Case of Ashley Smith to be heard in coroner's court
TORONTO - Merely examining snippets of a teenage inmate's troubled life in the months before a strangulation attempt that went too far will not provide enough context to prevent similar deaths, the coroner's courts will hear Monday.
In the last 11 months of her life Ashley Smith was transferred 17 times between prisons and other facilities. The transfers spanned four of the five regions of the Correctional Service of Canada.
Her family argues the transfers were done perhaps to get around a rule that inmates be kept in solitary confinement for a maximum 60 days without a psychiatric assessment. A transfer resets that clock.
Ontario's Deputy Chief Coroner Dr. Bonita Porter has decided to limit the upcoming inquest into Smith's death to the 13 weeks the girl spent in Ontario.
Porter is set to hear arguments Monday from Smith's family and advocates requesting the scope be expanded to at least the entire time she was in federal custody.
Included in the arguments will be an internal 2007 report commissed by Correctional Services that concluded Smith's death was likely an accident and not a suicide.
Extracts from the report filed in civil court show psychiatrist Margo Rivera concludes that "no one intended Ashley Smith to die, least of all Ashley Smith herself."
Rivera said Smith repeatedly assured prison staff that she did not strangle herself to die. She writes that several prison staff remembered Smith saying "'I'm not going to die, because it's your job to save me'."
Smith choked herself with a strip of cloth at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., in October 2007. Video evidence shows staff failed to respond immediately to the emergency.
The extracts appear in a draft amended statement of claim that is part of an $11 million civil lawsuit launched by Smith's family against the federal government.
The report will be entered as documentary evidence on Monday.
Meanwhile, a female prisoner advocacy group says only examining Smith's time in Ontario will not allow the coroner's jury to make meaningful recommendations that could help save another inmate's life.
"We feel that the entire manner in which Ashley Smith's case was managed by the Correctional Service of Canada is vital to understanding how to prevent further deaths," said Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
Smith's transfers were numerous, there weren't sufficient reviews done of Smith's period in segregation and the laws and policies that govern how prisoners should be held and treated were violated, Pate said.
"All of that needs to be looked at in the broader context of trying to prevent other deaths," she said.
What will be lost by focusing only on Smith's time in Ontario is the entire picture of how she came to be in that isolation cell and why she was being treated in the manner she was, Pate said.
Earlier that year Smith had requested access to her personal prison records, authorizing their release to Pate's organization.
She had alleged poor treatment by the correctional service, including assault, lack of psychiatric care and the frequent transfers.
In September the federal prison ombudsman denounced the practice of locking up mentally ill offenders alone for long periods, saying many of the same structures and policies that failed Smith three years ago remain in place.
Howard Sapers has harshly criticized the prison service over Smith's death, finding she received only a cursory mental-health assessment, care and treatment.
Even though she had serious mental health issues, aggravated by years of isolation in provincial institutions, the correctional service kept her apart from the general prison population under a highly restrictive and at times inhumane regime, Sapers found.
Pate said she expects the inquest to start in January 2011.