Broaden Ashley Smith inquest: lawyer

A coroner's inquest into the final few months of Ashley Smith's life must be broadened to fully understand her "barbaric" living conditions and learn fully what led to the death of the troubled New Brunswick teen, a lawyer for her family argued.

An Ontario coroner's inquest into the final few months of Ashley Smith's life must be broadened to fully understand her "barbaric" living conditions and learn fully what led to the death of the troubled New Brunswick teen, a lawyer for her family argued.

"Excluding a full look into Ashley Smith’s state of mind in the final 11.5 months of her life could impede the jury in determining whether her death was truly a suicide or an accident," Julian Falconer told coroner Bonita Porter in a coroner's court.

The scope of the inquest is being argued Monday in Toronto. Porter in January is set to examine the final few months of Smith’s life in Ontario prisons, and how in October 2007 while in isolation she managed to choke herself to death with a piece of cloth while guards at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., looked on. They had been ordered not to intervene.

But the family argues the inquest will fail to fully explore what led to the 19-year-old's mental decline and death unless the coroner agrees to probe the decisions throughout the final year of the girl’s life during which prison officials transferred her 17 times among a series of institutions — from the Maritimes, to Ontario, to the Prairies — denying her adequate mental health treatment.

Falconer said the jury needs to hear about "the illegal transfers, the barbaric state she was held in, and the deleterious effect it had on her mental health."

Curtailing the inquest to look only at May 2007 until her death in October 2007, as opposed to her entire 11½ months and 17 transfers within federal correctional facilities, would artificially cut out key circumstances that led to her death, Falconer said.

"Seventeen transfers, repeated misuse of isolation and withholding of basic health services were just as lethal as the ligatures which Ms. Smith used to strangle herself," he said. 

"If you, coroner Porter, curtail this key evidence around her state of mind, you thus curtail the family’s ability to make the case this death was other than a suicide," Falconer said.

Attempt to off-load

Falconer said Smith's treatment was "one of the most outrageous, barbaric examples of  treatment of a mentally ill person this country has ever witnessed."

The transfers, Falconer argued, were attempts by prison staff to off-load a hard-to-deal-with inmate and had little or nothing to do with Ashley’s needs.

"The Correctional Service of Canada shuttled her from institution to institution to avoid detection and avoid providing her the treatment she needed. A broad inquest is essential to ensure no one is ever again put through what Ashley was put through," he said.

The family is bolstered by surprise revelations found in a report by Correctional Service of Canada’s own independent psychologist Margo Rivera, which only surfaced publicly last week.

The Correctional Service psychologist concludes prison officials’ repeated transfers of Smith, against doctor’s orders, starting in 2006, interfered with her progress in mental health therapy and only escalated the girl’s spiral toward her death.

What's more, Rivera concludes that Ashley believed guards would intervene and that her self-choking behaviour was not an attempt to kill herself, rather it "met her need for increasing the level of stimulation" by provoking guards, forcing them to enter her isolation cell to save her.

"I consider it highly likely that Ashley Smith’s death was not a suicide, but rather an accident … that no one intended," the psychologist’s report concludes.

Smith was sent to the following institutions: Nova Institution for Women, Prairies Regional Psychiatric Centre, Phillipe-Pinel Mental Health Unit for Women Offenders, Joliette Institution for Women, Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, Grand River Hospital, St. Thomas Hospital and the Grand Valley Institution for Women.

Much of the time she was held in isolation, on suicide watch, cut off from stimulation, exercise, human contact and adequate clothing, according to the family.

Despite reports by New Brunswick’s ombudsman and the Office of the Correctional Investigator, the family is appealing to the Ontario coroner to broaden the inquest so that correctional service staff outside of Ontario can be fully interviewed.

The coroner, however, is fighting the family’s request.

Coroner’s counsel Eric Siebenmorgen, in motion materials, argues that looking back at all of the prison transfers dating back to the early days of Smith’s decline is not necessary and runs the risk of obscuring the focus of the inquest, preventing it from "concentrating on the really important issues directly related to Ms. Smith’s death in Ontario."

Siebenmorgen states that a broader examination of Smith’s treatment by prison officials before her death might be better suited to a public inquiry, but is not the mandate for a coroner's inquest.