The jury at the coroner’s inquest into the death of troubled teen Ashley Smith watched disturbing video Monday of her final moments in a cell at a southern Ontario correctional facility.
The video shows guards watching as the 19-year-old choked to death with a piece of cloth tied around her neck as she lay face down in her cell at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener in October 2007.
At the time the video begins, recorded at 6:45 a.m., guards had been debating for about 10 minutes what to do about Smith, who had tied a ligature around her neck — something she’d done several times before. The guards had been told she was seeking attention, and not to intervene unless she stopped breathing.
But on this occasion, Smith was wedged between the bed and the wall on the floor of her cell, face down, gasping for breath but not speaking.
Another 10 minutes pass before the guards enter her cell and cut the cloth from around her neck, after which they leave the cell and continue to watch outside the door.
Smith doesn’t move, and after a few more minutes the guards enter the cell and try to rouse her by slapping her on the back, without any response.
The guards begin to perform CPR, though one of them is heard swearing that she hasn’t had any CPR training in 11 years.
A nurse arrives and an ambulance is called as the guards continue to perform CPR, until the emergency workers arrive at 7:10 and take over. They work on Smith for another 30 minutes, then transfer her to a gurney, all the while continuing chest compressions. Smith is wheeled out of the prison to the hospital.
The prison guard who recorded the video, Valentino Burnett, testified on Monday and came under fire for following orders not to intervene when Smith was choking.
Burnett acknowledged under questioning that "in a perfect world" he would have entered the cell to save Smith.
Burnett and three other prison employees were charged for their role in Smith’s death, but the charges were dropped.
Kim Pate, who heads the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, says the video is disturbing but needs to be shown at this inquiry. "It’s important that the public sees the video, in large part because many people don’t believe this sort of thing happens inside.
But Howard Rubel, lawyer for the correctional officers union, defends the guards, who struggled and debated how to deal with Smith.
"They were following what they were told was in the best interests of Miss Smith and they were trying to help her as much as possible to prevent the tragedy, but unfortunately, they weren’t allowed to prevent that tragedy as they saw fit."
Julian Falconer, the Smith family lawyer, said the teen "was left to die by the correctional system, by our utter failures to meet the needs of the mentally ill."
The five women on the jury watched the video intently, sighing and shaking their heads in disbelief, reported the CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis.
The inquest continues Tuesday with lawyers from all sides questioning the guards who were on duty the night Smith died.
Smith family lawyer raises sleep deprivation
Earlier in the day, an assistant warden at Grand Valley denied authorities had spruced up the death cell before jurors toured last Thursday.
Tony Simoes, who led the tour, described photographs of the cells and what was in them.
Falconer, the Smith family lawyer, suggested the steel cot in the cell would have been uncomfortable for anyone to sleep on.
"There can be legitimate security reasons for making people sleep on metal?" Falconer asked.
"Is sleep deprivation part of [Correctional Service of Canada] punishment?"
"I cannot comment on that," Simoes responded.
"You don't know?"
Simoes, in charge of the physical structure of the prison, said he had never slept on one of the cots, and that he didn't know enough to speak to the sleep-deprivation suggestion.
Jurors also saw pictures of the segregation exercise yard, a drab, barren concrete slab of about three metres by 10.5 metres surrounded by high razor-wire topped walls.
The rules allow segregation inmates one hour of exercise in the recreation yard, Simoes said.
"The term 'yard' is much like the term 'bed,' isn't it?" Falconer asked.
Smith was admitted directly to the segregation unit on Aug 31, 2007. With the exception of a few hospital visits, she remained in isolation until she choked to death on Oct. 19.
Falconer pressed Simoes to concede there are no special cells for mentally ill inmates.
"There are other spaces in the prison," Simoes said.
"But Ashley never saw those spaces," Falconer rejoined.
Falconer also pointed to photographs that showed clearly visible paint stains and other defects on the cell walls.
"If you're inferring that we painted it just before you came, that's incorrect," Simoes said.
Simoes also said prison policy is that only women guards can monitor surveillance cameras of female inmates.