London·Video

This woman is walking to Queen's Park to try to stop more Ontario inmates from dying

The sister of an inmate who died at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre says she's plans to walk from the London jail all the way to Queen's Park this May in an effort to get legislators to reform the provincial jail system.

Lynn Pigeau, 49, plans to walk from London's jail to Queen's Park in Toronto to get change for inmates

Lynn Pigeau: 'They need to listen' 0:26

The sister of an inmate who died of an apparent overdose at the London jail says she plans to walk from the front doors of the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre all the way to the provincial legislature in Toronto in an effort to force change in Ontario's provincial jail system. 

We deserve accountability, we deserve answers.- Lynn Pigeau

Lynn Pigeau is an outspoken critic of the London jail and the sister of inmate, James Pigeau. He was discovered dead on January 7, 2018 inside his cell at EMDC where he was being kept on remand for charges of robbery and theft. 

His death was the latest of 13 at the provincial jail since 2009, which has one of the highest rates of inmate deaths in the country and has been called "the worst in Ontario."

Not just for inmates

Lynn Pigeau looks at a picture of her brother James Pigeau, a former inmate at the London jail who died in January of an apparent overdose. (Lynn Pigeau/Facebook)

Since her brother died, Lynn Pigeau has been one of the key organizers of a number of rallies in support of increased safety for guards and inmates, including a series of upcoming rallies planned for next week's Juno celebrations in London. 

"I want to walk from the doors of EMDC to Queen's Park," she said Tuesday.  "It's not just for the inmates, it's for the guards."

Pigeau said she wants the province to start properly screening inmates for addictions and mental health issues, to start regularly separating violent from non-violent prisoners inside jails, hire more correctional officers and give them better training. 

A memorial cross made for Lynn Pigeau's brother James, who died of an apparent drug overdose while in custody at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre in January 2018. (Lynn Pigeau/Facebook)

Starting May 26, Pigeau plans to walk for about 10 hours a day along Highway 2 over the course of her three day journey to the Toronto legislature.

"I'm not asking anyone to walk with me, but they can if they want to," she said, noting she plans to accept any donations from the families of corrections officers or families of inmates who've lost loved ones inside the provincial jail system. 

Pigeau said she hopes the march will get the attention of the Progressive Conservative government under Doug Ford, who like their Liberal predecessors under Kathleen Wynne, have mostly ignored the problem of people dying while in the custody of the province. 

"They need to listen. They need to know that these are families. These aren't just inmates. These are loved ones and even if these are overdoses or suicides, murders, they were still somebody's loved one," she said.

"We deserve accountability, we deserve answers." 

Drive for change inspired by recent trial

Former EMDC supervisor Stephen Jurkus (left) and former guard Leslie Lonsbary (right) have pleaded not guilty to failing to provide the necessaries of life in the 2013 death of inmate Adam Kargus. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The 49-year-old said what inspired her walk to Toronto was the recent trial of two former jail employees, Stephen Jurkus and Leslie Lonsbary, who were charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life in the 2013 death of inmate Adam Kargus, 29. 

"It's been a real eye opener about what really needs to change," she said. 

Kargus, who was serving a 90-day sentence for fraud, was beaten to death by his cellmate Anthony George, a dangerous and unpredictable offender, who had been drinking potent prison-made liquor the night he was locked in a cell with Kargus.

Guards did not intervene as George punched, kicked and choked Kargus to death over the course of an hour in a frenzied beating that was so loud, other inmates told the court they could hear Kargus' screams for help on the floor below. 

A jury found Jurkus not guilty in connection with his death, while Lonsbary's case was declared a mistrial. 

During the trial, the jury heard about chronic overcrowding, how guards received little training and were regularly under staffed and unable to properly protect the inmates in their care. 

Inmates 'jammed in cheek-by-jowl'

Kevin Egan explains how bad conditions are inside EMDC 1:54

"There's people sleeping on the floor, double-bunking in cells, jammed in cheek-by-jowl," said Kevin Egan, a London lawyer with McKenzie-Lake, who is currently embroiled in a $325 million class action lawsuit on behalf of 15,000 former inmates alleging mistreatment at the London jail. 

Egan said the jail was only designed to house 150 inmates when it was built in the 1970s, but has since been retrofitted to house up to 400 or 500 inmates. 

"The meanest toughest inmates are running the range, it's not the correctional officers," he said.  "They distribute the food and the clothing and they mete out the punishment when people don't follow their rules." 

"They own the telephones, they can determine who gets to use the phones and they can take people's desserts, fruit and sugar from coffee and make their own brew on the range and all of that happens on a consistent basis," he said. 

We can't stand by and do nothing.- Kevin Egan, lawyer for McKenzie-Lake

Egan said he's been fighting on behalf of guards and inmates against injustice for the last 10 years and has yet to see a provincial government make meaningful change to improve conditions at the London jail. 

"At last count there's 13 inmates who've died at EMDC and all the while the government promising change and noting happening, so we need to do something or someone else is going to die." 

Egan said over the course of the last 10 years he's developed a healthy skepticism about the way that provincial politicians react to the problem, but he's trying to remain optimistic about Lynn Pigeau's chances of affecting change. 

"Unless we keep putting pressure on the government I can guarantee you nothing is getting done. This is a positive step," he said. "We can't stand by and do nothing." 

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