Public has a right to know about jail deaths, advocates say

Prisoner’s rights groups are condemning the secrecy surrounding recent overdose deaths at the Barton Street jail, and say officials should be doing more to inform the public when inmates die.

3 men dead inside Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre from reported overdoses since 2012

Paramedics were called to the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre 12 times from Monday to Wednesday last week for inmates suffering from overdose symptoms. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Prisoner’s rights groups are condemning the secrecy surrounding recent overdose deaths at the Barton Street jail, and say officials should be doing more to inform the public when inmates die.

“The system is very insulated. They don’t want any information getting out,” said Joan Ruza, the co-ordinator at Written House, an advocacy group for community alternatives to incarceration.

“This is happening a lot and people just aren’t aware of it.”

Three men have died inside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre since 2012 and in none of the cases did any agency make the death public. The various agencies involved in investigating all say doing so is not their responsibility.

The lack of public disclosure doesn’t foster accountability or any kind of confidence in the justice system, says David Lane, the executive director of the Hamilton/Burlington John Howard society.

“I understand they need to do their internal investigation,” he told CBC Hamilton. “But at the same time, a death is a death. People should know.”

“It’s a strong concern on our behalf. There’s a requirement around protection in these facilities and for some reason, that’s not happening.”

Louis Unelli 's death was the first of the three, on March 16, 2012. He died with a mix of narcotics in his system. Family members say he was estranged from much of his family and hadn’t been seen in years.

Marty Tykoliz was the latest. He reportedly overdosed twice last week on powdered methadone and was found in his cell with no heartbeat. His sister April had to pull the plug after he couldn’t be revived Tuesday night.

Another 38-year-old man died on March 25 after suffering overdose symptoms. Officials have not released his name.

'Nobody deserves to die like that'

In all of these cases, the three agencies investigating the deaths say they onus is not on them to publicize what happened to these men — so no one has. The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is not bound to release news to the public, says Brent Ross, spokesperson.

"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."

The responsibility doesn’t lie with police or the coroner either, officials say. 

The deaths are not for lack of effort or care or concern on behalf of jail guards, says Stephen Smith, a Barton corrections officer and president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 249.

“We did everything we could to save [Tykoliz’s] life,” Smith told CBC Hamilton. “Nobody deserves to die in jail. Nobody deserves to die like that.”

April Tykoliz says the public should have been alerted when these men died, and she is baffled by all the secrecy. "How crazy is this and why are we not notified of this?"

A systemic problem?

There is a systemic drug problem inside the Barton Street jail, Smith says, largely due to search restrictions.

Corrections officers can’t perform cavity searches, and that severely limits their ability to find drugs, he says. “We know the drugs are there. We know where they are — but just can’t do anything about it.”

“There’s a lot of drugs in the institution, and this just happens to be a particularly nasty one.”

Something needs to be done to combat that reality, Lane says. “It’s really important — there’s no question,” he said.

“These people are supposed to come back into the community — it’s how long they’ll be here that’s the question.”

Regional coroner Dr. Jack Stanborough says 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."

According to the Office of the Chief Coroner, there have been seven overdose deaths in Ontario jails since 2008.


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