POLITICS

'No alternative' to ongoing isolation for Ashley Smith, parole officer says

03/26/2013 11:18 EDT | Updated 05/26/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Prolonged segregation was detrimental to a teenaged inmate who went on to choke herself to death in her cell, her parole officer testified on Tuesday, but he felt there was nowhere else to put her.

Rob Harris told an inquest into her death that he recommended Ashley Smith be placed in segregation on her admission to an adult prison in October 2006, where she had just arrived from youth custody.

Smith, then 18, had already spent three years in isolation but Harris said she posed a risk to herself and others.

"My job is to keep somebody safe," Harris said.

"I had no other alternative."

On arrival at Nova Institution in Truro, N.S., Smith showed the same kind of attention-seeking outbursts that had plagued her stay in youth detention, where she had been sent for throwing crab apples at a postal worker.

Among other things she tried to bite guards, smeared feces, and tied ligatures around her neck interspersed with brief periods in which she co-operated with prison staff.

"One step forward and two steps back," was how Harris described her progress.

Still, the parole officer said he saw no reason to keep her beyond her mandatory-release date of November 2007 — a view he held as late as July 2007.

"I didn't believe she met the criteria to be detained," Harris said.

Although there had been numerous violent offences on her record, they were "low level" and usually happened when guards intervened with her, he said.

"It's not so much the quantity but the quality," he told jurors. "There was no escalation in the level of risk she presented."

At the same time, he said he would not have supported parole for Smith — she was eligible in February 2007 — given her behaviour and situation.

Smith, who never seriously harmed anyone, never did ask for early release or even temporary absences.

The inquest has heard how Nova staff were at a loss to control Smith's disruptive behaviour. In the end, Harris recommended she transfer to the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon.

The transfer was voluntary and the hope, he said, was that she would get mental-health treatment.

The move in December 2006 was the first of more than a dozen transfers for Smith, but things did not go well in Saskatoon.

Smith accused a correctional supervisor at the psychiatric centre of assaulting her and she was transferred out. The supervisor was charged with assault, but later acquitted.

In July 2007, after several more transfers, Smith ended up temporarily back in Nova — her home region because her mother lived in Moncton, N.B.

A few weeks later, following a dramatic hostage-taking at Nova that Smith witnessed but took no part in, her behaviour deteriorated.

She made it clear she wanted out, and traumatized staff decided to force her transfer in late August 2007 to Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., where she had previously spent some time.

"We were at a point where we needed someone to help us," Harris said.

Smith didn't want to go there.

"I didn't do good there before. I want to leave Nova, but not GVI," she wrote.

Harris couldn't say why authorities chose Grand Valley over her objection.

Smith, 19, died in segregation at Grand Valley in October 2007 — a month before her statutory-release date.

The inquest will not sit Wednesday. It continues Thursday.