Thursday November 30, 2017

Why are so many inmates dying in this Ontario jail? Fifth Estate investigates

The Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., has one of the highest numbers of deaths of inmates inside a Canadian jail.

The Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., has one of the highest numbers of deaths of inmates inside a Canadian jail. (Ousama Farag/CBC News)

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London, Ontario's Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) has one of the highest numbers of deaths of inmates inside a Canadian jail. 

The Fifth Estate's Habiba Nosheen has been investigating why inmates keep dying inside the EMDC. Since 2009, they have found 10 questionable deaths that occurred in the facility, including murders, suicides, and drug overdoses.

A judge has certified a class action suit on behalf of over 10,000 inmates for over $600 million against the province. 

Nosheen speaks with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about what the investigation has exposed.

Here is a part of their conversation:

Anna Maria Tremonti: Tell us more about this detention centre. It's a provincial jail, right?

Habiba Nosheen: Yes. It was built initially to house 150 inmates. Now it's been reconfigured to house up to 450 inmates. 

AMT: Why did you decide to start looking into this?

HN: Our team had been hearing troubling stories about EMDC for a while. We received a USB key in the mail and it contained a 22-minute long video. This video really captures the last moments of a man's life inside the EMDC as he was committing suicide. His name is Keith Patterson. He's 30-years-old, in and out of foster care and had a history of mental illness. His sister tells us he was bipolar.

Preview Captured on Camera: Death Behind Bars1:09

We do know that this time he was in for drug and assault charges. During his two months at the EMDC, records show that he was in and out of solitary confinement. He does at many points threaten the guards that if he was put in solitary that there will be trouble. 

AMT: So he did have troubles, but how was he able to take his own life in a jail?

'We know that the guards did see Keith with a torn blanket and it appears that they just let him keep it.' - Habiba Nosheen

HN: What we learned is that he was able to use a tear-proof blanket — and that's supposed to be a safe blanket that inmates are not supposed to be able to rip for self-harm or to be able to use it as a weapon — and he was able to do that. 

Lawyer Kevin Egan

Kevin Egan is a lawyer representing a number of inmates and their families in legal proceedings against the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre. (Colin Butler/CBC)

I spoke to Kevin Egan, the lawyer who has been representing Keith's family and they're suing the province now.  Kevin Egan believes that these blankets become weapons when they're weakened. Keith's last moments were caught on camera inside this jail, and while he's hanging himself we see that a guard brings him a sandwich and he doesn't seem to notice that there is a torn piece of blanket tied to his cell door.

'Fuards tell us that it's actually not possible for them to be sitting there watching these cameras in real time.' - Habiba Nosheen

AMT: So these were warning signs ... why does no one notice or stop what's going on?

HN: We know that the guards did see Keith with a torn blanket, and it appears that they just let him keep it. It's possible that they just didn't want to engage with him because he was known as, one guard called him "a high maintenance inmate." 

But in terms of the cameras, the guards tell us that it's actually not possible for them to be sitting there watching these cameras in real time. They say that they just don't have the resources to do that. So it's not used as a preventative tool to stop something in real time. In fact, at this place, it's just essentially used as an investigative tool. If something happens, they can go back and retrace what went down.

Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre EMDC

Despite being a secure facility with guards on duty 24/7, many people who have served time at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre claim it isn't safe. (Joseph Loiere/CBC)

In this video that we were sent, we do notice that guards do finally notice that Keith is hanging himself and that's when they struggle to open the door.  When they do get in, Keith is rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Listen above to the full conversation with Habiba Nosheen.


This segment was produced by the Current's John Chipman and Lara O'Brien