Canada
MICHELE MANDEL - 'No help for Ashley,' mom testifies

Coralee Smith, mother of Ashley Smith, speaks during a news conference in response to a federal report detailing the events surrounding her daughter's death.

Credits: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

MICHELE MANDEL | QMI AGENCY

TORONTO -- When her troubled 19-year-old daughter was first transferred to the Grand Valley federal prison in Kitchener, Ont., the manager called Coralee Smith in New Brunswick and assured her that Ashley was in good hands.

"I'm going to take really good care of her," Smith recalled him saying.

And she believed him. Perhaps she was wilfully blind, but she trusted him nonetheless, both him and the federal penitentiary system that had been bouncing her daughter from prison to prison across the country.

Smith didn't know Ashley was being kept in solitary confinement and denied human warmth, she says. She didn't know her daughter was hiding strips of cloth in her body cavities and then tying them around her neck almost every day.

Ashley didn't disclose the depth of her pain and desperation. She wanted to protect her mom -- and in an act of self-preservation, Smith has admitted to not delving too deeply because she couldn't bear to know the full scope of the horror her child was experiencing.

But she was soon to find out.

On Oct. 19, 2007, Smith was in her yard with the phone in her pocket because she was expecting a call from Ashley.

Instead, she saw two strangers in a van drive up to her Moncton, N.B., home.

Five months after that prison manager's promise to take good care of her daughter, they had come to tell her that they were very sorry, but Ashley had "passed away" at Grand Valley.

More than five years later, she's still waiting to understand why.

"I still see no accountability. Ashley died on the floor.

There was no help for her," she told the long-delayed inquest into her daughter's death. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Canada. Our inmates are allowed to take their own lives and I say with assistance because they were standing outside."

Ashley died of asphyxiation in her segregation cell after tying yet another ligature around her neck. Unknown to the self-harming prisoner, the rules had recently changed: While guards would always rush in to cut them off in the past, they were now under orders not to intervene until she stopped breathing.

By the time they went in on that fateful morning, it was too late. "I saw the video. I heard her last gasps. I knew when she quit breathing. While they were in the hall discussing, someone should have been there," she said. "I think there should have been an inquiry. Who gives such orders (not to intervene)? We still don't know."

But she is sure of one thing -- her daughter didn't intend to kill herself. "Ashley was coming home," she said fiercely as tears filled her eyes.

That's all they talked about -- their plans for when she would finally come home to Moncton after spending the previous year transferred 17 times to nine different prisons. But a week before her death, a judge had added more time to Ashley's sentence for assaulting a guard.

In a phone call home on Oct. 16, 2007, her daughter asked a strange question. "She said, Mom, what would a mother do if her child committed suicide?'"

She told Ashley it would be absolutely devastating -- never imagining she would live that nightmare herself just three days later.

The final image she has of her daughter comes from their last visit together five months earlier at a prison in Nova Scotia. Seeing Ashley from behind a Plexiglas window, she was shocked by her changed appearance -- in shackles and handcuffs and wearing a white cloth suicide gown, she seemed shrunken and almost drugged.

"She was not a 19-year-old girl at that point. She was aged," Smith recalled as she fought back tears.

She put her hand up against the glass and asked her usually affectionate daughter to do the same. "She asked me, 'What for?'"

After their visit, the heartbroken mom watched her broken child shuffle down the prison hallway, four guards at her side. "It's the last time I saw Ashley alive," she said.

They wouldn't be able to fly her body home until 10 days after her death. Smith was asked if she met her daughter's coffin at the airport.

"I promised Ashley I would bring her home. So yes, I did," she said.

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