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Week before Ashley Smith died she wanted to kill herself, inquest hears

Copy shots of Ashley Smith photographed at the law offices of Falconer Charney LLP in Toronto, Ont. March 2, 2009. As Ashley Smith slowly choked herself to death at dawn in her Kitchener, Ont., prison cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, seven guards looked on because they were instructed not to intervene if the troubled federal inmate was still breathing. Court transcripts about Ms. Smith's 2007 death, obtained by The Globe and Mail, show that prison managers were trying to curtail the reviews and paperwork triggered each time guards entered her cell to stop her frequent attempts at self-asphyxiation. A manager testified she was pressured to reclassify incident reports so that they wouldn't be filed as "use-of-force" interventions, which require more red tape. In addition, the prison ignored a grievance she had filed, seeking to end her segregation. The complaint wasn't opened until after her death. Her story, a tale of death and red tape run amok, will get more attention today with the release of Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers's report on her case. Ms. Smith was a Moncton teen convicted of minor crimes - public disturbance, throwing apples at a postal worker, stealing a CD - who spent most of her last four years in maximum security segregation because of her unruly jailhouse behaviour. Details of the case were confidential until now because four correctional employees were charged with criminal negligence. However, charges were dropped last December. The Crown said it determined that the guards couldn't have saved Ms. Smith in time. Correctional officials have said they will not comment on the case because a coroner's inquest still has to be held.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

A young woman who choked herself to death in an Ontario prison often tied ligatures around her neck because she liked how it felt, not because she wanted to hurt herself, but a week before her death despair set in, a coroner's inquest heard Wednesday.

Ashley Smith, 19, choked herself to death with a strip of cloth on Oct. 19, 2007 at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont. She was kept in near-constant segregation after she was first jailed in 2003.

Correctional manager Janice Sandeson told the inquest Ms. Smith said she tied cloth or other material around her neck to feel something.

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"It caused a sensation for her and that's why she did it," Ms. Sandeson said. "Ashley's like, 'I'm not trying to kill myself. I just do this for the feeling.'"

But Ms. Smith changed on Oct. 12, 2007, a week before she died, Ms. Sandeson said. Ms. Smith had been to court and had more time added to her sentence. When she returned, she said she wanted to kill herself, Ms. Sandeson said.

"This hopelessness came over her," she said. "(She said) she can't stop grabbing people and she can't stop behaving this way so all she could foresee was a future of her getting extra time because she could not stop herself from essentially assaulting people around her."

Ms. Sandeson, who is now an assistant warden of operations at Warkworth Institution, said no "mental health label" was attached to Ms. Smith's file when she was first transferred to Grand Valley.

The inquest heard Tuesday that various assessments throughout Ms. Smith's time in custody as a young offender came up with many different mental health diagnoses, including oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder and borderline personality disorder.

Ms. Sandeson said she never saw Ms. Smith make a ligature, but that when she returned from a period at a mental health facility, she had made some out of towels and security blankets and hid them in body cavities.

"Ms. Smith, as the terminology goes, had them hooped....she had inserted them in her vaginal cavity and pulled them out when and if she desired to use them," Ms. Sandeson said. "If someone hides something in their vaginal cavity they could have that there for a very long period of time and a very large amount. That's probably something most people don't understand is the amount of items people can keep in the area."

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The coroner's jury was shown a video Wednesday of Grand Valley guards trying to coax Ms. Smith to hand over pieces of blanket she ripped up in her cell.

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