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Warden underestimated difficulties dealing with Ashley Smith

A teenage inmate’s disruptive behaviour posed such formidable challenges that prison authorities began looking to move her within weeks of her arrival, an inquest into her death heard Monday.

Alfred Legere, former warden of the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., testified that Ashley Smith began causing problems from almost the moment she arrived.

“She was creating significant operational issues,” Legere said. “She was taking up a lot of our resources. I didn’t see that she was getting any better.”

On Oct. 31, 2006, the 80-inmate Nova Institution became the first adult prison in which Smith, then 18, would be incarcerated. She had already spent almost three years at a youth detention centre in New Brunswick.

Unusually, she was placed immediately on arrival at Nova in segregation.

“She was seen to have unique needs,” Legere said. “Self-harm was our concern.”

Almost immediately, guards began having difficulty handling her. Among other things, Smith smeared herself with excrement and threw feces at guards. She trashed two segregation cells by breaking sprinkler heads and windows and damaging cameras.

Emergency response teams intervened. They used a noxious spray to control her.

“Here we go,” one staff member wrote in a memo. “Two days here and she is performing true to form.”

Legere admitted he “underestimated” just how challenging Smith would be.

Front-line correctional officers, citing health and safety concerns, refused to watch her, prompting managers to step in to observe her.

“They were very upset about this and how we were going to handle it,” he said of the guards.

To allay their fears and because Smith was covering her cell window and cameras, staff built a platform with a step ladder outside so they could observe her from a back window.

When it proved to be too cold, they built a shelter around the platform and put a heater inside.

Regular reviews of her segregation status resulted in the decision to keep her there, both for her own safety and that of others in the prison. The result was that Smith spent her entire first stay of almost two months at Nova in segregation.

Prison authorities, among them mental-health professionals, drew up a plan that included withdrawing warmth and giving her the silent treatment if she acted out.

“Extinction bursts will be a factor that we will have to deal with for a while,” a prison psychologist wrote about the plan.

Legere said he understood that to mean things would get worse before they got better.

Asked if there were triggers to Smith’s outbursts, Legere said: “No. Indeed they puzzled me.”

Ultimately, the decision was made to move Smith to the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon — to put her in the “treatment environment she needs,” the inquest heard.

Smith would choke herself to death less than a year later at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont.

Legere offered his condolences to Smith’s family, but also said he wanted to congratulate staff at Nova who made “extraordinary efforts” on Smith’s behalf.

“I’m proud to have been part of that team,” he said.