Nova Scotia

Prisoner rights advocate group says inquiry needed for every death in custody

The death of a patient who was being held at the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth, N.S., is prompting a prisoner rights advocacy group to renew its calls for mandatory public inquiries after people die in custody.

Member of the East Coast Prison Justice Society says details of Gregory Hiles death ‘very sketchy’

Sheila Wildeman is an associate professor at the Schulich School of Law and is a member of the East Coast Prison Justice Society. (Rachael Kelly)

The death of a patient at the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth, N.S., is prompting a prisoner rights advocacy group to renew its calls for mandatory public inquiries after people die in custody. 

Gregory Hiles was found unresponsive in his cell at the province's high-security mental-health facility last week, and later died in hospital on Aug. 30.

"In the Gregory Hiles death, there's a set of systemic concerns that we think could and should come out were there to be a fatality inquiry," Sheila Wildeman, associate professor at the Schulich School of Law and a member of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, told CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia.

She called the details of Hiles's death "very sketchy."

He and three other patients were under restricted conditions prior to his death after another inmate at the forensic hospital accused them of selling drugs.

Gregory Hiles was found unresponsive in his cell last week. He was declared brain dead on Aug. 30 and died in Dartmouth General Hospital. (Facebook)

Hiles fought the allegations in court more than two months ago. Although the judge agreed there was no solid evidence in the case and that the patients were treated unfairly, she said there was nothing she could do. Justice Anne Smith said the Nova Scotia Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction over the matter and said it was more appropriate that Hiles and the other three men appeal to the Criminal Code Review Board.

Hiles was being held in the East Coast Forensic Hospital after he was found not criminally responsible in January on charges of assault causing bodily harm, resisting a peace officer, uttering threats and breach of probation.

His mother, Sheila Hiles, told CBC's Information Morning last week her son had been through a lot in his life, but never attempted suicide.

Wildeman said the conditions Hiles was held in and other systemic issues may be connected to his death.

"We know from recent litigation on solitary confinement that the experience of intensely restrictive conditions is corrosive to mental health," she said.

Nova Scotia rules

When there's a death in a Nova Scotia correctional or health-care facility, Wildeman said the institution must notify the medical examiner, but what comes next is unclear.

The Nova Scotia Justice Department says its major incidents policy went into effect in 2011 and requires it must be publicly disclosed whenever someone dies in their custody. But the provincial Health Department, which runs the East Coast Forensic Hospital, does not follow the same policy about deaths in custody. 

 "One of the purposes of a public and transparent fatality inquiry is to ensure that violence and abuse of institutional residence does not go unchecked," Wildeman said.

Other provinces, like Alberta and Ontario, already require public inquiries into deaths in custody, specifically where the death is related in some way to institutional policy or conduct.

Wildeman said the public must be involved because these places are publicly funded.

"We have a responsibility to know what happened out of respect and concern for the person who's died, but we also have a responsibility to do all that we can to make sure that similar tragic deaths don't occur," she said.

With files from CBC Information Morning Nova Scotia

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