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Ashley Smith ‘wasn’t a mean person,’ Guard testifies

Toronto News, January 29, 2013

Ashley Smith would have been 25 on Tuesday. She wasn’t merely someone who flooded her cell or smeared feces, lawyer Richard Macklin pointed out at an inquest into her October 2007 death.

“Ashley was a person, she was a vulnerable young person,” said Macklin, representing the provincial advocate for children and youth. In the eyes on the corrections system, the 19-year-old was an adult, said Blaine Phibbs, one of her corrections officers.

The jury, presided over by Dr. John Carlisle, has already heard about the challenges Smith presented at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for Women before she died there from self-asphyxiation in a cell.

After arriving in Kitchener, she smashed a sprinkler nozzle, flooding her cell. She was known for smearing feces on her call at a Nova Scotia institution and hiding materials in her body cavities. She later used them to harm herself, fashioning them as ligatures to tie around her neck, sometimes several times a day until staff would go into her segregation unit.

Macklin took a moment to ask about Smith’s personality when he cross-examined Phibbs, who said Smith once mentioned another offender who seemed to want to harm guards.

“She didn’t understand that . . . she wasn’t being malicious. She wasn’t a mean person, it was just situational. It was a means to an end,” Phibbs told the inquest.

Phibbs described himself as one of several staff members who had a good rapport with Smith. He recalled teasing her about boys and her reply that she’d had her first kiss.

Along with a coworker, Phibbs said he once struck up conversation with Smith in the segregation yard, where she could go for up to an hour a day.

“It kind of threw her off that we were just going to talk to her . . . she was a little apprehensive at first,” Phibbs said, before she joked around and asked questions about TV and life outside of work.

But Phibbs said he was later told by prison management that the situation was inappropriate, because he was “deviating from her management plan.”

He described the institution as being in chaos “from the day I started” with “toxic” competition between managers. Phibbs and his colleagues. He has told the inquest that guards were instructed not to go into Smith’s cell when she used the ligatures unless she had stopped breathing.

He said Smith told him she kept self-harming as a “coping strategy” but he saw it as attention-seeking behaviour as well. Her reasons varied depending on who talked to her, Phibbs said.

The inquest continues Tuesday afternoon, when the jury will be able to question Phibbs.

thestar.com – politics