In my previous post I reviewed More Tough Crimes edited by William Trudell and Lorene Shyba. In this post I look at the essay Breese Davies contributed on her representation of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), “a national organization that works with and for criminalized women and girls,” at the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith. The essay was of particular interest to me as I was defence counsel in a Saskatchewan trial involving Ms. Smith.
Ms. Smith, 19 at the time of her death, died while incarcerated in a Federal prison in Ontario. A deeply troubled young woman she had a practice of tying ligatures around her neck and choking herself. She had tied such ligatures countless times during her time in prison. On the morning of October 19, 2007 she tied yet another ligature around her neck.
Not long before that morning corrections officers were being subject to discipline for “using ‘force’ too frequently in their efforts to save her life” and prison psychologists told officers “that engaging with Ashley would just encourage her to continue to act out”.
Breese sets out the consequences:
Eventually, the corrections officers were ordered not to enter Ashley’s cell as long as she was still breathing, and so on Otober 19, 2007, they didn’t immediately respond when Ashley once again tied a ligature around her neck. Instead, they watched and waited for close to fifteen minutes, listened as her breath became increasingly laboured, finally entering her cell to remove the ligature. Ultimately, they had waited too long. They waited and watched as she took her last breath. And as per Correctional Services of Canada policy, they videotaped it all.
At the inquest:
CAEFS was determined to show the order to ‘not enter Ashley’s cell until she stopped breathing’ as the real cause of her death.
Other parties at the inquest were seeking a conclusion that she was suicidal or that her death was a tragic accident.
Ms. Davies recognized the difficulty for corrections officers in dealing with Ms. Smith:
I recognize that it was incredibly challenging for correctional staff to work with Ashley, particularly toward the end of her life. She was determined and ingenious, and would use anything she could get her hands on to make a ligature to tie around her neck. She would also cover the surveillance camera in her cell to frustrate staff efforts to monitor her. This resulted in the staff sitting outside her cell for hours on end, watching her through the meal slot in her cell door. It was a mind-numbing task, punctuated by moments of acute danger. Ashley’s self-harming and aggressive behaviour pushed many correctional staff to their breaking point. She confounded the system because of her unpredictability, her ingenuity and her apparent compulsion to harm herself.
What Ms. Davies did not specifically discuss was the physical challenge posed by Ms. Smith who was 5’7” and about 240 pounds. She was strong and quick and volatile. Her size and strength meant she was bigger and stronger than most female corrections officers.
While female corrections officers were expected to deal with her in physical situations it was a continuing problem especially during her stay at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC) in Saskatoon some months before her death.
While I was not a part of the inquest into her death I am very familiar with the challenges faced by correctional officers dealing with Ashley when she had tied ligatures around her neck.
I represented a correctional supervisor, John Tarala, who was charged with assaulting Ms. Smith while she was an inmate at the RPC.
RPC was and is an unusual institution in that it is both a prison and a health treatment facility.
In the case I handled Mr. Tarala and a newly qualified female corrections officer and a nurse were outside Ms. Smith’s cell because she had tied a ligature around her neck and was under a blanket. As with the guards in Ontario on that October morning when Ms. Smith died they had to decide whether to enter the cell.
Mr. Tarla and the guard entered Ms. Smith’s cell and there was a physical confrontation. Mr. Tarala was charged with assault and a trial was held in Saskatoon. The trial did not involve Ms. Smith testifying as she had already died.
Judge Singer, the trial judge, said the following about the allegation of Mr. Tarala striking Ms. Smith in his judgment:
I am left with the conclusion that she [the guard] did not see Mr. Tarala hit Ashley Smith, as described by the nurse, not because she was looking the whole time in the opposite direction, but because it did not happen.
Mr. Tarala testified at trial he did not hit Ms. Smith. For this post I will not explore the details of the evidence. At the end of the trial Judge Singer found Mr. Tarala not guilty.
Mr. Tarala explained at trial that he decided they should enter the cell and, rather than wait for a backup officer, he made the decision to enter the cell immediately. He said he did not know if Ms. Smith was choking and how long it takes for a person to choke to death.
In one of the most powerful and emotional moments of my life in court Mr. Tarala more specifically stated why he entered that cell. He said he had cut down 12 inmates (11 dead and 1 with brain damage) hanging in their cells during his time in corrections. He was not going to let this young woman die by choking herself.
It has always been striking to me how much trouble he faced when he intervened to be ensure Ms. Smith stayed alive and how much trouble the guards in Ontario faced when they did not intervene.