Three inmates have died of suspected overdoses in the Barton Street jail since 2012, CBC Hamilton has learned.

Now, the coroner's office is examining the possibility of a systemic drug problem brewing inside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre. Regional coroner Dr. Jack Stanborough said he will consider a combined inquest into all three cases should the individual investigations point to the same cause of death. A coroner's inquest is mandatory any time an inmate dies an "unnatural death."

Stanborough confirmed three inmates who were exhibiting "overdose-like symptoms" have died in just over two years — one Tuesday night, another on March 25 and a third on March 16, 2012. None of the deaths were made public by any of the three agencies probing the incidents. 

All of the deaths were "pretty similar," Stanborough said. Officials planned to announce a coroner's inquest into the 2012 death Friday, but have decided to delay it and possibly combine it with the other two investigations.

Preliminary toxicity screens from the March 25 incident have come back from the lab, and “there’s a fairly reasonable chance we’re going to see that one go to inquest,” Stanborough said. Officials are still waiting on toxicity reports from the death of 38-year-old Marty Tykoliz, who died Tuesday night at a Hamilton hospital. Sources inside the jail say Tykoliz had taken a powerful opiate called powdered methadone.

Public disclosure not mandatory

Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spokesperson Brent Ross also confirmed all of the deaths, but would not comment on the circumstances surrounding them, citing the ongoing investigations. The ministry is not bound to release news of these incidents to the public, he says.

"The ministry only notifies the police and coroner, who then notify the individual’s next of kin. There is no duty to notify the public," Ross said. "Given the matter is under both internal and police investigations, it would be inappropriate to provide further detail."

'With three deaths, you'd think the ministry would be making this a top priority.'—John Hill, lawyer

Stanborough says the coroner's office has no obligation to inform the general public if a death happens inside the jail. Hamilton police spokesperson Const. Claus Wagner told CBC Hamilton that police would only make a death public if there was a public safety issue — which means of the three organizations investigating, it is no one's responsibility to inform the public, and there is reduced chance for public scrutiny of what may be happening inside provincial jails.

"That's unacceptable," said John Hill, a prison lawyer with 25 years of experience in Ontario. "With three deaths, you'd think the ministry would be making this a top priority."

The ministry is clearly trying to avoid bad publicity here, Hill says, "but that doesn't justify not bringing this forward."

Hamilton EMS manager Carmen D'Angelo told CBC Hamilton he has no record of ambulance crews being called to the jail on March 25, which he says is odd. "I find it very surprising we weren't called there," he said. That could mean the inmate was either driven to hospital by someone else or was long past the point that any resuscitation was possible, he added.

Glimpses of these incidents first started appearing Wednesday when word surfaced that Tykoliz had died after being rushed to hospital from the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre twice this week. City ambulance crews had been called to the detention centre a 12 times between Monday and Wednesday morning for inmates all suffering from overdose-like symptoms. Three inmates were first taken to hospital with overdose symptoms Monday, and Tykoliz was one of them.

All three men were brought back to the jail some hours later, sources say. But paramedics were called back to the jail Tuesday after Tykoliz's heart stopped. He died in hospital that night.