Her son died in Hamilton's jail days ago. Now she protests outside

People gathered outside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre on Sunday, demanding action in the wake of yet another death inside the facility.

Paul Debien died in the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre last week, his mother says

Brenda Thomson stands outside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre where her son, Paul Debien, died in March. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Just last weekend, Brenda Thomson was protesting in front of the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, in solidarity with those who have had family members die while inmates at the jail. 

Inside the jail, her son was banging on the windows to show support.

Then she got the call Friday morning: her son had died. Now he was among the dead.

"It just kills you," she said, speaking through tears. "You're just numb." 

Paul Debien, 34, died in jail this week, his mother said.

A man was found in medical distress in his cell at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, according to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. The ministry had not yet released his name.

Father of two children

Debien was the father of two young children — a six and 10-year-old, Thomson said.

He was a "comedian" and "lovable guy," she said, who was always cracking jokes and in a good mood. 

A picture of Paul Debien and one of his children on a sign at the rally. (Laura Howells/CBC)

A great son, a good father and a hard worker, Thomson said Debien will be missed by a wide circle of friends.

The coroner's office is investigating. If they find he died of non-natural causes, an inquest will be mandatory.

Two weekends of protest

Sunday's rally was called after families learned of Debien's death. Its became the second straight weekend that dozens of people marched outside the Barton Street jail, demanding action after a string of deaths at the facility.

Eleven people died from drug overdoses at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre between 2010 and 2017, according to statistics from the Office of the Chief Coroner, which is almost triple the number of the next closest facility.

Since 2017, at least four more people have died inside the jail — including two since January.

Brenda Thomson (right) and Amy McKechnie listen as inmates bang on the windows from inside the Hamilton jail, showing their support for the rally outside. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Friends with others who died

Outside the jail, Thomson waved to inmates who would have known her son. She listened as they banged on the windows, showing their support.

Debien finished his Grade 12 credentials behind bars, she said, among other education. He had been in and out of jail, she said, but was last incarcerated in the fall.

She's grateful so many people came out to rally behind her. It's "beautiful," she says —and she knows Debien would do the same for them.

Some of his friends had already died in jail, Thomson said, and he was trying to help their families.

A poster for Paul Debien, whose family said died in the Barton Street jail last week. (Laura Howells/CBC)

One such friend was Ryan McKechnie, who died of an overdose at the jail in 2017.

"Why?" asks Amy McKechnie, Ryan's sister. "How is this all happening?" She was angry and devastated to learn of Debien's death and know another family is "torn apart."

'He didn't need to die'

Last year, a massive inquest into the deaths of eight men who died of overdoses produced 62 recommendations on how to reform the jail. Ten months later, families are still waiting to see what, if any, changes will happen. 

"He didn't need to die," Thomson said, who believes deaths could have been prevented if the recommendations had been implemented.

The ministry says it is still reviewing the recommendations and will respond to Office of the Chief Coroner in May.

A death in Niagara

About a dozen people also travelled from the Niagara area for Sunday's rally, after they say 22-year-old Jordan Case died in a Thorold detention centre in December.

Case overdosed in jail, said his mother Angela, who is waiting for the final coroner's report.

Angela Case travelled with her family from Nigara to be at the rally in Hamilton. She holds a photo of her late son, Jordan. (Laura Howells/CBC)

"I thought he was safe. And I was so wrong," she said, crying. "This can't happen to another family."

Jordan Case was close with his younger sister, Raeanne Corriveau.

"We were best friends," Corriveau said, crying at the rally. "He was my older brother. He was always there. He had my back, no matter what."

Rosie Prior, Case's former girlfriend, remembers his spontaneous personality, his laughs, his "weirdness," she said with affection.

About a dozen people travelled from the Niagara area to Hamilton for the rally on Sunday. They lost 22-year-old Jordan Case at a jail in Thorold, they say. (Laura Howells/CBC)

They met as teenagers, were best friends, dated, and he became close to, and helped care for, her daughter. He had a heart of gold and always had the right intentions, Prior said.

'Epidemic all over Ontario'

The group from Niagara wanted to raise awareness and push for change. They're planning a rally in Thorold in the coming weeks.

Angela Case discovered this community of people who have loved ones in jail a few days ago, and was so happy to find people who understood.

"I feel like not enough's being said about people in Thorold," said Angela Case. "It's an epidemic all over Ontario."

Like many people at the rally, Thomson wants a wealth of changes inside the Hamilton jail, including more programming and more workers. 

In the meantime, she knows she'll carry her son Paul with her forever.

"I don't think you ever get over losing a son."

People beat drums and brandished signs outside the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre on Sunday, as passing cars honked their support. (Laura Howells/CBC)


  • This story originally erroneously reported that Jordan Case had a child. It has been amended to remove that reference.
    Mar 25, 2019 10:03 AM ET