POLITICS

Second attempt at Ashley Smith coroner's inquest starts Thursday

09/19/2012 03:20 EDT | Updated 11/19/2012 05:12 EST
TORONTO - An inquest about a young woman who choked herself to death in prison gets a fresh start Thursday, with those involved hoping it will shed light on the treatment of mentally ill people in custody.

Ashley Smith was 19 when she used a strip of cloth to kill herself at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., nearly five years ago.

The issues expected to be examined have far-reaching implications and everyone in Canada should be paying attention, said the head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"We should all be concerned about how many young people might potentially end up in the situation Ashley found herself in," said Kim Pate.

"Increasingly we're cutting resources in the community and (incarcerating) individuals who should never end up in prison...We continue down the path of criminalizing and imprisoning people who really have other issues."

Smith was first arrested at 13 for assault and causing a disturbance. She continued to find herself in trouble with the law for making harassing phone calls and pulling a fire alarm, then was first thrown in jail at 15 for throwing crab apples at a postal worker.

That sentence ballooned from days to years as time was added for numerous in-custody incidents and Smith was in and out of custody throughout her adolescence.

In the last year of her life the young woman from Moncton had been transferred between facilities 17 times and spent most of her time in segregation.

The first attempt at an inquest was shut down a year ago after it became mired in various challenges and disputes and the presiding coroner abruptly announced her retirement.

It was delayed constantly over the course of several months and had heard just three days of evidence when it was announced the whole process would start anew with a different coroner, Dr. John Carlisle.

The first hearing of the new inquest Thursday is for parties wishing to get standing at the inquest and the Smith family hopes it will be different this time around, their lawyer said.

"There is a sense of a lot more open process and with that a far more reasonable scope," Julian Falconer said.

"There's more resolve to move forward and get this inquest on the rails."

The first inquest heard that Smith frequently tied various materials around her neck and sometimes banged her head or cut herself.

But she wasn't trying to harm herself, the inquest heard. After being kept in near-constant isolation through much of her teenage years she did it for the stimulation.

Smith's family believes her death was not a suicide, but rather an accident and that her treatment was responsible for her state of mind.

It's Correctional Service of Canada policy for staff to videotape so-called use-of-force incidents and the first coroner's inquest jury watched some of the many times Smith tied ligatures around her neck — sometimes several on the same day.

The videos show Smith tying material around her neck and staff coaxing her through her cell door to take them off. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not.

When they were not, her face could be seen turning a deep purple, often with Smith lying motionless on the floor. Guards would go in and remove it for her, then follow up with a nurse to assess if Smith was injured.

A correctional manager testified she never saw Smith actually make a ligature, but that when she returned from a period at a mental health facility she had made some out of towels and security blankets and hid them in body cavities.

Richard Macklin, a lawyer representing the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, said the video evidence is what makes this case so important.

"We haven't had an opportunity to have an inquest with this much concern about prison abuse so meticulously recorded with video to bring the issues home to Canadians," he said.

"We certainly want to look at ways in which correctional officials can be better trained to deal with cases like Ashley Smith."

The new inquest is expected to start hearing evidence in January.