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Inquest jurors visit Ashley Smith death cell during tour of prison

KITCHENER, Ont. – Inquest jurors paced the beige-painted segregation cell on Thursday where a deeply disturbed teen choked to death five years ago as security guards stood watching her.

The tour of the Grand Valley Institution, one of five federal prisons for women in Canada, aimed to offer the jury better insight into the place where Ashley Smith, 19, spent the last weeks of her life.

“This was Ashley’s cell,” declared assistant warden Tony Simoes who led the group tour.

A key difference between how the cell was when Smith died in it and how it is now are the two large windows in the heavy grey door that would have given guards a better view of the interior.

The old-style doors, still on the three adjacent cells, have only a small viewing window at about eye level and a “cuff port” or food slot closer to knee level.

Evidence about what guards could see of the cell interior is expected to play a role given that Smith frequently covered the interior surveillance camera and viewing window with toilet paper.

Bits of toilet paper are still visible on some of the cameras.

Dr. John Carlisle, presiding coroner, urged jurors to examine what would be visible if guards could only look through the food slot — about the size of a large mail slot.

“Just make observations,” Carlisle advised the jurors.

Trailed by the coroner and more than a dozen lawyers, jurors walked the hallway of the facility — resembling a high school with its notice boards, lockers and windows — through the “sally port” into the four-cell segregation unit.

They peered through the doors and wandered the confined interiors — little more than three metres by two metres — making notes of the cot, sink, toilet and privacy screen.

It was here Smith, of Moncton, N.B., spent much of her time, locked up almost round-the-clock, increasingly showing serious self-harming behaviour. Some days, she apparently never left her cell at all.

Jurors, knelt at the cuff port. They asked questions: “Do they get sheets?” “How often are the cells cleaned?” “Can you close the door so I can get a sense of how it feels?” “Are there cameras in the showers?”

Just outside the unit is the high-walled, narrow concrete exercise yard where segregation inmates are supposed to get at least one hour of fresh air a day.

On one side of the yard, scratched crudely on the sheet metal were the dates September 25 and October 29, 2007 along with a heart. Smith died Oct. 19, 2007.

There was one moment of hilarity when Julian Falconer, the Smith family lawyer, went inside one of the segregation cells and door clanged shut behind him, requiring a guard to come and let him out.

Most inmates of Grand Valley live communally in cottage-style homes on the grounds. The segregation cells are reserved for those deemed to pose a high risk to others or themselves.

Others are housed in the secure unit, with a communal living and eating area, solitary exercise machine, and controlled access to a more pleasant courtyard sporting some grass, a picnic table and basketball hoop.

When she wasn’t in isolation, Smith spent time in Cell 11 on Pod 3 of the secure unit, with its table, hutch and closet — not unlike a small dorm room. There are no cameras in the pod cells.

On the wall of the eating space, supper menus promise among other things a chicken burger, bun and mayo for supper one evening; salami and mushroom-topped pizza with fries and mixed vegetables on another.

Smith spent much of her last year alive in solitary confinement, transferred back and forth between the country’s prisons. The inquest is exploring the circumstances of her videotaped death. Guard were under orders not to intervene as long as she was breathing.

Carlisle has said the inquest will examine the way the prison system treats the mentally ill.

Following the tour, he adjourned the session until Monday, when a guard is due to testify.