TORONTO – The warden of the prison where a teenager choked herself to death retreated behind a wall of denials and memory lapses during her second day of inquest testimony Tuesday.
Under cross-examination, Cindy Berry was adamant she had no idea guards were under orders to stay out of Ashley Smith’s segregation cell as long as the inmate was still breathing.
“I did not give any such direction,” Berry said repeatedly.
Berry insisted she relied on her deputy Joanna Pauline to tell guards at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., when to enter Smith’s cell.
Pauline has testified the instructions to guards came directly from Berry, who described her deputy as incompetent and prone to speaking “gibberish” in a crisis.
Several middle managers have testified to raising their concerns directly with Berry, and challenging her on the instructions as to when to intervene with Smith.
Berry either denied such interactions or said she could not remember any of them.
One guard has testified he told Berry he would rather face discipline for intervening too soon than for doing so too late.
“I did not hear his comments,” Berry said.
Numerous incident reports sent to Berry describe in graphic detail how Smith, 19, of Moncton, N.B., would turn purple or show other clear signs of her self-strangulation.
Those reports also show guards’ distress at being disciplined for rushing in to save the deeply disturbed Smith from choking herself with ligatures.
Berry essentially ignored the reports as she signed off on criticism of the officers for inappropriate or excessive use of force.
“Reading them now, after six years with a different mindset, staff should have gone in,” she said of one incident.
She said she could not explain why she was unaware of the direction circulating throughout the prison that guards were to stay out of the cell if she was still breathing.
Berry said guards were to intervene when Smith was in medical distress.
In her report to higher-ups on the tragedy, Berry said the prison’s response to warnings that Smith was at extreme risk of suicide was to have an officer watch her through her cell-door window.
“This officer was able to observe subtleties in breathing changes,” Berry wrote.
The warden said she never went to see Smith using a ligature, as the deeply disturbed inmate did hundreds of times.
It was, she said, up to guards to use their discretion, experience and training.
“That’s become quite a mantra for you,” Smith’s family lawyer Julian Roy retorted.
Berry said she did not remember the head of prison health care warning her about the physical toll the repeated self-harming episodes were taking on Smith.
“We can add that to the list of things you didn’t know,” Roy said at another point.
On the morning of Oct. 19, 2007, when Smith killed herself as guards videotaped but did not intervene, Berry rushed to the institution.
She met a distraught middle manager, whom she proceeded to chastise for not being in uniform.
“It was very inappropriate to do that at that time,” Berry said.