New Brunswick

Calls made to classify Ashley Smith's death as homicide

The lawyer for a group that advocates on behalf of women in prison has joined Ashley Smith's family in calling for the Moncton teenager's death in prison to be ruled a homicide.

Lawyers making final submissions at Ontario coroner's inquest into prison death of Moncton teenager

Two more groups have joined Ashley Smith's family in calling for the Moncton teenager's death in prison to be ruled a homicide.

The Elizabeth Fry Society and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have both echoed the call made Monday by the Smith family's lawyer in their closing presentation this week at the Ontario coroner's inquest into Smith's death.

Allison Thornton, the lawyer for the civil liberties group, appeared before the jury of five women Wednesday and supported the contention that Smith's death was a homicide and not an unfortunate accident or suicide.

"It's an ugly verdict but a proper verdict," said Thornton.

Smith was 19 when she died in her cell a the Grand Valley Institute in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007. The mentally troubled Smith had tied a ligature around her neck and choked herself. Guards watched as she choked to death and testified they were acting on orders not to enter he cell to intervene unless she had stopped breathing.

Breese Davies is the lawyer representing the Elizabeth Fry Society and said Smith's problems started when the Correctional Service of Canada ignored her medical needs.

Davies says instead of providing treatment for Smith's attempts to choke herself, managers gave what she calls an illegal order, telling them to wait for Smith to stop breathing before helping her.

"It was that delay, that second-guessing, that hesitation caused by the order that was made, that caused Ashley's death," she said in her appearance at the inquest on Tuesday. "That is a homicide."

Davies says there are 20 women with problems similar to Ashley in the federal prison system.

One has killed herself since this inquiry started in January, said Davies.

Davies says that's even more evidence that the prison system has no idea how to deal with women whose mental illness includes attempts to harm themselves.

"But the evidence is clear that for some women like Ashley, the prison environment itself with a focus on security is incompatible with their recovery," she said.

Davies says these women belong in a hospital where doctors make the decisions on the best treatment – not prison wardens.

Davies wants the jury to recommend measures to control how the Correctional Service treats women in prison. She says the prison system is too secretive and needs more public oversight.

"Without independent oversight, we cannot be confident that this won't ever happen again," she said. "The evidence at this inquest, in my submission, is clear that CSC cannot be trusted to fix the problems that led to Ashley's death without ongoing, external independent over sight of every decision they make."

Davies also said the jury should recommend that female inmates with mental illness receive treatment in provincial hospitals instead of federal prisons.

The civil liberties association is also asking the coroner's jury to recommend that strict guidelines be established on when segregation can be used for inmates, saying it is extremely harmful, especially for those with mental illness.

Thornton equates segregation with corporal punishment and said it should no longer be considered appropriate. She said long-term segregation should never be for more than 15 days because doctors have shown it can cause permanent harm.

Thornton also does not want to see the rules against body cavity searches loosened. She is afraid CSC will want that ability to deal with cases like Smith's. But Thorton said corrections officers shouldn't be given a licence to invade the intimate parts of the body because it will likely have a negative impact on their psyche.

Submissions by lawyers will continue at the inquest until Thursday.

Presiding coroner Dr. John Carlisle is scheduled to give his charge to the jury on Dec. 2.

Smith, who was incarcerated for the first time at age 15, was transferred 17 times among nine institutions in five provinces during the last year of her life, the inquest has heard.