10/17/2013 07:45 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Ashley Smith's death 'potentially preventable' says criminologist

A criminologist testifying at the coroner's inquest into Ashley Smith's death on Thursday says what happened to the Moncton, N.B., teen was "potentially preventable."   

Smith, 19, choked to death on Oct. 19, 2007, after tying a piece of cloth around her neck while prison guards stood outside her cell and watched at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont. The guards say they had been ordered not to intervene.

Kelly Hannah-Moffat, an expert in the incarceration of female prisoners and the management of difficult prisoners, told the inquest in Toronto that the kind of self-harming behaviour Smith displayed is not uncommon, but often misunderstood.

"Women engage in that not … to end their lives but rather as a coping mechanism to acquire some degree of control over their circumstances. It also becomes a way of relief and comfort for their life situation," she said.

Hannah-Moffat said that for inmates like Smith, helpful approaches would include providing someone who can listen, support in a non-correctional setting and a multidisciplinary approach to treatment.

This Saturday marks six years since Smith took her own life. At the time of her death, she was facing a six-year sentence — mainly for charges incurred while in prison.