Nova Scotia

Family seeks answers after death of patient in N.S. forensic hospital custody

Gregory Hiles, 39, had been found not criminally responsible for assault causing bodily harm. He died after being found unresponsive in his cell last week at the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth, N.S.

Gregory Hiles, 39, found unresponsive last week in cell at East Coast Forensic Hospital

Sheila Hiles wants answers in the death of her son, Gregory Hiles. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

A Nova Scotia mother says she's getting no answers from authorities after her son was found unresponsive in his cell at the province's high-security mental-health facility last week and later died in hospital.

Sheila Hiles said when she had her daily phone call with Gregory Hiles, 39, last Tuesday evening, she had no indication it would be for the last time.

"Gregory was in great spirits. I spoke with him for well over an hour. He ended the call because it was time for lights out. They all had to lock up and it was nothing unusual," Hiles told CBC's Information Morning.

"He said, 'Good night. I'll call you tomorrow.'"

Hiles was being held in the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth, N.S., 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.

Hours after she last spoke to Gregory Hiles, Sheila Hiles said police showed up at her door and said her son was found unresponsive, hanging from bed sheets in his cell. He was declared brain dead on Friday and died in Dartmouth General Hospital.

Hiles's death was first reported in the Halifax Examiner.

Gregory Hiles was 39 when he died. (Facebook)

His death comes just two months after he and three other patients at the forensic hospital went to court in an effort to force hospital officials to lift strict conditions placed on them following allegations they were part of a "drug ring" at the facility.

While a judge said she agreed the patients had been treated unfairly and felt the hearsay evidence against them was thin, she said the court had no jurisdiction over the matter.

The lack of answers surrounding Hiles's death has Nova Scotia's opposition parties calling for some kind of public accounting when a person dies in custody in a public institution, such as the forensic hospital.

"When a person is incarcerated, they are within a public institution in which there is a reasonable expectation that care will be at a level which will guarantee their safety. When that has failed, there is an accountability owing to the public," NDP Leader Gary Burrill said Thursday.

Neither the East Coast Forensic Hospital nor the Nova Scotia Health Authority would confirm any details around Hiles's death. Health authority CEO Janet Knox said privacy laws prevent them from disclosing information about a patient.

"In all serious incidents/deaths there is a confidential quality review and ... the results or recommendations will be shared with next of kin," health authority spokesperson Carla Adams said in an email.

Health Minister Randy Delorey told reporters Thursday the health authority conducts a comprehensive review any time there is a "serious event" in a hospital setting. Delorey said he would not speak about a specific case due to privacy laws.

Gregory Hiles was one of four patients at the East Coast Forensic Hospital to go to court to challenge restrictions placed on them. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Hiles has a long history of trouble with the law. In 2000, he admitted to beating a 19-year-old man to death with a baseball bat. He pleaded down his first-degree murder charge to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years.

He's subsequently faced a number of charges over the years, including assault, robbery and possession of drugs.

Hiles was initially admitted to the East Coast Forensic Hospital in November for a 30-day psychiatric assessment. On Jan. 4, he was found not criminally responsible for offences including assault causing bodily harm.

Sheila Hiles said it doesn't make sense that her son would take his own life. She wants answers from the forensic hospital and is getting nowhere.

"Because he wasn't suicidal. There was nothing, there was nothing — Gregory has gone through a lot over the years. He's had many falls and he has never, ever attempted suicide," she said.

"So, I mean, what could have happened from a phone call at 10, after 10 o'clock when we hung up — happy, laughing, cracking jokes — to a 4:30 a.m. call from the police at my door who told me that my son was found hanging in his cell unresponsive? It didn't make sense to me, it doesn't make sense to me."

Both Sheila Hiles and Martha Paynter, founder of the non-profit Women's Wellness Within and an advocate for incarcerated people, are asking for a formal inquiry into Hiles's death.

"I think whenever we have a death in custody … and whenever someone is held in the custody and care of the province and dies inside, I think that it's fair for the public to demand accountability from our public services to know what happened," said Paynter. 

Gregory Hiles was initially admitted to the East Coast Forensic Hospital in November for a 30-day assessment. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Sheila Hiles said her calls to the forensic hospital to find answers in her son's death continue to go unanswered. 

She said she also called the pay phone on which she would reach her son each night. She said she spoke to a young man she knew on Hiles's unit. 

He told her he heard screaming the night of Hiles's death, but couldn't say who was doing it or why. 

"He said that Gregory went into his cell gave him an apple," Hiles said. "They sat they chatted for a minute. When the guards told them to go lock up. At 12:30 that night he heard screaming. What was the screaming for? Who was doing the screaming? You can't get out of the cells to see."

A view of two residents in the exercise yard at the East Coast Forensic Hospital. (Senate of Canada)

In April, Nova Scotia's Criminal Code Review Board, a quasi-judicial panel with jurisdiction over offenders found not criminally responsible for crimes, ordered Hiles be classified as L6, which would have allowed him to leave the hospital for up to six days at a time.

However, Hiles and three other patients at the facility were transferred from the rehabilitation unit of the forensic hospital to the more strict mentally ill offenders unit (MIOU) after another patient claimed the four were running a drug ring. Hiles's privileges and leave access were also revoked at that time.

The four men filed in court what's known as a habeas corpus application. Hiles wrote the restrictions were "heavy handed and a result of a miscarriage of justice," and that he was being treated like an inmate in lockdown rather than a patient. All based, he said, on hearsay evidence.

"I just want to have my open visits w. my kids and family and get moved back to Rehab," he wrote.

In her July decision, 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.

Martha Paynter is the chair of Women's Wellness Within. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Smith did say that if she had had jurisdiction, she would have concluded the decision to transfer the men to the MIOU was "unreasonable and unlawful." She called the decision-making process "procedurally unfair, being based almost entirely on the unverified report of a co-patient."

Paynter said being kept away from his family was harmful to Hiles's mental health. She said he was held in solitary confinement when he was incarcerated prior to his time at the forensic hospital.

"We know that solitary confinement is extraordinarily harmful for mental health," said Paynter. 

With files from Paul Palmeter, Information Morning, Anjuli Patil