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Warden in Ashley Smith case testifies about intervention

10/01/2013 07:24 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
The acting warden at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., at the time of Ashley Smith's death says prison guards are told to use their training and experience to deal with difficult prisoners when there is not a medical emergency.

Cindy Berry is testifying at the Ontario coroner's inquest looking into the death of the troubled Moncton teenager.

Smith, 19, used a piece of cloth to choke herself to death in her cell in October 2007. Guards watched from outside the cell, acting on an order not to intervene unless Smith's life was in danger.

Berry testified that two weeks after she took over as warden of Grand Valley, prison staff compiled 240 hours of overtime in dealing with Smith.  Staff would enter her cell each time they saw her with a piece of cloth around her neck.

Berry said there were times when the cloth wasn't tight and guards could have talked her into giving it up.

She said it is a policy of Correctional Service of Canada for guards to use their expertise, experience and training to find other options in dealing with prisoners if there is not a medical emergency.

In questioning Berry, Jocelyn Speyer, the lawyer for the coroner, read part of one staff member's report on an incident involving Smith less than a month before her death.

"Did you Smith's face turn colour to a dark purple slash bluish colour? This information was shared with the other staff and verified on camera," said Speyer.

"What caused you to conclude that there was not a need to enter the cell and that staff should have retreated to re-assess once they saw that the inmate was not in medical distress?"

Berry responded that she put more importance on what she saw on the videotapes staff recorded than on their written notes.

The inquest also heard that it was during Berry's leadership that actions changed and staff were only to enter Smith's cell if she was clearly under medical distress.

Berry answered to her that meant if there was a clear risk of serious harm or death.

On the witness stand, Berry struggled to recount the day Smith died.

"I went down to the unit, the EMTs were there, giving her CPR," said Berry in an emotional voice.

While many witnesses have been critical of Berry as the person who gave the directive not to enter Smith's cell unless there was an emergency, Berry portrayed herself as having the full support of her superiors at the Correctional Service of Canada.

Berry said she was pressured to take the job with the hope she would become the permanent warden since she was doing such a good job in dealing with Smith.

Berry said she frequently updated national headquarters on Smith's situation and she was given feedback and suggestions on what to do. She testified she'd never before had that amount of direct interest from her superiors in a prisoner.

Berry's testimony is scheduled to continue Tuesday.

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