in New Brunswick -- during most of which she was in segregation -- Smith accumulated a list of several hundred "incidents," from failing to comply with correctional officers' demands, to self-harm and suicide attempts.
In the 11-and-a-half months leading up to her death in 2007, Smith was transferred 17 times among nine federal institutions in five provinces.
Smith's family believes she was mistreated during that time, and point to video released after a bitter court fight as proof.
In the videos seen by the public last fall, Smith is seen being physically restrained by guards dressed in riot gear, injected with drugs, and duct-taped to an airplane seat.
The videos, in which Smith can be heard pleading with staff not to hurt her, sparked outrage across Canada.
In his latest report, Canada's Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers said despite the $80 million spent on studies, reports and staff training in the five years since Smith died, little has changed.
“Some staff do exceptional work under the circumstances they're engaged in, other staff not so much. It's very uneven. You have to remember that these are penitentiaries and the first responders to a situation... are correctional officers, their primary focus is security," Sapers told CTV News Channel.
"They're not trained mental health professionals," he said, explaining that the system is not designed to deal with inmates suffering from those issues.
In his remarks, Falconer acknowledged the inquest will prove difficult for his clients, but is hoping their principle goal will be realized, "which is to get people to understand a federal jail is no place for a mentally ill person."
With files from The Canadian Press