TORONTO – The haunting protests of a now dead teenager filled a coroner’s courtroom Wednesday as surveillance videos were screened showing the troubled inmate repeatedly tranquilized against her will or being threatened with having her face duct-taped.
The disturbing images of Ashley Smith — finally released after a two-year fight — showed the 19-year-old at several points in the run-up to her October 2007 choking death in a prison cell in Kitchener, Ont.
“Ow, it hurts,” a hooded Smith yells at one point as prison guards duct-tape her reddened hands to an airplane seat.
“Trust me: I am calm,” she says in a thin voice at another point, as guards threaten her.
The airplane video, from April 2007, shows Smith’s transfer from a Saskatoon prison, where she had an altercation with a guard who was charged, then acquitted, of assaulting her.
Although she doesn’t appear to be putting up much resistance and she’s wearing two “spit hoods” over her face, the guards duct-tape her hands to the arm rests.
The pilot then weighs in.
“Don’t bite me,” he says.
“I’m not,” Smith responds.
“It’ll get worse if you do.”
“How can it get worse?”
‘I’ll duct-tape your face.’
“He’s serious, Ashley,” a female guard interjects.
Julian Falconer, Smith’s family lawyer, led the hearing through the clips, which Correctional Service Canada had fought unsuccessfully to keep out of public view.
“This is how CSC does business in transferring a victim,” Falconer said grimly.
Smith was first arrested at 13 for assault and causing a disturbance. She continued to find herself in trouble for making harassing phone calls and pulling a fire alarm, then was first thrown in jail at 15 for throwing crab apples at a postal worker.
Her sentence ballooned from days to years as time was added for numerous in-custody incidents.
Despite deteriorating mental health, Smith spent the last year of her life in prolonged segregation, transferred 17 times among nine institutions in five provinces.
Correctional Service Canada is fighting to narrow the scope of the inquest into her death, arguing the coroner has no jurisdiction to delve into the federal prison system.
Falconer called the position absurd.
“Don’t let them get away with it,” he told presiding coroner, Dr. John Carlisle.
“If you mistreat someone often enough, surely that will affect how they behave.”
Falconer noted that Don Head, now the CSC commissioner, said five weeks after Smith’s death in an email that he had serious concerns about the duct-taping.
“If it did occur and no followup occurred, we have a major problem,” Head said.
Yet a board of inquiry essentially found no issues, the lawyer said.
Other clips from the Joliette Institution in Montreal just three months before Smith’s death show half-a-dozen guards in full riot gear surrounding the largely docile teen — who is strapped to a gurney — as a nurse gives her tranquilizing injections.
“Tell her she has no choice,” a nurse identified only as Melanie tells the guards, one of whom presses down on Smith’s body with a riot shield.
“I didn’t even do anything to myself today,” Smith says ruefully.
The injections were prescribed by a psychiatrist over the phone on the basis of what the nurse relayed, Falconer told the hearing.
He pointed out Smith was given “chemical restraints” five times over seven hours.
“There’s nothing else you can do to me,” Smith says at another point.
“If you’re not calm in the next five minutes, I’m going to give you another injection,” the nurse says.
The family wants both the psychiatrist and the nurse to testify “as a matter of fairness,” Falconer said.
A CSC board of inquiry found guards acted to “preserve” her life however, the correctional investigator concluded her treatment had “clinical and ethical shortcomings.”
Another clip, dated July 26, 2007, shows a half-dozen guards in riot gear going into her cell at 5:32 a.m to wake her up.
“You’re leaving today.”
The video shows some light-hearted banter and even laughs between guards and a completely calm Smith, who is handcuffed.
The nurse says she has two injections to give her. Smith objects mildly. If she stays calm, the nurse says, she’ll get only the two. Otherwise there will be a third.
Surrounded by the guards, Smith presents her arm for the shots, even managing a wan smile.
Although a psychiatrist had only recommended the drugs be given if required, the CSC inquiry board found Smith had accepted the injections of her “own free will and without force being used.”
The correctional investigator decided what was done to Smith had no legal authority and the “abuse” of the rules contributed to her death, Falconer told Carlisle.
Backed by Smith’s family, Carlisle wants a broadly focused inquest that looks, among other things, into how the teenager was treated before she choked herself to death in her cell, after repeated episodes of self-harm.
Lawyers for CSC and three Ontario doctors argued Carlisle’s approach oversteps his legal and constitutional authority.
“This has become an investigation into how CSC treated Ms. Smith, and not an investigation into her death,” Corrections lawyer Nancy Noble said.
Carlisle wants to turn the inquest “into full-blown inquiry into operations and management of CSC,” she said.
In addition, the proposed focus on mental-health treatment would tread on other provinces’ jurisdiction and the scope of the inquest, she said, would go beyond the purpose of Ontario’s Coroner’s Act.
Mark Freiman on behalf of three Ontario doctors who treated Smith raised similar constitutional concerns.
Freiman told Carlisle that provincial inquiries are not allowed to look into federal institutions or services, such as correctional services. The same ban applies to provincial inquiries into another province’s matters, he said.
Freiman leaned heavily on a 1978 Supreme Court of Canada ruling on constitutional jurisdiction known as Keable that set limits on “flexible federalism.”
“Keable has never been questioned, never been overruled, never been circumscribed,” he told Carlisle.
The coroner adjourned the inquest until Nov. 13.
Note to readers: An earlier version of this story referred to a guard assaulting Smith, but this story specifies a guard had been charged with assault but was acquitted.