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A handout photo of Ashley Smith, 19, who died October 19, 2007 in an apparent suicide at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. (HO/The Canadian Press)
A handout photo of Ashley Smith, 19, who died October 19, 2007 in an apparent suicide at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. (HO/The Canadian Press)

Christie Blatchford

Inquest last chance to get full story of Ashley Smith tragedy Add to ...

I am an embarrassed latecomer to the story of Ashley Smith.

Near as I can tell, though her death was certainly reported, particularly well by The Globe's Peter Cheney and Tu Thanh Ha, it first broke into the public consciousness in a huge way in January of 2008, when a remarkable documentary about the mentally ill teenager who died while a guest of Her Majesty, complete with shocking in-prison video, was aired on CBC's The Fifth Estate.

Frankly, my general antipathy to watching CBC ( Hockey Night in Canada aside) did me no favours, because somehow I missed the show, and more importantly, missed the boat.

Ms. Smith's story is so outrageous, her treatment in New Brunswick's system and later within the federal Correctional Service of Canada so rough and misdirected and ghastly, that it beggars belief.

What follows are just some of the measures to which she was subjected while in one form of custody or another in this country - and all this, you must bear in mind, was done not to some hardened violent criminal, but to a mentally disturbed girl whose worst crimes, if they can even be so labelled, were pulling fire alarms, pelting a mailman with apples and making harassing phone calls.

She was tasered and pepper-sprayed in her cell; subjected to the WRAP, a super-restraint that saw her bound from head to toe, with a hockey helmet on her head; at least once, while being transferred from one institution to another, she was duct-taped to her seat; she was forcibly injected with massive doses of antipsychotic drugs, these often prescribed over the phone by what Julian Falconer, the lawyer for Ms. Smith's family sneeringly, and properly so, describes as a "tele-doctor"; threatened by a nurse who appears to have come directly from casting for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and for most of her time, both as a young person and as a prisoner in the adult system, Ms. Smith was held in what is variously called segregation, isolation, the hole and, at the New Brunswick Youth Centre, in a magnificent bit of Orwellian Newspeak, the "therapeutic quiet unit," or TQ.

In other words, from the time she first entered the N.B. Youth Centre as a 15-year-old to the time of her death by asphyxiation on Oct. 19, 2007, this girl was mostly alone.

If the most common diagnosis made of her illness was on the money - anti-social personality disorder with borderline traits, an unlovable combination - it meant Ms. Smith was systematically denied the very thing - attention and contact - that her illness made her crave.

Now, she was a handful, and was, at almost every institution where she was held, the record-holder as the single-most problematic inmate.

A normal little girl until she was about 10, she grew into what shrinks call an "oppositional" teen (this is how anti-social personality disorder is often ascribed to those too young to formally diagnose), mouthy and sometimes physical. And she was a big girl, weighing almost 250 pounds (according to one report) when she died, so when she didn't want to follow orders, she was a formidable force. She once managed to break out of her handcuffs, regularly spit on her handlers and fought them.

But she also joked with them and, as The Fifth Estate video shows, even mugged flirtatiously for some or for the camera that was almost always on her.

After she entered the N.B. Youth Centre and began getting her first regular doses of TQ, Ms. Smith began to act out by harming herself. She would cut at herself, make nooses and tie material around her neck.

The usual response, in most institutions, was that guards would see this - being in segregation meant being under surveillance - and would rush in to save her: In other words, her tactics would be rewarded.

One guard, one of those on duty at Kitchener's Grand Valley Institution the morning she died, estimates he himself had at least 30 or 40 times cut ligatures from Ms. Smith's neck.

Shortly before her death, this officer talked to her for about 30 minutes. She told him she was feeling the need to "tie up"; he tried to talk her out of it.

"I know what I'm doing," she told him. "You [staff]will always come in."

Ms. Smith didn't know, couldn't have known, that staff were under direct orders and increasing pressure not to intervene any more, that they shouldn't enter her cell unless she had stopped breathing.

All this information is found in a report done in October of 2008 for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which quotes guards who dealt with her from across the country.

According to the report, the young woman so often tied ligatures around her neck that several blood vessels in her face had burst, leaving it permanently discolored, and she had lost her sight in one eye.

It appears, from the four reports I've now read on Ms. Smith's death, that no one believed she really wanted to die, but that she was tying up as the only way left her to draw other human beings, even those wearing protective gear and uniforms, into her cell.

The Ontario coroner's inquest, now scheduled for May and with the lawyer for Ms. Smith's family still facing huge hurdles from the coroner herself if he is to be able to get at the whole truth, is the last best hope for a full picture.

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