An inquest into the death of a teenage Canadian prison inmate has opened in Toronto, where coroners are examining video footage of the 19-year-old woman being hooded, manhandled, bound with parcel tape and forcibly injected with anti-psychotic drugs.
Observers say it is Canada’s prison system which is on trial, after the footage was finally released late on Wednesday, following a five-year legal battle to bring the videos into the open.
Ashley Smith was 14 years old when she threw crab apples at a postman, an offence which landed her in a youth facility for a month – a sentence which was constantly extended due to her disruptive and occasional violent behaviour.
After nearly four years of incarceration, the teenager from New Brunswick killed herself in October 2007 – despite being placed under formal suicide watch by the institution where she was held.
“She may have been a pain to them, she may have called to them too often, she may have pressed her call button too often, she may at times even done things that are more assaultive, but clearly that was not who she was all of the time,” said Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a group focused on women and girls in the justice system.
Smith was transferred 17 times to 11 different prisons within the final year of her life, spending most of that time in solitary confinement. Prisoners kept in isolation are subject to review after 60 days; the transfers prevented such reviews from taking place.
Canadian prison lawyers argue that coroners should only examine the final week of her life. Widening the scope to cover the treatment Smith received in the previous months and years would turn the inquest into a “full-blown inquiry into the operations and management of Correctional Service Canada, which is not permitted”.
One of the videos released to the public, over the objections of the Correctional Service, shows Smith being hooded and shackled to a seat while on a transfer flight. Guards refuse to let her use the bathroom while she appears to sit in her own feces.
Minutes later in that video, a co-pilot instructs guards in binding her wrists together with duct tape, threatening to tape her face.
In another video, armoured guards wearing black helmets and gas masks pin Smith down and strap her to a gurney.
“Ashley’s death was an absolute tragedy,” Lori Pothier of Correction Services Canada told Al Jazeera at the inquest.
“Any human death is an absolute tragedy and we have such sincere condolences. We’ve expressed them before and I’ll reiterate them to Mrs Smith, to the family and friends of Ashley. It’s a terrible tragedy. We are participating here voluntarily because we want to learn any new solutions that will help us prevent future tragedies.”
Smith was reportedly diagnosed with mental illnesses including borderline personality disorder. During her time in youth detention she was reportedly involved in more than 800 reported incidents, and at least 150 attempts to physically harm herself.
A 2010 CBC documentary found she had been subdued by physical force, pepper sprayed and cocooned in a restrictive body bag: “The longer Smith was confined to her various segregation cells, the worse her behaviour became and the more extreme, and frequent, the punishments. What she really needed was mental health assessment and treatment. She never got it.”
Smith’s final days were spent at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. She was placed on suicide watch on October 18, 2007, after requesting a transfer to a psychiatric facility. She was discovered the following day, with a ligature around her neck, but it was reportedly some hours before guards entered her cell and she was pronounced dead.
“We judge the civility of this nation by the state of its prisons,” Ontario Child Advocate Richard Macklin told Al Jazeera.
“And we’re finding out now that prison authorities are not looking after inmates – in fact they’re abusing them severely. so this inquest is going to shine a light on that practice and we’re going to make sure we do what we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
This is the second inquest into Smith’s death. The first was declared a mistrial after a number of legal challenges and the retirement of the coroner.
A hearing into the witness list will commence on November 14, and a jury is to begin hearing evidence in the case in January.