The head of Canada's federal prisons sought to boost morale among guards in the days after the release of disturbing surveillance videos showing the drugging and duct-taping of a teenaged inmate, originally from New Brunswick, who died in custody.

In an internal memo to staff, approved by the highest levels of government, Don Head, commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, admitted the treatment of Ashley Smith was substandard, but insisted it did not reflect usual standards.

"I understand that this negative media coverage, especially the videos of Ashley Smith in custody, is upsetting to Canadians, Ashley Smith's family, and many of you," Head, who has otherwise not spoke publicly, wrote in the Nov. 8 memo:

"These images are not reflective of the kind of correctional system Canadians expect of us, nor are they reflective of the work that goes on every day in our institutions."

Smith choked herself to death

A long-awaited coroner's inquest into Smith's death begins hearing evidence Monday, more than five years after the disturbed 19-year-old choked herself to death in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., while guards, under orders not to intervene, looked on.

Smith spent her final year in solitary confinement, shunted 17 times among nine different prisons in five provinces with little treatment for her mental illness.

The videos were screened publicly for the first time on Oct. 31, 2012, after a fierce legal struggle over the scope of the inquest in which Corrections, along with several doctors who had treated Smith, tried unsuccessfully to have them kept secret.

The images caused public outrage at how Smith, of Moncton, N.B., was handled, even prompting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to rebuke prison authorities.

In one of the videos, the 19-year-old is seen on an RCMP plane being transferred from a correctional service psychiatric facility in Saskatchewan to one in Quebec.

Smith is wearing two mesh hoods to stop her from spitting.

The RCMP co-pilot can be seen duct-taping her hands together and then to her seat. He then threatens to duct-tape Smith’s face if she does not behave.

Draft memo obtained through Access to Information

A draft of the memo — obtained by federal New Democrats under Access to Information laws — shows Head wanted to deny what he called media reports that Corrections "was trying to hide the truth." Instead, he said, prison authorities wanted the "disturbing" videos screened during the inquest proper to protect its integrity.

"As we all know, the videos do not convey the countless efforts made by our staff to effectively intervene and respond to self-harming incidents," Head wrote in lines deleted in the final version of the memo.

Other documents also reveal the determination of the government to control the information flow, with strict instructions that any spokesmen stick to pre-approved messaging.

Those lines include the fact that unspecified disciplinary action was taken over Smith's treatment "to hold implicated individuals accountable."

Among those closely watching the inquest will be Smith's mother.

"Coralee Smith was told that when her daughter went into the federal system, she would find supports and help that wasn't available anywhere else," said lawyer Julian Falconer.  

"The family feels utterly betrayed by Correctional Services," he said.

The hearing is expected to last at least six months.

This is the second inquest into her death. The first collapsed last year amid months of bitter legal fights when the coroner, Dr. Bonita Porter, abruptly resigned.