New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Forgotten Deaths: Ex-jail guard haunted by inmate's death

Former Saint John jail guard Ian Beckett has struggled with PTSD since finding the body of Jason Hopkins in his cell. He has questions about Hopkins' death that remain unanswered.

Ian Beckett is struggling with PTSD roughly 8 years after the death of Jason Hopkins in the Saint John jail

'I have nightmares'

7 years ago
Duration 0:54
Ian Bennett, a former jail guard , was first on the scene after an inmate hanged himself. He is calling for less secrecy inside the justice system.

A former jail guard who was first on scene after an inmate hanged himself is calling for less secrecy inside the justice system.

Eight years after he made the gruesome discovery, Ian Beckett said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to hold down a job.

He said he believes he has been ostracized by others in the correctional system because he developed a mental illness after the traumatic experience.

Beckett said he has also been told very little about the death of Jason Hopkins inside his cell at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre on July 30, 2008.

He said he thinks a coroner's inquest should be held into Hopkins' death.

"It would probably be good for the family to get some closure, everybody to get closure," Beckett said.

"I'd like closure too."

CBC News contacted the Department of Public Safety for comment, but didn't receive a response on Monday.

Jason Hopkins took his own life inside his cell at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre on July 30, 2008. (CBC)
Barb McAllister, Hopkins' mother, has also called for an inquest into her 29-year-old son's death.

She has spent the last eight years trying to figure out how her mentally ill son went from minor run-ins with the law to dying in a jail cell.

After spending 28 months working at the Saint John jail, Beckett said he believes poor access to mental health services has left many mentally ill people in jail who shouldn't be locked up.

A CBC News investigation has found that 13 people have died in custody of New Brunswick jails since 2004.

Hopkins is one of them. But very little is known about how most of the other people died, including how many took their own lives.

Death happened on night shift

Beckett said he discovered Hopkins' body in his cell around 1 a.m. while doing rounds after returning from an hour-long break.

One guard, he said, had been monitoring the unit while Beckett was on his break with another officer.

Much of what he saw when he opened the cell door remains a blur and the full effects of the trauma wouldn't sink in for months.

"It was shocking," he said.

He said staff tried to save Hopkins with CPR, but it was too late.

After writing an incident report, Beckett said he went back on shift until he was called to give a statement to police.

Told he couldn't handle job

It took Ian Beckett years to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he was first on scene at the death of Jason Hopkins inside the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre. (CBC)
Beckett wouldn't return to work for at least a month after that night.

Other than the chance to speak to a high-ranking officer in another city, Beckett said he wasn't offered access to resources that would help him deal with what he saw.

He went on medical leave and turned to alcohol to cope. It would be years before he realized that he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I really didn't have a time to think about it, to be honest with you, because I was drinking so much," he said.

When he tried to return to work, Beckett — who was a casual employee at the jail — said he had to fight to get his job back.

He was eventually reinstated and completed his contract. He said he was told there would be work for him once he was eligible for another contract.

But when he called to ask about that work, he said he was told his services weren't needed.

He said he believes he was punished for taking time off after Hopkins' death.

"I was on the qualified list and I kept asking how come I haven't been hired for a position yet? I was told several times it's because you took time off. It's because of the incident. We don't think you can handle this job," he said.

A barrier to getting help

Last week, Public Safety Minister Denis Landry sent a statement saying his department is trying to be more transparent about deaths in custody.

The department will now tell the public when someone dies in custody, but won't say how that person died.

The provincial ombudsman has called for a mandatory public review after every jail death.

That may help both McAllister and Beckett get the closure they want, but department officials have not committed to that recommendation.

Mike Davidson, a national representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, is calling for more programs and mental health support inside New Brunswick jails. (CBC)
Mike Davidson, a national representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said he doesn't believe that
Beckett's struggles are unique.

Davidson said about one-third of the province's correctional staff are casual employees.

He said he believes this is a safety issue, but is also worried that it creates a "revolving door" of employees inside jails and allows people like Beckett to fall through the cracks.

"When you're easily discarded, that creates a barrier for people to come forward to say I want some help. Because in Ian's case, it cost him his job and that's not right," he said.

'Scared of the dark'

Beckett didn't realize the extent of his decline until his wife gave him an ultimatum: booze or his children.

'I have been getting help'

7 years ago
Duration 1:20
Ian Bennett, a former jail guard , was first on the scene after an inmate hanged himself. Here he discusses his substance abuse issues since the incident.
He finally got help about a month ago and plans to start group therapy soon. He knows he has a long road ahead.

"I have nightmares," Beckett said.

"I get anxious, almost scared of the dark."

He wants the correctional system to offer more mental health support to officers, including mandatory counselling every six months.

But he thinks the culture will have to change inside the jail before many officers will open up.

'There's a lot of embarrassment. You're too much of a man to go see somebody," he said.

After hearing McAllister's story, Beckett said he believes she is entitled to know what happened to her son.

"If nothing was done wrong, then why can't people know about their own child?" he said.

"If something happened to my child, I would like to know what happened to my child."