TORONTO – A correctional manager testified Tuesday that he never barred guards from entering a teenager’s segregation cell if she was still breathing.
Speaking to the Ashley Smith inquest, Eric Broadbent said he made it clear cell entry was allowed if the inmate was in distress.
“Each situation would have to be assessed on its own merits,” said Broadbent, who is now retired.
“You have a gut feeling you have to go by.”
Broadbent said he passed on directives from senior managers at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., that rushing into Smith’s cell simply because she had tied a ligature around her neck was unnecessary.
Smith, he said, liked to trick correctional officers into thinking she was in dire straits as an attention-seeking device.
“She thought it was fun,” Broadbent said.
The cell-entry directive became a source of conflict with staff, who believed they were barred from going in to save Smith as long as she was still breathing.
On one occasion in June 2007, Smith tied a ligature around her neck and lay unmoving on her bed.
One guard, Kerry Kotsos, wrote in her incident report that Broadbent had forbidden them from going in to cut off the ligature.
“As long as inmate Smith was breathing, talking or moving, staff were not to enter her cell,” Kotsos wrote.
Broadbent, who was in charge of the maximum security section at the prison, told the inquest that was never his instruction.
“I don’t know who married all these words up together,” Broadbent said.
The intent from higher ups that he passed on, he said, was to assess whether the need to enter the cell was genuine.
He said he didn’t see Smith turn purple.
“If I’d seen that her face was purple, I think that would have changed my direction,” he said.
Asked to define “distress,” he said it would be if Smith was doing something “other than what would be normal,” such as staggering or not being able to walk properly.
He said he made it clear guards could always go in as long as they were able to justify their action.
Smith, 19, choked herself to death at the prison in October 2007 as guards stood by watching from outside her cell.
Broadbent said he travelled to Pinel Institute in Montreal in April 2007 to meet Smith ahead of her transfer to Grand Valley.
He said he wanted to see what she was like and thought it would be helpful for her to see a familiar face when she got to Kitchener.
“I’d heard that she had acted out a lot and she was a problematic young girl,” he said.
True to form, Smith ripped the sprinkler head off her segregation cell within hours of arriving at Grand Valley, flooding her cell.
To the consternation of other guards, Broadbent would open her cell to talk to her rather than chat through the door because he felt it was better to have a face-to-face conversation.
“I had no need to be fearful of her. I didn’t think she was going to attack me. I felt quite comfortable speaking with her,” he testified.
“They’re not an animal.”
Broadbent said he bought a special phone for her to use so she could talk to her parents in New Brunswick. From what he could tell, Smith came from a “caring environment.”
He choked up as he recalled a phone message from the teen’s mother, Coralee Smith, seeking information about her daughter’s death.
Because police were investigating, senior managers told him not to return the call.
“I wanted to give my condolences,” he said softly, wiping away tears.