In 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith killed herself in her jail cell. Now, by request of the coroner, a jury watched a videotape of the girl’s death, which depicts prison guards standing outside her cell, watching and videotaping the teen as she struggles to breath, then dies.
The teen had tied a piece of cloth around her neck in an attempt to asphyxiate herself to death. The video, filmed by one of the guards, depicts other guards standing outside Smith’s cell, watching her choke. As the girl lie face-down in her cell, heaving, the guards wait and watch.
A full ten minutes later, they enter the room, to find the girl dead. Although the guards at the Grand Valley Institute for Women attempted to perform CPR on the lifeless teen, one of the guards is heard swearing, saying that it had been over ten years since their last CPR training.
The girl’s dying gasps can be heard in the video, which begins at 6:45 am, while guards stand outside her cell and discuss what to do.
Apparently, it wasn’t the first time the girl had tried to harm herself, and the guards had been warned to intervene only if the girl stopped breathing.
Ten minutes after Smith’s face allegedly turned a dark purple and she stopped heaving, the guards rushed in and tried to revive her by slapping her in the face. When they got no response, they began CPR.
The camera was being operated by Valentino Burnett, a correctional officer who was temporarily working at the Grand Valley Institute. While the guards were initially charged in the case for their role in the girl’s death, the charges have since been dropped. Now, the footage of the teen’s suicide are being made public.
Burnett maintains his innocence in the events, claiming, “While I was videotaping her, I saw her chest rising on a number of occasions. I saw her breathing on a number of occasions. As far as I was concerned, I was videotaping a live person.”
He added that it was “not his job” to save her life.
Howard Rubel, a lawyer for the correctional officers union, maintains that the guards were only doing what was ordered. Rubel insists that the guards struggled with how to deal with Smith, who repeatedly tried to harm herself.
‘They were following what they were told was in the best interests of Miss Smith and they were trying to help her as much as possible to prevent the tragedy, but unfortunately, they weren’t allowed to prevent that tragedy as they saw fit,’ he said.
Smith had been in isolation from August 2007 until her death in October. She was first arrested at the age of 15 for “assault and causing a disturbance,” and was then jailed at 17 for throwing apples at a post man.
The presiding coroner has also said the inquest should examine the way the prison system treats the mentally ill. The Smith family lawyer, Julian Falconer, notes that the guards have no excuse for Smith’s death.
“Human beings are human beings; good people do bad things. On that day, a group of guards did bad things.”
Kim Pate, who heads the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, says the video is disturbing but needs to be shown at this inquiry.
“It’s important that the public sees the video, in large part because many people don’t believe this sort of thing happens inside.” CBC News goes on to describe the prison where Ashley was held, where she slept on an all-metal bed and was let outside one hour per day to the “yard” — described as a slab of concreted surrounded by barbed wire fences.
When asked if there were no spaces in the prison for mentally ill inmates, Toni Simoes — who led the jurors through a tour of the prison — said that there were other spaces.
“But Ashley never saw those spaces,” Falconer countered.
What do you think the guards should have done?
Warning: GRAPHIC CONTENT in video
[Featured image from Shutterstock]