Ashley Smith inquest hears about prison shakeup

An Ontario coroner's inquest into the 2007 death of Moncton teenager Ashley Smith resumed Monday with testimony from the assistant warden of the Grand Valley Institution.

Assistant warden testifies management attitude changed weeks before Moncton teen's death

An Ontario coroner’s inquest into the 2007 death of Moncton teenager Ashley Smith in a women’s prison resumed Monday after a 10-week break.

Smith died in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., while guards watched.

The 19-year-old would frequently tie ligatures around her neck. The inquest has heard officers were told not to intervene unless Smith stopped breathing.

As the inquest resumed Monday, Barry McGinnis, the assistant warden of the Grand Valley Institution in 2007, testified about a management shakeup at the institution in the weeks before Smith’s death.

New managers, who had previously worked in institutions for male prisoners, were brought in, he said.

The inquest into Ashley Smith's 2007 death in an Ontario prison resumed Monday after a 10-week break. (Courtesy of Ashley Smith's family)

McGinnis said the new managers were ignoring Grand Valley’s women-centred focus on dignity, empowerment and respect.

"When I went to that first morning meeting it was different, in terms of how those management meetings, those morning meetings, were taking place," said McGinnis, who now works in Ottawa.

"Orders were being barked out. It was just a different environment."

There was a growing sense of fear among staff at the institution as managers changed the focus from looking for creative ways to deal with inmates to one of focusing on security, McGinnis said.

"Grand Valley had changed from the summer and from the last time I was there," he said. "I just found the institute, the whole aura about it had changed."

Staff went from trying to help female inmates with their problems to working with police to lay more criminal charges for bad behaviour, McGinnis said.

"I just sensed there was more focus on security and less on interventions; that staff were different. There was a sense of fear among the managers."

McGinnis said when Smith arrived at Grand Valley, he prepared a plan to work with her that included hiring more staff, providing for more staff interaction with her, and having other prisoners interact with her.

But he testified the plan fell apart as psychologists opposed the idea of prisoners helping each other, and corrections officials complained about the failure to lay criminal charges when Smith lashed out against staff.

Smith was incarcerated for the first time at age 15. The inquest began on Jan. 14, 2013 and has given a glimpse into the troubled teen’s times in the prison system before her death in October 2007. In the last year of her life, Smith was transferred 17 times among nine institutions in five provinces.

The inquest has heard testimony from Smith’s mother, several guards, and a prison supervisor who said they were uncomfortable with orders to ignore Smith and not to remove ligatures around her neck if she was breathing. Prison officials, psychologists, psychiatrists, and nurses have also been among the more than 50 witnesses to testify in the inquest to date.

The inquest will continue for several weeks as Corrections Canada managers from regional and national headquarters are called to testify.