Ashley Smith's mother told a coroner's inquest looking into the Moncton, N.B., teenager's death in an Ontario prison more than five years ago that her daughter felt scared during her incarceration.

Coralee Smith testified in a Toronto courtroom Wednesday afternoon that her daughter was afraid of other inmates.

"She said they were scary. It was a scary place, and 'there were murderers and everything here, Mom,'" Smith recalled.  

Ashley was first incarcerated at age 15. She was 19 when she died at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., in October 2007, after she tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards, who were ordered not to intervene, stood outside her cell door and watched.   

Smith is the first witness at the inquest who is not connected with the prison or medical systems.

Her depiction of her daughter in prison contrasted sharply with her description of Ashley's childhood. She told the inquest Wednesday about how she adopted Ashley at just three days old, and how she was "smiling and happy" for most of her life.

The courtroom was also shown pictures of Ashley over the years, which included images of her playing with a Cabbage Patch Doll, and posing with members of her family.

"You never saw that girl without a smile on her face," Smith told the inquest. "Most of her life she was smiling and happy."

Problems appeared in Grade 8

Smith described the years leading up to her daughter's death. She said Ashley liked to ride her bike, enjoyed being at home, but was also very independent. She said Ashley started having problems in school in Grade 8. 

"I had no calls, no reports before that," other than a few report card comments about Ashley talking too much or being disruptive in class, Smith said.

In Grade 9, Ashley was expelled for disruptive behaviour, setting off a family quest to find help. At one point, Ashley saw a psychiatrist.

"She opined Ashley was just a normal teenager … Coming out of that, I'm feeling rest assured that things aren't so bad," said Smith. 

Ashley would later go to a residential facility for an assessment that was supposed to last 34 days, but was cut short after 21 days because of her disruptive behaviour.

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Ashley Smith is shown surrounded by guards at Joliette Institution in Joliette, Que., on July 26, 2007 in this image made from video. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario)

"She has a huge personality issue and emotional borderline tendencies," a psychiatric report concluded.

A mental-health report from that stay noted Ashley wanted to know about her adoptive father, but Smith said she didn't have much information to give her.

"He never even sent a birthday card or a Christmas card," she said of her ex. "I can see how that would play on a little girl."

Smith also said she had held off giving her daughter information on her biological parents on the grounds she was just too young.

Smith also described how psychiatrists in 2003 began to recommend her daughter be put on medication, but she was reluctant.

"I was like, 'Why does this girl need this?' … We should understand Ashley was a mom's girl. And it was always, 'Yes, Mom.'"

Mother told about assaults in prison

Smith testified about what she knew about her daughter's treatment in federal prison.

She said Ashley had told her she was assaulted by guards at least three times. Smith told the court she was "beside herself" but felt like she could not go to anyone with her complaints.

"Except family, close friends ... I had no one in a position of authority to talk to," she said.

Smith said she didn't press Ashley for details about her treatment.

"I guess it was self-preservation … maybe I didn't want any more details," she testified.

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Ashley Smith choked to death in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., on Oct. 19, 2007. (Marnie Luke/CBC)

Smith has demanded to know how Ashley was treated in the final months of her life, why the troubled teen was mostly in segregation and why she was moved 17 times to nine prisons in less than a year, and was sometimes forcibly restrained or injected with drugs. 

"The only people who know anything are the hands-on people who were with her," she told CBC News from her home in Dartmouth, N.S., last month.

Since the inquest began on Jan. 14, there has been testimony from several guards and a prison supervisor who said they were uncomfortable with orders to ignore Ashley and not enter her cell to remove ligatures around her neck as long as she was breathing.

Many said they disagreed with those orders while admitting they usually followed them.

Smith said she hopes her daughter's death will bring about significant changes in the way people with mental-health issues are treated in Canadian prisons.

"Ashley couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I hope we can," she said.