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Guard initially praised for aiding Ashley Smith later ordered to act aloof, inquest hears

Ashley Smith is shown surrounded by guard at Joliette Institution in Joliette, Que., on July 26, 2007 in this image made from video. The haunting protests of a now dead teenager filled a coroner's courtroom Wednesday as surveillance videos were screened showing the troubled inmate repeatedly tranquilized against her will or being threatened with having her face duct-taped

Handou/The Canadian Pres

A correctional officer fired after a teenaged inmate choked herself to death was allowed to resign when criminal charges were dropped over the non-disclosure of key documents, an inquest was told Monday.

The Ashley Smith inquest heard prosecutors withdrew charges of criminal negligence causing death against Blaine Phibbs because Correctional Service Canada failed to turn over documents.

Mr. Phibbs, who had been fired after Smith died in her cell in Kitchener, Ont., in October, 2007, was then allowed to resign.

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Corrections paid him time and a half or double time for the thousands of hours he had been off work in the 18 months after the tragedy. He also received $25,000 to go back to school and career counselling.

In exchange, the inquest heard, he was never to tell anyone what had happened.

The evidence came as Mr. Phibbs faced cross-examination by Howard Rubel, the lawyer representing front-line prison staff, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

Mr. Phibbs said guards were never included in management plans for Ms. Smith, 19, of Moncton, N.B.

He said he personally cut at least 50 ligatures from Ms. Smith's neck during her 12-week stay at the prison and saw her turn blue at least 25 times.

During her first stay in the spring of 2007, Mr. Phibbs said management praised him for intervening to stop Ms. Smith from choking.

That later changed and orders came down that guards were not to go into Ms. Smith's cell unless she had stopped breathing because it would only encourage the self-harming behaviour, Mr. Phibbs testified.

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"We were told that we were upping the ante," Mr. Phibbs testified.

In essence, guards had to determine if Ms. Smith was in distress and breathing properly by peering through a knee-level slot in the segregation cell door. Even some managers didn't like the no-entry directive, he said.

A week before Ms. Smith died, a correctional officer and local union representative wrote to his fellow guards at Grand Valley about the change.

"I'd rather go to court defending why I went in the cell than why I didn't go in in time," Vince Barone wrote.

Ms. Smith strangled herself Oct. 19, 2007, as guards stood by and watched.

"Mr. Barone was prophetic, wasn't he?" Julian Falconer, Ms. Smith's family lawyer, asked Mr. Phibbs.

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Mr. Falconer pressed Mr. Phibbs on how he had simply let Ms. Smith die – comparing it to seeing a child fall into a pond and letting her drown.

"I didn't think she was going to complete her suicide," Mr. Phibbs insisted.

"We did enter the cell. We did break orders. Unfortunately, it was too late."

With hindsight, the former guard agreed, he would have intervened earlier.

"Knowing now that she passed away, yes, I would have gone in sooner," he said.

How much sooner? He said he didn't know.

Mr. Phibbs said there was nothing in his suicide training to suggest Ms. Smith's propensity for trying ligatures around her neck was life-threatening.

"I didn't think it was possible to die," he said.

Mr. Falconer characterized Ms. Smith as a "hot potato" in prison management-union relations, suggesting the no-entry order was to placate guards concerned about Ms. Smith's violent outbursts.

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