Ashley Smith coroner's jury visit prison cell where teen died

A coroner's jury in Toronto that is probing the case of teenager Ashley Smith visited the small prison cell in the southern Ontario facility where she died five years ago.

5 women jurors toured Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.

A coroner's panel Thursday visited the Southern Ontario prison cell where the teen choked to death in 2007. 3:15

A coroner's jury in Toronto that is probing the case of teenager Ashley Smith visited the small prison cell in the southern Ontario facility where she died five years ago.

The five-woman panel on Thursday toured the federal Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, where the 19-year-old choked to death after tying a piece of cloth around her neck, to get a first-hand look at where she spent her final days.

Jurors asked officials many questions about her cell — a beige-painted cell measuring 1.5 metres wide by three metres long —  in the prison's segregation unit, such as how often it was cleaned, the CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis reported from Kitchener.

The CBC and The Canadian Press are accompanying the inquest panel on their tour as pool media representatives, gathering information for all media outlets.

The panel requested that guards shut the door, with them inside, to get an idea of what it was like for Smith, Roumeliotis added.

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)

"It's clear that these jurors are taking their task really seriously," she said. "They really do want to get a real sense of what Ashley Smith's time in prison was like."

Inside the cell was a single bed with a rolled-up pad that serves as a mattress. There were a sink and a toilet behind a privacy screen, Roumeliotis reported. The cell also had a single window, which was equipped with a camera, she said.

Jurors also took time to peer through the knee-level food slot in the cell door. Smith often lay at the foot of the door, and most of the time, looking through the slot was the only way guards could get a good look at her, Roumeliotis added. There was also a small viewing window at about eye level.

Evidence about what guards could see of the cell interior is expected to play a role given that Smith frequently covered the interior surveillance camera and viewing window with toilet paper, The Canadian Press reported.

Bits of toilet paper are still visible on some of the cameras.

After examining Smith's cell, the jurors and media toured the maximum-security area, Roumeliotis reported, although the troubled teen spent little time there.

2nd inquest attempt

Smith spent years being shuttled back and forth between the country's prisons and was in isolation much of the time.

She died on Oct. 19, 2007, after she tied a ligature around her neck, as prison guards stood outside her cell and watched. They say they were told not to intervene. Guards also videotaped her death, footage of which will be shown to jurors at a later date.

The inquest began Monday, with coroner Dr. John Carlisle calling it the "best memorial to we could give to Ashley."

Ashley Smith, shown surrounded by guards at a prison at Joliette, Que. in July 2007, in this image made from video. Smith spent years being shuttled back and forth among the country's prisons before her death in October 2007. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario)

"We cannot now reverse the course of history as it unfolded, but we can learn from the circumstances of this death, and try … to implement measures to prevent future tragedies," he said Monday in his opening remarks.

This is the second inquest into Smith's death, after the first attempt went off the rails amid acrimonious legal squabbling. That inquest was scrapped after the first presiding coroner retired.

Carlisle has said he wants the impact of prolonged segregation on Smith's mental health explored. Smith suffered from an anti-social personality disorder with borderline traits, psychiatrist Paul Beaudry wrote in a 2010 report.

Family hopes for change

Smith's family says it hopes the inquest will answer lingering questions about the teenager's death, and lead to tangible changes in the system.

The mother of Ashley Smith, Coralee Smith, says she hopes the second inquest into her daughter's death will lead to changes to the correctional system. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

"We still have Ashleys, we still have Ashleys being treated in the same tortuous, horrendous ways that Ashley was treated," her mother, Coralee Smith, told CBC News.

"The money they're using, the money that's being spent keeping people in prison, could be much better directed … at mental health services way before they get to the courtroom, way before."

Smith's family, however, have not been able to attend inquest hearings due to Coralee's frail health, their lawyer Julian Falconer said.

With files from The Canadian Press