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Saving Ashley Smith a regular occurrence for guards, who faced discipline for helping

“As big as my finger or smaller? My pinky? What colour is it? Straight or jagged?”

Ashley Smith has a piece of glass. Ashley Smith has a piece of glass because she’s smashed a small TV set. Ashley Smith has just smashed a small TV set in her segregation cell on the regular inmate range at Grand Valley Institution for Women.

Blaine Phibbs, a correctional officer squatting on the opposite side of the door, is practically cooing at the girl: “Ashley, why don’t you give me that piece of glass?”

Through the narrow slot of the “cuffing panel” — about knee-high — of the isolation cell on the segregation unit to which she’s been moved for smashing a TV (trailing glass shreds en route from the pod range), Ashley can be seen tearing a strip off her padded security gown. Glass + gown = ligatures.

Ashley is ingenious and persistent about her ligatures. Indeed, she is addicted to them.

Only a half-hour earlier or so — as captured on camera, the video watched by a coroner’s inquest jury Thursday morning — Ashley had been gasping, her face turning purple, a strip of cloth wound tight around her neck.

Time, a guard decides.

Meaning, it’s been long enough, as per the do-not-intervene directive imposed on guards by management where Inmate Ashley is concerned. It’s a risky thing to gauge, this game of institutional chicken. So long as the disruptive, chronic nuisance — this spitfire — is breathing, hands off.

Now, they go in.

“Ashley, come on now.”

“Too much Ash, come on.”

So often has the 19-year-old pulled this choking stunt, so frequently have the guards entered her cell to cut a ligature from her neck that Phibbs calls for a new knife to cut her loose, the ligature so taut that Ashley’s throat was bleeding. “The knife we’d used was dull,” said Phibbs.

Ashley had worn down the blade as she’d worn out her jailers.

“It’s OK Ashley,” one guard says on the tape, her voice comforting, “take some deep breaths.”

“How’s your breathing Ash, does it hurt still?”

In her pipsqueak cartoon voice, she answers: “It hurts.”

And now, latest crisis over — about 6.30 a.m., Sept. 22, 2007, one month left in the lockdown life of Ashley Smith — she is sitting on the floor, visible only through the cuff slide because the 24/7 video camera in her cell has been covered with something; maybe a sheet, a potato chip bag, toilet paper, whatever came to hand for the “resourceful” teen. Thus, her actions aren’t visible on remote image screens in “the bubble,” where a monitoring officer watches.

So this is what the guards on the unit do: Watch and plead and play to Ashley’s manipulations.

She giggles.

“I had no legal right to enter her cell,” Phibbs told court.

The legality, in fact, has yet to be explored by this inquest. But court has heard there was a commissioner’s directive about entering female inmates’ cells in general and this female inmate’s cell specifically, even with a piece of glass in her possession — and Ashley endlessly self-injuring.

“She was contained, she wasn’t harming herself,” said Phibbs. Then, clearly disgusted with what he said, repeated, next: “She was not in possession of a contraband item. She was in possession of an unauthorized item.”

This bizarre splitting of semantics — which, in practice, restricted the guards’ ability to respond until the outside edge of crisis — had been questioned by guards. But they’d been reprimanded before for intervening too soon with Ashley.

On this occasion, for entering Ashley’s cell and cutting the ligature, Phibbs received a stern scolding from the penitentiary’s correctional manager, relaying disapproval from the deputy warden. It had been improper use of force, intervening, Phibbs was admonished.

“He told me there was no reason to go into the cell. He said we were making things worse … It was borderline use of force and we could possibly be disciplined or criminally charged.”

Phibbs maintains he did the correct thing that day. “We thought she was in distress. That’s why we did enter the cell.”

Back on the tape, Phibbs is heard speaking to a now marginally cooperative Ashley. She’s taken down whatever she’d put against the cell door viewing panel, which had earlier blocked a decent view of her.

“Something tells me you scared yourself a little this morning,” Phibbs tells Inmate Smith.

Ashley: “No.”

Phibbs warns her: “One day you’re going to get too close, you know that, right?”

That day came Oct. 19, 2007.

thestar.com – Opinion

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