'Why did my brother have to die?' Hamilton woman asks at Barton jail inquest

As the joint inquest into the overdose deaths at Barton Street jail continues, a woman wants answers for her brother's death, who isn't on the list.

Ryan McKechnie died in June 2017 after being in custody for about seven months

Amy McKechnie holds a collage of photos of herself and her brother. She said they were very close. (Flora Pan/CBC)

On June 29 of last year, around breakfast time at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, Amy McKechnie's brother, Ryan, died from a drug overdose.  

Just minutes later Amy's father, also Ryan's dad, died in hospital.

Ryan died from a drug overdose but he's not one of the eight men whose drug overdose deaths between 2012 and 2016 have led to the long-awaited inquest that has been taking place in Hamilton all this week.

Now almost a year after his death, Amy McKechnie is still waiting for answers and accountability from the people who were "supposed to be looking after these inmates." She's watching closely as the stories of the deaths of the other eight men are told, wondering when her brother's story will be told.

Ryan's two daughters are now nine and 12-years-old. Amy says he was "the comedian of the family."

"The family dynamic is broken right now. Ryan was the one that kept everybody together," she said.

Ryan McKechnie and his older sister Amy were five years apart. He died in 2017 while he was in custody at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Long-awaited inquest into jail deaths

At the inquest McKechnie often sits beside April Tykoliz, sister of Marty Tykoliz, one of the eight men whose deaths prompted the inquest. The two have become "soul sisters" in the recent months.

"We've forged an unbreakable bond out of the death of our brothers, unfortunately. But it's them that brought us together, ultimately," McKechnie said.

She is hoping that she will learn something about her brother's death from the testimony into the deaths of others who were also there in custody. The inquest is expected to last six weeks, hearing from about 100 witnesses.

What is going on inside the jails? How are drugs coming in? Why did her brother die? The answers are finally starting to come. 

Amy McKechnie, left, and April Tykoliz became friends through the deaths of their brothers, both of whom died from overdosing while in custody at the Barton Street jail. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Smuggling drugs

On the first two days of the inquest, staff sergeant of operations, Michael DuCheneau, answered questions from the coroner counsel and lawyers representing families about how drugs can get inside the institution.

"The most frequently occurring method is where an inmate hides it on their body or in their body," said DuCheneau on Monday.

Sometimes it's a Kinder egg filled with drugs hidden inside a body cavity — but now the Barton Street jail has a body scanner that could detect that type of transport.

Drugs could also make their way inside through being thrown over the perimeter walls, said DuCheneau. And although there are surveillance cameras and two officers assigned to watch them, they could be taken away to do other duties. There is no expectation to watch the cameras 24/7.

There have also been times when staff or volunteers at the prison would smuggle them inside, he said.

McKechnie said it seemed like people inside the correctional facility are just letting those drug smugglers "get away with it."

"Why did my brother have to die? Why did these eight men have to die?" she said.

One of the exhibits at the inquest show a layout of what cells look like in the living units. Each cell is roughly eight feet by 10 feet and can fit up to three inmates. (Flora Pan/CBC)

'He was supposed to be safe in there'

On May 16 this year, Ryan McKechnie would have turned 35.

He was a big fan of the Hamilton Ticats and, Amy says, he had a larger than life personality. Now there's "a giant piece of the family missing" with him not here.

She regrets she ever trusted the corrections system in Ontario.

Her brother had some problems with drug use on and off, she said. But she thought he would be safe in the detention centre while he waited for his court date, so she "pulled his surety."

"He was supposed to be safe in there," she said. "I wasn't supposed to have to bury my younger brother." 

And perhaps if there was more help available for her brother and people like him, McKechnie said, they wouldn't be dying inside the jail.

"There's some kind of underlying issue as to why these people are using drugs in there," she said.

John Schuurman agrees. He is an advocate for restorative justice who attended the inquest on the first day. Almost the entire day was spent talking about how correctional officers search inmates for drugs and how drugs get inside.

Schuurman wants the focus to shift to look for "ways to divert inmates with addictions from having to go inside in the first place."

"Addictions are a health care issue, more so than a behavioural issue that warrants treatment more than punishment," he said.

While there's no telling if treatment would have saved Ryan McKechnie, his sister wants things to change so people will stop dying inside.

"He was always my best friend," she said. "[Ryan] kept everybody together, but that's gone now."

About the Author

Flora Pan

Associate Producer & Reporter/Editor

Flora Pan is a multimedia journalist based in southern Ontario. She currently works out of Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton. You can reach her at flora.pan@cbc.ca or on Twitter @FloraTPan.