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.

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