Speaking to the Ashley Smith inquest, Eric Broadbent said he made it clear cell entry was allowed if the inmate was in distress.
"Each situation would have to be assessed on its own merits," said Broadbent, who is now retired.
"You have a gut feeling you have to go by."
Broadbent said he passed on directives from senior managers at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., that rushing into Smith's cell simply because she had tied a ligature around her neck was unnecessary.
Smith, he said, liked to trick correctional officers into thinking she was in dire straits as an attention-seeking device.
"She thought it was fun," Broadbent said.
The cell-entry directive became a source of conflict with staff, who believed they were barred from going in to save Smith as long as she was still breathing.
On one occasion in June 2007, Smith tied a ligature around her neck — as she did frequently — and lay unmoving on her bed.
One guard, Kerry Kotsos, wrote in her incident report that Broadbent had forbidden them from going in to cut off the ligature.
"As long as inmate Smith was breathing, talking or moving, staff were not to enter her cell," Kotsos wrote.
Broadbent, who was in charge of the maximum security unit at the prison, told the inquest that was never his instruction.
"I don't know who married all these words up together," Broadbent said.
The intent from higher-ups that he passed on, he said, was to assess whether the need to enter the cell was genuine.
He said he didn't see Smith turn purple.
"If I'd seen that her face was purple, I think that would have changed my direction," he said.
Asked to define "distress," he said it would be if Smith was doing something "other than what would be normal," such as staggering or not being able to walk properly.
He said he made it clear guards could always go in as long as they were able to justify their action.
Higher-ups, however, were increasingly unhappy with how guards were acting. They became highly critical of how staff were acting with Smith.
At the time of Smith's death, senior management had sent 38 memos to Broadbent asking him to "counsel" guards against unnecessary interventions — something he didn't want to do.
"I sent them all back," he said. "I think staff were hurting enough."
Smith, 19, choked herself to death at the prison in October 2007 as guards, fearful of entering her cell prematurely, stood by watching until it was too late.
The inmate had initially arrived at Grand Valley from Pinel Institute in Montreal in April 2007.
True to form, she ripped the sprinkler head off her segregation cell within hours of arriving, causing flooding.
To the consternation of other guards, Broadbent would open her cell to talk to her rather than chat through the door because he felt it was better to have a face-to-face conversation.
"I had no need to be fearful of her. I didn't think she was going to attack me. I felt quite comfortable speaking with her," he testified.
"They're not an animal."
At one point in September 2007, Smith was briefly moved out of segregation to a cell on a maximum-security pod but after a few days, she wanted back, smashing her TV set to press her point.
In a response that drew fierce criticism from guards, Broadbent moved Smith back to segregation by himself.
"My concern is that if Ashley was to stay in that cell, she was going to seriously hurt herself," he said.
"I didn't comply completely with the management plan. It was a spontaneous movement."
Broadbent choked up as he recalled a phone message from the teen's mother, Coralee Smith, seeking information about her daughter's death little more than a month after the incident.
Because police were investigating, senior managers told him not to return the call.
"I wanted to give my condolences," he said softly, wiping away tears.
Broadbent faces cross-examination Wednesday.