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Uncommon resilience in impossible situation on display in Ashley Smith video

A video showing an incident at a federal prison involving Ashley Smith.

On one of the videos depicting parts of Ashley Smith's time in the federal prison system that were played Wednesday at the Ontario coroner's inquest now examining her death, the young woman herself came into view.

The first time it happened, it was sudden, like a full moon bursting through night clouds: Her beautiful face, high cheek boned and a touch almond eyed, was abruptly just there in the window of her cell door, caught by the camera.

She was smiling a sweet cat's smile, incongruous given the confrontational hours that immediately preceded this glimpse of her.

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She seemed serene, even flirty, certainly funny.

One of the female guards apologized for bugging her.

Ms. Smith smiled again. "You don't bug me," she said with a grin.

"If it was X," and here she named another guard, "now, she bugs me."

What was bitterly clear was that this child-like girl and her captors were together trapped in some circle of hell Dante never got around to naming.

What was this teenager, who had no criminal record but apple throwing and fire alarm pulling before being jailed, ever doing in prison? Why were these guards, at least some of them kind and extraordinarily patient and fond of her, ever charged with what was euphemistically called her care?

And how could any of them - Ms. Smith or the guards - ever have been expected to win, to succeed, to find a way out for her, in prison, a place thrumming with disembodied voices on police-type radios, the sounds of stamping boots and clanging metal, stupid procedures with elaborate names (the "situational management model") that were prettily diagrammed out without being ever being grazed by common sense?

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The astonishing thing, the testament to human resilience, is that they were all still trying, Ms. Smith and her guards.

She died in that cell (or one like it) at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener on the morning of Oct. 19, 2007, at the age of 19.

But she had spent most of her adolescence behind bars, in isolation, first as a youth in her native New Brunswick, then briefly in the N.B. provincial system, and then, after she turned 18, in a mind-boggling 17 different prisons and hospitals in the federal system.

By this point in her life, she should have been hardened. She wasn't. She was an attention seeker of monstrous proportions, mercurial, an oxygen sucker with an incendiary temper. She could be crude, as when a guard asked, "Are you going to give Jenny her glasses back?" and Ms. Smith replied cheerily, "Are you going to fuck yourself?"

But hardened? Dear God, no. She was excruciatingly polite, always saying thanks for the small treats she was allowed while in mid-battle (water, a fresh tampon, an averted glance from a male guard) and she liked some of her captors.

"Blainnnnnnnne!" she bellowed once for Blaine Phibbs. He arrived, spoke to her with his exquisite manners, praised her at the slightest opportunity, scrupulously looked away if she wanted privacy. Mr. Phibbs spent 30 minutes on his haunches outside her cell, talking her down through the meal slot.

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This day, when she suddenly showed herself in the window, was June 20, 2007, almost exactly four months before her death.

It had been a manic day already: Ms. Smith began tying ligatures around her neck shortly before noon, and by 2 p.m., guards had been continuously watching her through the window, trying to persuade her to remove the ligature or sheet she had flung over the window; most terribly, trying to gauge from those asinine vantage points through window or meal slot if she was breathing or cutting herself or fashioning a new ligature - and once they actually had to enter the cell to remove a tie from her neck.

(While some of these tying efforts were minor, some were not. On one video, a female guard not much older than Ms. Smith noted gratefully that her colour was pale, no longer purple; in another, a guard remarked that her breathing seemed laboured.)

They restrained her then, cuffing her from behind, but within minutes had her stick her arms through the slot, removed the cuffs and for the second time, brought the nurse to check her out.

"How are your arms, Ashley?" the nurse asked.

"Okay," she said.

"Are they hurting you?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Well," the nurse said, "you resisted … that will cause pain."

She asked to look at Ms. Smith's neck, and as she bent down, Ms. Smith's hand flew out of the slot and grabbed the nurse's glasses.

A female guard snapped, "Grab the OC [pepper spray]please! You assaulted her and you are on a charge!"

But no one used the spray. Instead, other guards tried to cajole Ms. Smith into giving the glasses back.

The fawn at that window, as Janice Sandeson testified Wednesday, was full of surprises, now a child, now a near-adult, walking more precariously than most the precarious line of adolescence.

Ms. Sandeson was then an assistant team leader and correctional manager at Grand Valley. She too would sit outside her cell some nights, when Ms. Smith wanted to talk. Then, just like the guards she supervised, Ms. Sandeson would go home after a 16-hour shift, and wonder how she would, the next day, manage to keep Ms. Smith alive.

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