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Prison staff lack input when handling inmates like Ashley Smith, says officer

A correctional officer who bonded with Ashley Smith shook with frustration as she told the inquest into Smith’s death that many aspects of the system must be changed.

Melissa Mueller told the jury she and her colleagues are in over their heads at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institute for Women, where Smith died in 2007.

“Our hands are very much tied when it comes to ladies like Ashley,” she explained.

Mueller said there are inmates who need a level of help that she doesn’t know how to provide.

“We can’t go to work and be everything to everybody,” she said. “We’re just people and I don’t know how to fix those problems.”

Though Smith was part of Mueller’s caseload, she wasn’t involved in the decision-making process regarding the 19-year-old.

When Jocelyn Speyer, the coroner’s lawyer, asked if Mueller thought her input could have made a difference, she replied: “It might have.”

Mueller wiped tears from her eyes, her voice shook and face reddened as she recounted the night Smith died.

When she and other correctional officers entered Smith’s cell Oct. 19, 2007, Smith had a ligature around her neck, but she was breathing.

They decided to enter the cell and cut off the ligature. Mueller heard a big breath come from Smith, and assumed she had inhaled. Mueller said she realized afterwards it was trapped air escaping from Smith’s body.

Mueller testified that when Smith was taken to hospital, she thought Smith would live. She later found out Smith passed away.

The following Tuesday, Mueller was suspended without pay.

Constant reprimands from management about their handling of Smith made prison staff doubt how they should deal with her, Mueller said.

Despite Mueller’s attempts to document Smith’s purple-tinged face and bloodshot eyes as a result of her ligature-tying, managers didn’t want staff to intervene.

“It seems like every time we went in that cell, we got in trouble,” she said.

“As much as the direction was ridiculous, clearly ridiculous, you start to fall in line with it.”

Speyer asked Mueller if she believed she and her colleagues ever unnecessarily entered Smith’s cell.

“I didn’t think so,” Mueller replied. “When she ties a ligature around her neck, she must be doing some damage.”