|Coralee Smith, mother of Ashley Smith, arrives at the coroner's inquest in Toronto Wednesday, February 20, 2013. (Dave Abel/QMI Agency)
TORONTO - After years of waiting, this was her chance at last to speak up for her angel.
Wearing a photo of her child as a pin on her lapel, it was finally Coralee Smith’s turn to speak of her beloved daughter as she bravely took the stand at the inquest into Ashley’s senseless death. Despite battling serious heart disease, the 65-year-old grandmother had made this long-awaited trip from Moncton, N.B., to pursue her long quest for answers: why had her troubled child been bounced from prison to prison around the country like some serial murderer and then left to strangle herself inside a prison cell while guards watched from outside, under orders not to intervene?
Ashley was three-days-old when Smith, 40 at the time, adopted her with her then-husband. Her new family would include a 19-year-old sister, Donna, and eventually her three children who would be her playmates.
As family photos were displayed for the inquest jury, Ashley’s mom offered a far different view of the young inmate described by her guards as such an aggressive, self-harming nightmare. Instead, as her eyes lingered lovingly on each picture, the proud mother painted Ashley as a happy homebody who adored quilts, riding her bike and playing with her sister’s kids.
“You never saw that girl without a smile on her face. Most of her life was smiling and happy,” insisted Smith.
Smiling at the memory, she recalled learning how her daughter had been secretly visiting a homeless man they knew as “Old Joe” to deliver snacks she’d secreted away from their Moncton home. He would later weep when he learned Ashley had been allowed to asphyxiate herself at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.
“She was such a nice girl,” Old Joe told her heartbroken mother. “She was my friend.”
But Smith admitted there was also another side to her daughter.
By the time Ashley was in Grade 8, Smith said, “things really went awry.” Her daughter began acting out at school and was eventually thrown out. There were assaults, and shoplifting episodes.
By 2003, she was forced to confront a far more grim diagnosis -- a full psychiatric work-up concluded Ashley had serious behavioural issues and borderline personality traits. Tossed out three weeks into a 30-day residential assessment for being “aggressive and somewhat violent,” the doctors prescribed Zoloft and intensive therapy.
But Ashley would never get the counselling she needed, her mother said.
Instead, the 15-year-old would be incarcerated at the New Brunswick Youth Centre where she would spend 27 of 36 months in segregation in a windowless, 8-by-10 cell.
In the fall of 2006, Smith attended a court hearing where Ashley was fighting her transfer to an adult prison. It was a battle she would lose — and she wouldn’t see her daughter for the next five months as she was sent first to the St. John Correctional Centre and then to a federal women’s prison in Nova Scotia.
In less than a year, her daughter would be transferred 17 times to nine different prisons.
In January 2007, Ashley was moved to the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon and her mom was finally approved to visit. She found her daughter — who loved holding her hand and kissing her good night — was stiff and withdrawn. Ashley eventually confided that she’d been assaulted by guards on three occasions.
There was absolutely nothing she could do to protect her little girl. “What do you do? You’re powerless,” Smith said.
How could she ever imagine how much worse it would get? On Oct. 19, 2007, her desperate 19-year-old child would tie yet another piece of cloth around her neck and — unlike all the times before — this time, no one would rush in to save her.