TORONTO – The head of Canada’s federal prisons sought to boost morale among guards in the days after the release of disturbing surveillance videos showing the drugging and duct-taping of a teenaged inmate who died in custody, documents show.
In an internal memo to staff approved by the highest levels of government, Don Head, commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, admitted the treatment of Ashley Smith was substandard, but insisted it did not reflect usual standards.
“I understand that this negative media coverage, especially the videos of Ashley Smith in custody, is upsetting to Canadians, Ashley Smith’s family, and many of you,” Head, who has otherwise not spoke publicly, wrote in the memo Nov. 8.
“These images are not reflective of the kind of correctional system Canadians expect of us, nor are they reflective of the work that goes on every day in our institutions.”
A long-awaited coroner’s inquest into Smith’s death begins hearing evidence Monday, more than five years after the disturbed 19-year-old choked herself to death in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., while guards, under orders not to intervene, looked on.
The videos were screened publicly for the first time Oct. 31. after a fierce legal struggle over the scope of the inquest in which Corrections, along with several doctors who had treated Smith, tried unsuccessfully to have them kept secret.
The images caused public outrage at how Smith, of Moncton, N.B., was handled, even prompting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to rebuke prison authorities.
A draft of the memo — obtained by federal New Democrats under Access to Information laws — shows Head wanted to deny what he called media reports that Corrections “was trying to hide the truth.”
Instead, he said, prison authorities wanted the “disturbing” videos screened during the inquest proper to protect its integrity.
“As we all know, the videos do not convey the countless efforts made by our staff to effectively intervene and respond to self-harming incidents,” he wrote in lines deleted in the final version of the memo.
Other documents also reveal the determination of the government to control the information flow, with strict instructions that any spokesmen stick to pre-approved messaging.
Those lines include the fact that unspecified disciplinary action was taken over Smith’s treatment “to hold implicated individuals accountable.”
“It’s kind of a perfect example that (the Conservatives) spend more time on communication strategies than they do on the actual problems,” said Randall Garrison, the NDP’s public safety critic.
The approved messaging also makes it clear that Corrections — along with prisoner advocates and the guards union — believes the mentally ill are best treated by mental-health facilities, not in prisons.
Presiding coroner, Dr. John Carlisle, has made it clear that’s one area he wants explored at the inquest, which will be live-streamed on the Internet. The hearing is expected to last at least six months.
Among those closely watching the inquest will be Smith’s mother.
“Coralee Smith was told that when her daughter went into the federal system, she would find supports and help that wasn’t available anywhere else,” said lawyer Julian Falconer.
“The family feels utterly betrayed by Correctional Services.”
Kept almost entirely in segregation, the increasingly troubled teen spent the last year of her life shunted 17 times among nine institutions in five provinces. She tried to hurt herself with alarming frequency.
Smith was adopted when she was five days old. She began to act out starting at age 10, the beginning of a long downward spiral that saw her suspended from schools and find herself in youth custody at age 15.
In the three years she was in custody in New Brunswick, Smith racked up hundreds of recorded incidents, ranging from refusal to hand over a hair brush, to self-harm and suicide attempts, according to a report by province’s child advocate.
The report shows in September 2006, weeks before she was forced into the adult prison system, Smith wrote in her journal: “If I die, then I will never have to worry about upsetting my mom again.”
This is the second inquest into her death. The first collapsed last year amid months of bitter legal fights when the coroner, Dr. Bonita Porter, abruptly resigned.