Inmate's sister hopes for answers as inquest begins into 8 jail overdose deaths

The drug deaths are happening against a backdrop of a broader city-wide drug problem and the inquest process itself is under scrutiny for how effectively it will search for solutions.

The sweeping six-week inquest will hear from an estimated 100 witnesses

Marty Tykoliz (left) and his sister in better times. The 38-year-old Hamilton man died in hospital after a suspected overdose inside the Barton Street Jail in 2014. (Facebook)

Somewhere in April Tykoliz's storage unit, tucked into an envelope, is a Wolverine poster her brother Marty drew. And the search for it has taken on new urgency.

Martin Tykoliz died in May 2014, one of eight Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre overdose deaths subject to a long-awaited, sweeping inquest that starts Monday. Martin was 38 when he overdosed, was sent back to the jail and overdosed again 24 hours later, this time fatally.

The inquest is expected to last six weeks and to hear from 100 witnesses. It will examine the deaths of the eight men between 2012 and 2016, all for whom "drug toxicity" was a fatal factor.

I don't feel like I can let my brother die in vain. There were some things that were very wrong.- April Tykoliz

The deaths raised key questions, including how inmates got the drugs and how closely they were supervised. The jury is expected to make recommendations for how to avoid future deaths. 

The inquest "has a lot of meaning in many areas for me," she said.

"First and foremost, I don't feel like I can let my brother die in vain," she said. "There were some things that were very wrong."

On the eve of the inquest April wants to make clear there was more to Martin Tykoliz than his incarceration and death. Like that Wolverine poster he drew for her son.

Search for answers

Martin was always drawing, she says. He sketched in notebooks, and drew elaborate designs on letters he wrote her from jail. He created and drew entire comic book worlds. For years, she says, he had artwork in the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Martin Tykoliz died on May 7, 2014. (Facebook)

About 20 years ago, he drew and coloured a poster of Wolverine for his baby nephew. Now April is searching for it again.

"I thought it was OK," she said. "I try to look at the bright side of things. But I'm realizing lately that I miss him, and I can't have him back."

April hopes the six-week inquest will provide some answers. If it does, it will be long overdue.

The jail deaths are happening as one part of broader drug problem in the city and across the country. The city is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, with 70 people dying in Hamilton due to opioid-related causes between January and October last year.

A recent McMaster university study showed gaps in how inmates with drug dependency are treated. One of the authors of that study,  Dr. Lori Regenstreif spent a year working in the Barton jail.

 She has previously told CBC substance abuse for inmates using smuggled-in contraband was quite high.

"I was always amazed by how much," she said.

Jail guards have also complained that understaffing is hurting their ability to stop drugs being smuggled into the facility.

Protect the government

The inquest also happens against the backdrop of questions about the effectiveness of provincial inquests and how interested the province is in using them to truly explore issues.

Former regional coroner Dr. Jack Stanborough told CBC in 2017 he was fired by the government over his approach to inquests. He said his 2016 firing points to a systemic problem, where the coroner's office is told "not to rock the boat," and at all costs, not make the provincial government that oversees them look bad.

That firing appears to have been behind the delays to this inquest. The province announced the inquest in 2015,and Stanborough was to be the presiding coroner. It didn't announce a date until earlier this year.

In 2018 alone, two other inmates have died at the jail.

Tykoliz's sister April told CBC Hamilton that her brother told her he was in jail for theft, but he never elaborated on exactly what happened. (Facebook)

Several of the families of those who have died, including April's, will be represented at the inquest, with lawyers they have hired asking questions on their behalf.

April has many questions she hopes are addressed. Among them: why her brother was never able to get help for his addiction and mental health after years of on-and-off incarceration took their toll.

More distressed

Her brother had no diagnosed mental health issue, she said, but each time he was released from incarceration – always for relatively small crimes, she says – he was more distressed.

Once, he spent two months in solitary confinement, she said. When she spoke to him on the phone, "he was discussing spiders on the wall, talking about them being friends."

"He didn't know what day it was or anything," she said. "It was terrible. He was losing his mind."

When he was released, she said, "he requested help many, many times."

Another question: why it took authorities so long to tell her that her brother had overdosed.

No one told her about the first overdose, she said. The second happened in the morning on May 6, and no one called her until about 10 p.m. that day. She rushed to the hospital, and he was taken off life support around 2 a.m.

"I'm just very happy now that things are moving forward," April said. 

April's son is 21 now, and only ever saw the perfect image of his artistically inclined Uncle Marty, she said.

When she finds the poster, "I'm going to have it laminated," she said. "And we're going to frame it."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca