Ashley Smith inquest hears how Canada's women's prisons work from warden

Associated Press

TORONTO - The Ashley Smith inquest is hearing from an Edmonton-based women's penitentiary warden.

Andrea Markowski is providing the inquest with an overview of the prison system.

Among other things, she's explaining security classifications and why inmates get transferred.

Coroner's court also heard that about 575 women were in federal custody as of last October, and more than 13,000 men.

The inquest is looking into the choking death of Smith, 19, at one of Canada's five federal prisons for women — Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont.

Smith, of Moncton, N.B., spent most her last year in segregation, shunted from prison to prison.

Andrea Markowski, warden of the Edmonton Institution for Women, explained that inmates can only be placed in segregation if there is "no reasonable alternative."

Keeping inmates isolated is usually done because they pose an "undue risk" to staff or other inmates or to themselves, Markowski said.

Segregated inmates are allowed out of the cells for a minimum of one hour a day of fresh air, she said, but can be out longer for showers or to use the telephone.

Periodic reviews are required by law to see if segregation remains warranted, said Markowski, who never had any dealings with Smith.

The goal is always to facilitate reintegration in the general population at the "earliest possible date," she said.

In some cases, documents show, Smith demanded to be placed in segregation. In other cases, she had no choice.

The witness also described the strip-searching of inmates.

"Under the law, a body cavity search could take place by a medical practitioner if the woman consented," Markowski said.

"I've never authorized a body-cavity search. I've always found a way to work it out."

Smith is known to have frequently fashioned ligatures, which she then hid in her body cavities.

On Monday, the inquest's first day of hearings, it heard that Smith choked herself to death in her cell at Grand Valley in October 2007 while guards, ordered not to intervene, looked on.

Jurors will tour the facility on Thursday.

Segregated inmates usually wear issued tracksuits, while general population prisoners have the choice to wear regular cloths, Markowski said.

"On Thursday, we won't see women walking around in orange jumpsuits?" asked Jocelyn Speyer, coroner's counsel.

"No, we will not," Markowski said.

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