Auditor general zeroes in on addiction and mental health services in jails

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson is looking into how addiction and mental health services are provided to inmates of provincial jails.

14 deaths in New Brunswick jails since 2004 include several linked to suicide or drug use

Auditor General Kim MacPherson is auditing the provision of health, addiction and mental health services in provincial jails. (CBC)

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson is looking into how addiction and mental health services are provided to inmates in provincial jails.

A CBC News investigation still underway has found that addiction or mental health issues are linked to several deaths in the province's jails.

It also revealed that inmates routinely complain of going without their prescribed medication, including psychiatric medication, once they're incarcerated.

"I couldn't be happier today," said Julie Dingwell of AIDS Saint John, a group that works closely with inmates suffering from addictions.

"I'm thrilled to have it come from this direction because the auditor general brings a lot of weight to the issue."

People who are incarcerated are more likely to be poor, addicted and dealing with mental health issues, Dingwell said.

Jeffrey Ryan's body was found in a medical cell at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre days after he was picked up by police without his addictive prescription medication. (Ryan family, submitted)

In some cases, doctors, defence lawyers and judges have all been unsuccessful in getting inmates access to the drugs they've been prescribed, CBC News has found.

A spokesperson said the Department of Justice and Public Safety could not respond Wednesday to questions about the auditor general's investigation and removing inmates from prescribed methadone treatments.

The department has previously said that inmates aren't allowed to bring their prescriptions into jail with them because of concerns the label doesn't match the contents of the bottle.

I've tried asking for help.- Keith LeBlanc , inmate, Saint John Regional Correctional Centre

Keith LeBlanc is serving an 18-month sentence at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre for break and enter.

He said he was cut off the methadone treatment he had been receiving since 2008 after a urine sample in January tested positive for THC, an active compound in marijuana.

He claims the test showed small traces of the street drug in his system dating from before his arrest in October.

"When the first nurse told me I was being kicked off I almost lost it. I had three or four guards around me," LeBlanc said in an interview this week via a pay phone at the jail.

"It's medication that I need. My head space is not good. I've tried asking for help."

Forced to go cold turkey

Fourteen people have died in custody of New Brunswick's provincial jails since 2004.

For years, the government didn't tell the public when a person died in jail, keeping the cause of death a secret.

The department reversed that policy in June 2016 but won't retroactively identify people who died in jail.

CBC News has independently identified several of the inmates who have died, including 37-year-old Jeffrey Ryan.

The Pocologan man was in distress when he was brought to the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre in March 2011.

He had been forced to go cold turkey from an addictive prescription opiate after being arrested for driving while suspended.

Ryan's family said he begged for help after he arrived at the jail, calling his brother, Shawn, from a pay phone the day before his death.

He told his brother his body was shutting down and he was having trouble breathing.

'Some justice would be nice,' says Ryan's daughter, Rebeckah Flint. (CBC)
But he was never taken to a hospital.

A mattress on the floor

Ryan later collapsed in a hallway, triggering a medical code in the jail.

A report from the jail noted that Ryan was having nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It said Ryan was "picking at the air and seeing things."

He was placed on a mattress on the floor of a medical cell. It's where he would spend his final hours.

Rigor mortis had set in by the time his body was discovered in the cell the following morning.

A heavily redacted inmate death report obtained by CBC News shows correctional staff in New Brunswick have been flagged for a practice of observing medical cells on video monitors after 11 p.m. instead of checking on them in person.

Ryan's family has struggled to get answers about why the man lost access to his medication and why he was never taken to a hospital.

'Justice would be nice'

Ryan's daughter, Rebeckah Flint, said she is pleased the auditor general is now looking into addiction services.

"I think it's great!" said Flint.

"Very happy about it. I'm glad to see there is concern for the issue. Some sort of justice would be nice."

A spokesperson for the Auditor General's Office said it is not practice to comment on investigations that are underway.

MacPherson's audit on provincial jails is expected to be published this year.

The union representing provincial corrections officers has also been calling for improved health services for prisoners.

In a brief statement, Mike Davidson, the CUPE  national representative, said: "We have been calling [for] specialized medical resources in each institution, such as psychiatrists to help with chronic mental health issues and addiction."