09/23/2013 01:49 EDT | Updated 11/23/2013 05:12 EST

Deputy warden sheds no light on confusion about entering dying inmate's cell

TORONTO - A senior manager at the prison in which a teenager choked herself to death while guards watched said Monday she was unaware of any orders to officers to stay out of the inmate's cell as long as she was still breathing.

Testifying at the Ashley Smith inquest, deputy warden Nicki Smith also said she could not remember being asked directly by frontline staff for direction on the issue.

"I have no memory of it at all," said Smith. "I have no idea what I would have responded."

Smith, the current deputy warden at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., was acting in that position when Ashley Smith was first transferred to the prison in the spring of 2007.

The troubled inmate, who was prone to frequent self-harming, was 19 when she died in her segregation cell in October 2007.

The inquest has heard from guards that senior managers ordered them to stay out of Smith's cell as long as she was breathing, because they believed the teen was simply acting out.

The deputy warden shed little light on the issue.

She was adamant orders to guards never changed. She said she was unaware of any disciplinary action taken against them for going into the cell prematurely.

Internal reports show correctional officers went from acting immediately to remove ligatures from Smith's neck to waiting as she turned purple and she struggled for breath.

Smith said the reports did not indicate to her any difference in approach.

Nor was she alarmed that Smith was turning purple while guards watched and waited.

"I certainly didn't worry enough about it to look into it more thoroughly."

Smith insisted the call on when to intervene was up to frontline officers.

"The staff are highly trained, extremely professional," Smith told the inquest.

"I think staff would have known when to go in."

Smith frequently answered she could not remember specific incidents or institutional discussions about the inmate's aberrant behaviour.

The teen's family lawyer, Julian Roy, mocked the memory lapses, noting the witness had said she couldn't remember something more than 80 times during her testimony.

Smith, who indicated she was in her early 60s, was unapologetic about her poor recall.

"When you get to my age, you'll understand exactly what I'm talking about," she said.

She did remember deep concern about the teen's behaviour and its impact on staff.

"Staff were becoming exhausted, burned out, tired," Smith said.

During her tenure at the time, Smith reviewed a dozen use-of-force reports involving the teen.

In no case did she find guards' force inappropriate, but her reviews identified several technical issues, such as improper use of a video camera to document the incidents.

The reviews did not examine what prompted guards to use force, Smith testified, nor did she react to their expressed concerns about the inmate's distressed appearance.

"Her behaviour, that's not really the focus of a use-of-force review," she said.

"I'm not reviewing what the officer has written. I'm reviewing whether the use of force was appropriate."

"I sort of see a set of blinders here," Coroner Dr. John Carlisle told her.

Smith said she believes the institution acted appropriately and likely would not do anything differently now.

The tragedy does point to the need for a mental health facility for inmates, and to more staff with proper mental-health training, she said.

Some of those resources are now available, she said.

The senior manager said she had some enjoyable contact with Smith.

"She made me laugh a lot. She was very funny. She was a nice woman."

Former warden Brinda Wilson-Demuth is slated to testify Tuesday.