Toronto

Ashley Smith inquiry begins Monday

On the eve of a coroner's inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, a troubled young New Brunswick woman who died in prison, serious questions are being raised about how effective it will be with gaping holes left unfilled.

On the eve of a coroner's inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, a troubled young New Brunswick woman who died in prison, serious questions are being raised about how effective it will be with gaping holes left unfilled.

Ashley Smith, 19, choked herself to death in a Kitchener, Ont., prison in 2007 and while the inquest is expected to be lengthy, her family believes the truth of what happened may not be fully known even after six to nine months of hearings.

"Ashley's story will never be truly understood as long as there is this myopic focus on the last day of her life in a cell, as if there wasn't the context that led to her desperate state of mind," Smith family lawyer Julian Falconer said in an interview.

Smith's mother, Coralee Smith, has said she has been fighting for four years so that the truth can be known about the abuse she alleges her daughter suffered, but that now she has "completely lost confidence in this process."

The inquest has been bogged down for months before it even begins with procedural wrangling about what evidence should be put before the jury. The family fears that will spill over into the inquest, or that the process will begin with key issues left unresolved.

"From the family's point of view, this is becoming increasingly untenable," Falconer said.

At the heart of the wrangling is the scope of the inquest. It was originally slated to look at the last 13 weeks of Smith's life, but the family pushed to have it broadened to the whole 11 months she was in federal custody.

During that time — most of which was spent in isolation — she was transferred 17 times between prisons and other facilities across the country, and the constant movement meant the mentally ill woman never got the chance to be properly treated, the family alleges.

Dr. Bonita Porter agreed in November to broaden the scope, saying evidence wouldn't "necessarily" be restricted by Smith's age, geography, date or institution.

The family was originally heartened by the new scope, but has since met with what they perceive as more roadblocks to the truth.

'Shocking and disturbing' videos

Porter has declined to include videos of Smith's treatment at Quebec's Joliette prison for women. The "shocking and disturbing" videos show Smith strapped to a metal gurney and forcibly injected with antipsychotic medication against her will, according to the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, who was seen the images.

Falconer has taken the matter, on behalf of the Smith family, through several levels of the courts, trying to get the videos included in the inquest. But, pending a decision from a panel of Divisional Court judges, the videos still will not be shown.

Smith choked herself with a strip of cloth at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., Video evidence shows staff failed to respond immediately to the emergency.

What was originally a 90-day sentence for throwing crabapples at a postal worker became a life sentence for Smith as in-custody incidents kept prolonging her jail time.

During her incarceration, Smith was choking herself and engaging in other self-harming behaviour, which only escalated as time ticked on, said Susan Chapman, who is representing the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies at the inquest. At Grand Valley, there were 49 incidents in seven weeks.

Smith told a psychiatrist she knew staff would come in to rescue her when she choked herself, Chapman said, citing an internal 2007 report commissioned by Correctional Services that concluded Smith's death was likely an accident and not a suicide.

But, tragically, no one told Smith the rules had changed and guards had been instructed not to enter the cell, Chapman said. It is still unclear how long they waited before entering her cell that day.

Smith's family considers all evidence about her transfers and confinement relevant to explaining her desperate state of mind and why she engaged in self-harming behaviours.

Kim Pate, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, has similar concerns that the jury won't be able to make informed conclusions without all the evidence.

"We're hoping that the coroner will decide to ensure that all of the evidence that needs to be heard is heard," she said in an interview.

"We're quite concerned that to date she has not indicated that she will be having as extensive an examination as we think needs to occur."

Ideally, the inquest jury will be able to come up with recommendations about the way mentally ill people are treated in prisons, Pate said. Nothing can bring the young woman back, but Pate hopes the inquest can lead to better treatment for others in the same situation.

"In life, we were not able to get the answers about why Corrections was treating Ashley the way they were, nor were we able to have a full picture of who Ashley was," she said.

"I think there's an opportunity now for that to be changed."

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