Smith’s guard not a goat, more a hero
The federal prison where Ashley Smith died was in perpetual chaos, with senior managers essentially in “a pissing contest” and careerists so busy clambering over one another in the drive to the top, that front-line staff and inmates didn’t count.
That was the picture of Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., circa 2007, that has been painted in devastating detail by the jail guard who was once made the system’s chief sacrificial goat.
Blaine Phibbs, a bright 36-year-old former correctional officer who worked for two years at Grand Valley, Tuesday completed his testimony at the Ontario coroner’s inquest now probing Ashley’s death. Through documentary evidence, lengthy videos and his own forthright and uncompromising testimony, Phibbs has emerged as a figure far closer to hero than morally diminished goat.
With three other guards, he was charged criminally in connection with Ashley’s Oct. 19, 2007, death, ostensibly because they stood paralyzed outside her cell for 10 minutes and failed to cut the ligature around the young woman’s neck in time to save her.
Shortly afterwards, the Correctional Service of Canada fired him and two of the others outright, and suspended several others.
Yet in December the following year, the charges were withdrawn after evidence at a preliminary hearing revealed that key documents proving that Phibbs and his fellows had been directly ordered — at pain of disciplinary action against them — not to enter the teen’s cell unless she had stopped breathing had never been disclosed to the prosecutor.
When the charges were dropped, the CSC offered Phibbs a deal in exchange for his silence: He was allowed to resign and the record changed to reflect that, paid at time-and-a-half and double time for all the work he’d missed, and handed a $25,000 bonus to go back to school.
Freed by his oath to tell the truth at the inquest, where he testified for five days, Phibbs made it clear that the situation at the prison was even worse. In order to rise to the CSC’s national headquarters in Ottawa, he said, experience at a women’s prison was necessary, another box to check on the resumé, so Grand Valley had a rotating cast of wardens and wannabes popping in for short stints, each with little allegiance to the prison, let alone its staff or those who were forced to live there.
“At one point,” he said dryly in answer to a juror’s question, “we had nine senior managers when we needed three.”
One warden, he said, didn’t process either SITREPs, or Situation Reports, or the Use of Force reports, which are mandatory whenever guards enter an inmate’s cell, either to subdue, restrain or rescue an inmate.
It is in these reports that in significant measure Ashley’s story is told.
The 19-year-old woman had a dangerous habit of “tying up,” wrapping homemade ligatures around her neck and choking herself out. Her tying up would have generated more use-of-force reports in a single day than the rest of the prison likely did in months.
In the beginning of her first stay at Grand Valley — she was there twice, once in the late spring of 2007, then in the fall — guards like Phibbs were entering her cell, and cutting off the ligatures, each and every time they saw one.
Every cell entry would have generated a use-of-force report, and accompanying written reports from the guards.
Phibbs said he likely wrote at least 100 of these reports relating to Ashley during her two shorts stays there, that he personally had cut off at minimum 50 ligatures and that he had witnessed her at least 25 times with ligatures so tight her face was turning blue and she was unresponsive.
But one warden, he said, “wasn’t reporting anything” up the chain, and another was “combining” incidents, presumably so the total was less vast. And yet, he said, it was common knowledge that every morning the brass was on the phone to Ottawa, reporting in on Ashley to national headquarters.
Over her two stays, guards’ orders changed: First, they were told to enter her cell only if she seemed to be in distress (a condition difficult to ascertain even for someone with medical training, let alone a guard peering in through a four-inch slot in the cell door), and then they were told to go in only if Ashley had outright stopped breathing.
But Phibbs and the others were also told that by responding quickly to the sight of her with a ligature, they were “feeding into” her acting out, “making things worse:” Thus was their confidence undermined.
So convincing was Phibbs’ description of the dysfunction at the prison that one of the jurors asked if “letting Ashley die was a strategy of GVI management to handle a problem inmate?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I believe it was a strategy to protect the public image and protect professional careers and I don’t think Ashley was viewed as ... None of us wanted anything bad to happen to her. I don’t think anyone (meaning even managers) did,” he said.
“But they worried about their careers more than frontline officers or inmates.”
Given the chance, in other words, to damn the managers who had so damned him five years ago, Phibbs declined the opportunity.
Phibbs was unequivocal when the same juror asked if he believed the guards should have been able to go into her cell to remove the broken glass she had and the ligatures she made with the shards. “Yes” and “Yes,” he said, adding, “If we were able to remove all the ligatures or glass, she would have been kept alive and kept safe.”
Jurors have heard that because the glass shards and the ligatures were deemed to be “unauthorized,” not “contraband,” guards couldn’t search for them.
Phibbs was the secretarytreasurer of the Union of Correctional Officers’ Grand Valley local at the time. While he and the other guards objected to their orders, and documented Ashley’s distress as best they could, they had “no one to report” their serious concerns to, he said.
“This (meaning the approval of Ashley’s confinement) goes all the way up to national headquarters,” he said. “Who you going to rat to when you don’t know who’s involved?” For the past two days, Phibbs’ father sat quietly in the coroner’s court. It must have been a heartening thing for him to see his son redeemed. People may always remember how he and the other guards dithered outside Ashley’s cell on her last morning.
But now they will also remember the many times Phibbs squatted outside her cell, speaking gently to the sweet moon face of the girl he could see only through the meal slot.