Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Brother died 'in the worst way' of fentanyl OD in jail, says Waterloo region woman

Curtis McGowan, 32, of Guelph died on Oct. 6, 2017 in a cell at Maplehurst Correction Complex in Milton after using fentanyl. His sister says he was an addict who shouldn't have been in prison, but should have been getting help.

Jail is not the place to send people with addictions and mental health issues, legal advocate says

These photos show Curtis McGowan and his sister Amber McPherson before he started using drugs. McGowan died on Oct. 6, 2017 while being held at Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton. A toxicology report found he had taken fentanyl. (Photos provided by Amber McPherson)

In a letter just days before his death, Curtis McGowan asked his sister for help.

"I'm so sorry for crying. Hope this won't stress you out. That's not what I'm trying to do," the 32-year-old Guelph man wrote from his cell at the provincially-run Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton.

"I know you have a life and family to take care of. I don't have anyone positive but you in my life, plus I really need you to help me stay thinking positive," he wrote.

"What I'm trying to say is I need help and I don't like asking for help."

On Oct. 6, 2017, McGowan was found unresponsive in his cell at Maplehurst of a suspected drug overdose.

A toxicology report confirmed it was fentanyl.

His sister, Amber McPherson, is struggling to figure out where things went wrong for McGowan.

"Some people just think, strain on society, let him die. But this is somebody," McPherson said in her home in Bloomingdale, just outside of Waterloo.

"He's a person and he's gone. I love him. He's loved, but he died in the worst way."

Curtis McGowan wrote this letter to his sister before his death in which he tells her he needs help. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A long rap sheet

McPherson doesn't sugar coat her brother's life. He was addicted to drugs and meth was his final substance of choice.

He has a long rap sheet that includes multiple charges, such as drug possession and breaching probation. In one case, he was charged with break and enter when he was discovered inside a house in Guelph by the homeowner.

But it wasn't always that way, she said.

He was a father to two boys and a great uncle to her children. He worked full time, liked to watch UFC, listened to the Tragically Hip and had a goofy streak where he'd get a silly smile just to make people laugh.

In the early 2000s, he was given a prescription for percocet — a painkiller — for foot pain caused by plantar fasciitis. Then the doctor prescribed him oxycontin

McPherson went to see him one day and McGowan could barely carry on a conversation and was passing out.

She called her brother's doctor and explained he was abusing drugs. The doctor cut him off.

McGowan went to a methadone clinic and was able to get a job, but then at some point, drugs became a part of his life again, McPherson said.

Then, he became addicted to meth.

His children were taken out of the home. In 2010, he was convicted for theft under $5,000. 

Curtis McGowan and his partner had two children. Part of his spiral down into drug use happened after his children were removed from the home, McGowan's sister said. (Photos provided by Amber McPherson)

Getting help 'took too long'

McPherson believes her brother could have had a chance to turn his life around if they could have accessed the proper services.

But every time they would reach out, they'd be told there was a waitlist to get him help.

"I would go to bail court and they'd ask me, what do you want Curtis, when he gets out, what are the rules that you want? And I would say treatment facility, medication, seeing a mental health person," she said.

"So we'd agree to that, Curtis would get out, we would try to access it, but it took too long, so then off Curtis would go using again, and then arrested again."

Candice Weir, a close friend of both McGowan and McPherson, said she remembers spending one afternoon sitting beside McPherson in her car, calling treatment centre after treatment centre.

"They said no, there's a protocol, there's a waitlist," Weir said.

"He wanted help. He wanted somebody to do something," she added. "It feels like there's so many attempts at putting the support where it needs to be and it's just not working."

Curtis McGowan had a lengthy criminal record, which his sister Amber McPherson has a copy of and she has highlighted every time a charge was withdrawn. She said in those cases, her brother sat in prison waiting for his day in court. While she and her family thought he was safe behind bars, he was able to obtain drugs and died of an overdose after using fentanyl. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Safety behind bars

The family also felt he was safe behind bars. When she would call to tell her parents he had been arrested again, McPherson said her mother would say he would be OK. He'd get some food. He'd sleep.

"That's the part that's crushing. He's criminalized for — it all has to do with drugs — and dies of drugs in prison," she said.

There is an ongoing investigation into his death, which includes questions of how fentanyl got into the prison.

We know from Curtis' situation that prison wasn't a safe place for him, it's not going to rehabilitate him, it's not going to provide him with the proper services that he needs to recover from his illness.- Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network

But Sandra Ka Hon Chu of the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network said sometimes, it's easier to get drugs inside prison than on the street.

People in custody have long hours to think about how to get drugs in, she said. 

"They get in through visitors, through staff, through inmates who come in and out of the system on escorted or unescorted temporary absences," she said. There are even cases of people throwing packages over barriers to those on the inside.

Ka Hon Chu would like to see harm reduction measures like needle exchanges introduced in prisons.

Get them support and health services

But she said there is an even larger issue at play here.

"We should stop incarcerating people who have a drug dependence, who have an addiction," she said.

In Canada's court system, addiction is seen as a disability "yet we put people in jail for using drugs rather than divert them to supports and health services."

She said prisons need to provide harm reduction services and the criminal justice system needs to repeal things like minimum sentences for people who are addicts or who need mental health support.

"We know from Curtis' situation that prison wasn't a safe place for him, it's not going to rehabilitate him, it's not going to provide him with the proper services that he needs to recover from his illness," she said.

Amber McPherson holds up a photo of her brother Curtis McGowan. She said addicts like her brother get stuck in a cycle of being in and out of prison when what they really need is support for addictions and mental health. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Full-body scanners, more correction officers

Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Marie-France Lalonde, is aware of the drug problem in the prison system.

In a statement to CBC News, Lalonde said they are introducing a number of measures, including:

  • Asking the province's independent advisor on corrections reform, Howard Sapers, to investigate the problems and provide recommendations.
  • Increasing mental health supports for those in custody.
  • Hiring more correction officers to address understaffing.
  • Installing full-body scanners at all adult provincial correctional facilities.
  • Moving responsibility of health care for those in jail to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

"We intend to introduce new legislation that, if passed, will reform correctional services in Ontario and help us improve conditions and outcomes for those in our custody and care," Lalonde said.

It's a start, McPherson said, but it needs to go even further.

"People are being criminalized and it's not just Curtis — there's a bunch of stories out there but nothing is happening," she said.

"[They send people] to jail because you're a useless junkie or whatever, but the junkie part is what they don't understand and then they just keep spending everyone's money," she said, suggesting tax dollars should be used to build rehabilitation centres.

"Get the people who are in prison for addictions and mental health, put them there and watch the change," she said. "It will change."

About the Author

Kate has been covering issues affecting people in southern Ontario for more than 12 years. She currently works for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

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