Christie Blatchford: Ashley Smith’s prison guards in ‘shroud of misdirection and fear’

They watched as blood vessels broke in her face or eyes. They were reduced to counting the number of breaths she took. They saw her nose bleed and her face turn purple.

And yet when guards at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener, Ont., tried to rush into Ashley Smith’s segregation cell to cut off the makeshift ligatures around her neck and save her life, they were occasionally physically stopped by superiors or told to pull back and “re-assess,” and if they went in anyway, they were warned, verbally and in writing, that they would face disciplinary hearings for excessive use of force.

Perhaps most cruelly, in an email sent to managers just eight days before Smith’s death, Cindy Berry, then the acting warden at Grand Valley, criticized the guards for “not removing warmth” — ordinary human warmth — from their interactions with Smith. Ms. Berry had reviewed video of an incident where five female guards and a male had gone into Smith’s cell to remove a ligature. In correctional lingo, this constitutes a “use of force” — indeed, physical force was often required to get the ligatures off Smith — and sets in motion the requirement for video and a great whack of paperwork.

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