Family hopeful others can be saved as Hamilton jail inquest lists 47 recommendations

After six weeks and around 100 witnesses, the jury of an inquest into eight overdose deaths at the Barton Street jail has been provided with a list of 47 recommendations aimed at ensuring more deaths don't happen.

Recommendations call for dedicated canine unit and the jail's gym to reopen

A jury is considering a list of 47 recommendations after an inquest into eight overdose deaths at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. (Adam Carter/CBC)

After sitting through almost six weeks where the death of his son Julien and seven other inmates at the Barton Street jail was parsed in painful detail, Glenroy Walton was feeling hopeful for the first time Wednesday.

He and family members of the other men, whose deaths between 2012 and 2016 are the subject of a joint inquest, listened as the jury heard closing arguments and proposed recommendations aimed at making sure the same issues that led to the deaths don't happen again.

At this point, Walton said that's all he wants.

"I would not want another family to go through something like this. Especially for another young man full of potential, full of love," he said. "It was a waste of life."

Cassandra and Glenroy Walton said the inquest, which has stretched for six weeks, has actually helped them in their healing process. (Dan Taekema/CBC News)

The inquest into the deaths of  Louis Angelo Unelli, William Acheson, Martin Tykoliz, Stephen Conrad Neeson, David Michael Gillan, Trevor Ronald Burke, Julien Chavaun Walton and Peter Michael McNelis involved almost 100 witnesses, including the heart-wrenching testimony of family members who spoke about their dead loved ones.

Testimony exposed overcrowding, easy access to drugs, limited monitoring for inmates and limited access to methadone for inmates with addictions.

Calls for better searches and communication 

The 47 recommendations supplied to the jurors covered suggested upgrades to searches, including a designated canine unit to sniff out contraband and better video equipment, which would be monitored in "real-time."

The recommendations also called for better communication about inmates among the jail, Hamilton Police and city hospitals. Details about medical condition, mental health history, and contraband smuggling risks have to be transferred between the institutions.

Fentanyl  and other deadly chemicals are not going to wait for us to come up with a solution.-   Vilko   Zbogar , lawyer for PASAN

Another recommendation is that four recreational staff be hired so that the the jail's gym, which the coroner's council Karen Shea said has been closed for a decade, be reopened.

"There's a gymnasium sitting unused or being used by staff when it could have been used to make life more livable," she said, adding that pacing in a cell does little to help "excise demons."

Lawyers representing the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional services did not support several of the recommendations, including providing interested inmates with CPR training as part of an overall effort to ensure people at the jail understand the risks of an opioid overdose and how to recognize when one might be happening.

The ministry also did not support a proposal to provide all correctional officers with opioid-overdose antidote Narcan.

Despite the lack of ministry support, Vilko Zbogar, lawyer for the Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), asked the jury to go even further when it comes to Narcan.

In a separate list of recommendations submitted to the jury, he advocated for the antidote to be given directly to prisoners, arguing they're the most likely people to be on hand when another inmate overdoses.

"We haven't seen any evidence why that would be a bad idea," he said. "The evidence we do have is people without Narcan died. They could have been saved with Narcan. Which is worse?"

'People are dying'

The lawyer acknowledged concerns from corrections staff that the containers could be crafted into weapons or used to inhale other drugs, but put their worries down to fear of something they didn't understand.

"What we do know is people are dying. There's poison in those jails. Fentanyl and other deadly chemicals are not going to wait for us to come up with a solution."

Kevin Egan, lawyer for the family of  Martin Tykoliz, also supplied another suggestion that wasn't covered by the list of proposed recommendations.

He said there's evidence correctional staff and other visitors to the jail were bringing in drugs in some cases and argued there should be limits on the types of lunches that can be brought in and that staff should undergo random searches to stem the flow of contraband.

Inquest helping with healing

A jury of five people still has to consider the recommendations and is scheduled to present their findings Friday at 9:30 a.m.

They can accept the list as is, reject parts of it, modify the recommendations or supply their own.

Walton said the inquest has actually helped he and his wife Cassandra start to heal by helping them understand what was going on behind the jail's walls.

"I'm not giving up hope," said Cassandra. "I feel confident that the recommendations that were brought forward to the jury will be something they agree with and I also believe …. there will be some that will be implemented into the detention centre."