TORONTO – The death of a “precious daughter” who strangled herself in her segregation cell as prison guards videotaped but did not intervene should be deemed a homicide, a coroner’s jury was told Monday.
In closing submissions at the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, the lawyer who speaks for her family said the evidence was overwhelming: frontline staff were under orders to say out of her cell as long as she was still breathing.
The orders, Julian Roy said, were devised by Warden Cindy Berry – “the new sheriff in town” – and communicated through her weak deputy, Joanna Pauline, to underlings.
Because it was an “obscenity,” Roy said, the order wasn’t written down, but it was nevertheless made clear to guards and middle managers.
“It was not a big misunderstanding. There was no broken telegraph here. This was not a case of staff confusion,” said Roy.
“It didn’t come off the cuff. It wasn’t improvised. This was an order that was carefully thought out by those that issued it.”
Under cross-examination last month, Berry was adamant she had no idea guards were under any such orders.
“I did not give any such direction,” Berry said repeatedly.
The warden also insisted she relied on Pauline to tell guards when to enter Smith’s cell.
Smith, 19, of Moncton, N.B., choked to death on Oct. 19, 2007, in her cell at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., just a few months after Berry took over as warden.
Roy traced how correctional officers, who initially rushed in when Smith tied ligatures around her neck, succumbed to increasing pressure from senior management to stay out of her cell unless her death was imminent.
Initially, they resisted, Roy said.
“They see a child in trouble who needs help and they can’t follow that order,” he told the five women jurors.
“There is a mini-mutiny.”
Management, however, would hear none of the protests, none of the warnings that Smith’s life was at serious risk.
Instead, guards said Berry began threatening them with criminal excessive-use-of-force sanctions for entering the cell too quickly.
A regional manager, brought in by Berry, told guards that if Smith did die, it would be “death by misadventure,” the lawyer noted.
“If you have decided it’s an accident before somebody dies, it’s not an accident,” Roy said.
As Smith’s mother Coralee Smith watched, Roy said the teen had no intention of killing herself.
She had reassured one guard that she knew what she was doing and they would save her, the inquest has heard.
In submissions that reduced one of the jurors to tears, Roy spoke of the mother’s undying love for her daughter.
“For the family, there is no closure, only grief,” he said.
The lawyer also urged jurors, who heard evidence from more than 100 witnesses since Jan. 14, to recommend a ban on segregation for self-harming or mentally ill women, saying it only does more damage.
He also slammed Correctional Service Canada, which he said had no business looking after women like Smith, for its resistance to accountability and change.
“CSC has done almost nothing to respond to Ashley’s death, he said.
“They have moved some boxes around in the org chart.”
Earlier, coroner’s counsel Marg Creal presented 103 recommendations for the jury to consider.
The wide-ranging suggestions included limiting segregation to 30 days, and then only as a last resort.
Other proposals included restricting transfers of mentally-ill inmates, and enhanced whistleblower protection for prison staff.
Correctional Service Canada said it would be inappropriate for it to take part in those recommendations given that it will have to respond to what the jury recommends.