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Mental health act used for body-cavity searches of teen inmate Ashley Smith

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TORONTO - A correctional officer choked up Wednesday as he recalled how prison brass used mental-health laws to force cavity searches of a highly disturbed teenaged inmate.

Testifying at the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, Blaine Phibbs said the prisoner was committed involuntarily to a local hospital for a psychiatric assessment on more than one occasion.

At the hospital, Smith would be invasively searched for ligatures she could use to strangle herself — then assessed, Phibbs said.

"It was known in the institution. They wouldn't do cavity searches," Phibbs told coroner's court, his voice breaking.

"That was their way of getting a cavity search done."

On one admission, Smith was so violent, medical staff drugged her to calm her down, he said.

Three days later, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she spent eight days.

She would be returned to the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., because her problem was "behavioural, not psychiatric."

"There were no mental-health issues," Phibbs said he was told.

Managers would later order guards to "be as cold as possible" if Smith was acting up, the inquest heard.

"Every time that we were nice to her when she was acting inappropriately, we were making it worse," Phibbs said guards were told.

Phibbs talked about how Smith could display wicked flashes of wit and humour, and of how ill-equipped she was, given her long segregation, to deal with other people.

At one point, after a brief spell away, she demanded a return to segregation.

"It was too much stimulation and she wanted a break," Phibbs said. "They wouldn't put her back."

In desperation, Smith smashed the TV set in her cell, prompting a manager to grab her himself and take her without a search to the isolation cell — a serious violation of protocol.

Smith, Phibbs said, had secreted glass in her cavities and under her arms which she later used to cut herself, but guards were ordered not to intervene.

"Ashley's behaviour was not typical inmate behaviour," Phibbs testified. "I'd never seen anything like her."

Earlier in the day, a lengthy videotaped standoff screened for jurors highlighted the exhausting battles front-line staff had in coping with the troubled teenager.

In June 2007, the teen had inadvertently been let out of her segregation cell when a correctional officer mistakenly unlocked her cell door by remote.

Smith, who had a history of tying ligatures around her neck, retrieved towels, sheets or other items from a nearby washing machine and retreated back into the cell, prompting the standoff.

Phibbs and other guards are seen in the video pleading with Smith through her cell door. They urge her to uncover the observation window, to hand over the items.

"Ashley. Take the sheet off the window."

Smith refuses.

The guards, worried Smith had ligatures she could choke herself with, try to bribe her.

"Whatcha doing? How many pieces you got?"

Occasionally, Smith swears at the officers. Mostly she is calm, answering or bantering with them in a thin-girlie voice.

Why not just go into her cell and remove the items? Jocelyn Speyer, coroner's counsel, asked Phibbs.

"Because it was 'least restrictive'," Phibbs responded.

"She wasn't harming herself or anyone else at that time."

Smith eventually appeared to comply with the requests, pushing towels or sheets through the food slot in the heavy grey door.

At one point, guards hand her toilet paper through the slot.

"I don't want you watching me," Smith calls out.

"I won't."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Officers had no legal basis on which to try to remove ligatures they feared Smith had secreted in a body cavity, Phibbs testified.

"We had no right to go in and remove it. We couldn't see it. She wasn't in any harm," he said.

"I know our warden would never have consented to a cavity search. No matter what the situation."

Sounding like the father of a difficult teen, Phibbs banters with Smith about a local FM radio station. They talk about trying to get her to a psychiatric hospital.

Smith, Phibbs testified, did not want to be at the prison.

Finally, well over an hour in, five guards eventually entered the small cell.

"Stay still, Ashley!"

"OK."

"Thank you."

Smith, on the floor in a security gown, resists as guards try to remove pieces of cloth from her.

"I have OC (pepper-like) spray. I will use it against you," a female guard warns.

"I don't want you touching me," Smith protests. "Pull my dress down."

"I'm not looking, don't worry," Phibbs says.

Why did so many guards have to go into the cell? Speyer asked.

"She was a big girl. She was aggressive. She was strong. She was combative," Phibbs said.

Everything was video recorded to "protect ourselves and for her," the witness told the five-women jury, because of the frequency of such incidents and because Smith had previously hurt guards.

At the time of the video, Smith had spent about three years behind bars, most of it in segregation.

On a subsequent stay at Grand Valley, Smith, 19, of Moncton, N.B., strangled herself to death on Oct. 19, 2007, as guards videotaped but did not intervene.

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