Inmate's sister 'very disgusted' after 7 overdoses at London, Ont., jail

James Pigeau, 32, was the last inmate to die of an apparent overdose at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre. His sister Lynn says this latest incident shows despite promises from jail administrators in the wake of her brother's death, the facility still isn't following its own procedures.

Lynn Pigeau's brother James died of an apparent overdose in January, which is still under investigation

Lynn Pigeau looks at a picture of her brother James Pigeau, who was an inmate in London, Ont., when he died in January of an apparent overdose. (Lynn Pigeau/Facebook)

The sister of an inmate who died from an apparent overdose at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre earlier this year says she's shocked, angry and disgusted to learn seven inmates at the London, Ont., jail overdosed this week. 

I was shocked, I was angered and very disgusted by it.- Lynn Pigeau

Lynn Pigeau's brother James, who was an outspoken critic of the jail, was found dead on Jan. 7, 2018 in his cell at EMDC, where he was being kept on remand as he awaited trial on charges of robbery and theft.

On Thursday, seven inmates at the maximum-security jail overdosed within minutes of each other. Police haven't said what drug is suspected to be behind the overdoses, but investigators noted the life-saving opioid antidote naloxone was used to resuscitate an unknown number of inmates.

"I was shocked, I was angered and very disgusted by it," said Lynn Pigeau said Friday. "These could have been preventable."

13 deaths in the last decade

James Pigeau is seen in this Facebook photo, dated July 2015, with his young daughter. (James Pigeau/Facebook)

Since her brother's death, Pigeau has joined a growing number of families of inmates who have lost a loved one at the jail and have been holding regular rallies outside the institution, demanding changes at a jail that has been called Ontario's worst, with at least 13 deaths in the last decade, six of which were in the last 12 months. 

Pigeau said Thursday's incident when seven inmates overdosed illustrates the fact that despite talk of changes by the administration at London's notorious jail, nothing is being done to improve the safety of guards and inmates living and working at the jail.

"They've gone and said 'we've put all these processes in place,' but yet nothing is being followed," she said. "We need changes done. It's very important we get changes."  

"My immediate reaction was 'oh no, here we go again," said Kevin Egan Friday, a lawyer with London law firm McKenzie Lake who is representing a number of inmates and guards in a class action lawsuit against the provincial government.

Incident points to systematic problem

Egan said Thursday's incident is an illustration of a systemic problem exacerbated by the fact that drugs and other contraband seem to be able to pass through the jail's lacklustre security all too easily.

Lawyer Kevin Egan says the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services often ignores recommendations made as part of inquests into jail deaths in Ontario. (The Fifth Estate)

"People get in trouble with the law for a variety of reasons, but very often it's drug related," he said. "It's known they're drug abusers, but they're not offered programs to assist them with their addiction." 

"They're going to try to find opiates where they can and they're creative about it, but they're not that discriminatory about the quality of what they're ingesting because they're addicts. Fentanyl is a drug that's easily concealed and transported into a maximum-security facility and that's why we're seeing a rise in fentanyl overdoses." 

Authorities have not said what kind of drug the inmates are believed to have ingested, but Egan said the fact police noted inmates were treated with the opioid antidote naloxone offers a pretty good clue. 

Drugs smuggled into jail easily

"It's a pretty good indicator that it was an opioid they were taking," he said, "because naloxone obviously counteracts the effects of an opioid." 

I haven't seen this large a number. Seven of them sounds like a party.- Kevin Egan

Egan said inmates overdosing at the same time has happened before at the jail, but it usually involves a couple at a time.

Until now, to his knowledge, the largest number of inmates to overdose at the jail at once was this past March, when four women overdosed and had to be taken to hospital. 

"I haven't seen this large a number. Seven of them sounds like a party," he said.

The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., has one of the highest numbers of inmate deaths in Canada. (CBC)

The EMDC received a full-body scanner in March, which was intended to prevent inmates from smuggling drugs or weapons into the jail.

However, Thursday's incident suggests the body scanner may be having little to no effect on the tide of drugs being smuggled.

Egan said the increasing number of overdoses at the jail shows that drugs are being smuggled into the jail easily and regularly.

"If there's enough coming in for seven people to overdose, that's a fairly substantial amount of narcotic," he said. 

Egan also noted that coroner's inquests into the deaths of inmates regularly make recommendations on how to improve conditions for not only inmates but the guards who monitor them, but they are often ignored. 

CBC News reached out to the jail's warden, Kim Wright, but her administrative assistant said she would be unavailable for comment until further notice.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Corrections said the province has launched an internal investigation. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca