The mother of a teenager who killed herself in her prison cell choked back tears as she recalled how years of segregation appeared to diminish her daughter.
In a harrowing account of the last time she saw her daughter alive, Coralee Smith described her shock at Ashley’s appearance during the visit in the summer of 2007.
“Oh, mom, my skin is all loose,” Ashley told her mother through the Plexiglas screen that separated them. “She was not a 19-year-old girl at that point; she was aged,” an emotional Ms. Smith told an inquest jury. “She was a lot smaller.”
Four guards at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., had brought Ashley into the interview room, her mother recounted. She was in handcuffs, shackles and dressed in a security gown aimed at preventing suicides. Her hair looked dirty.
Ashley had difficulty seeing out of it an injured eye – damage apparently from choking herself by tying ligatures around her neck. “When you come home, we’ll take you to an optometrist,” Ms. Smith told her daughter.
Ms. Smith, 65, of Moncton, who travelled extensively to visit her daughter, said she never knew about Ashley’s self-harming behaviour or lengthy segregation stints.
Asked what they talked about, Ms. Smith said, “coming home.”
At the end of the visit, Ms. Smith put her hand to the screen but Ashley – an afraid-of-the-dark homebody who normally liked to hold hands – appeared reluctant to follow suit.
“I watched them take her down the hall,” Ms. Smith said. “It was the last time I saw Ashley alive.”
A few months later, after yet another prison transfer, Ashley choked herself to death with a ligature at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener. Guards, ordered not to intervene, stood by and watched.
Five years on, Ms. Smith said, no one has been held responsible and nothing has changed for prisoners with mental-health issues.
“I still see no accountability. Ashley died on the floor. There was no help for her,” Ms. Smith testified. “Ladies and gentlemen, this was Canada. Inmates are allowed to take their own lives and, I say, with assistance because they stood around.”
Outside coroner’s court, Ms. Smith read a brief statement.
She said she had come voluntarily to testify, and challenged Don Head, commissioner of Correctional Service of Canada, and others in charge to do likewise. “There are many more Ashleys out there,” Ms. Smith said.
The inquest has heard how Ashley showed increasingly aberrant behaviour, including frequently choking herself.
Her daughter even asked her, in the days before she died, what a mother would think if her child committed suicide, Ms. Smith testified.
Still, Ms. Smith said she is convinced Ashley never meant to kill herself.
“I knew she didn’t commit suicide,” Ms. Smith said, fighting back tears. Ashley was coming home.“
Ms. Smith said a family should not have to fight for five years to get a thorough airing of what went so tragically wrong with her daughter, who spent most of the last three years of her life in segregation.
Having missed calls from Ashley over a few days, Ms. Smith said she was carrying her phone at home with her on Oct. 19, 2007, in expectation of another call from her daughter.
A van pulled up. “Two strangers met me at the end of the driveway. I had a feeling they were some religious group or the Salvation Army,” Ms. Smith said.
“Are you Ashley Smith’s mother?”
“Yes, I’m just waiting for a phone call.”
“I’m sorry, I have to tell you that she passed away.”
A distraught Ms. Smith called Eric Broadbent, a correctional manager at the prison where Ashley died.
Mr. Broadbent, who once promised Ms. Smith he would take good care of Ashley, was among managers who later berated guards for going into her cell to remove ligatures from her neck.
The inquest has previously heard that Ashley, adopted as a three-day-old, was obsessed with her parentage, believing that her sister was in fact her biological mother.
Presiding coroner John Carlisle shut down a juror who asked Ms. Smith to elaborate on the issue.
Outside court, Ms. Smith said: “We are her family. We are not perfect. But we will never accept that Ashley should have been treated in this manner.”
The inquest resumes Monday.