Nova Scotia

'This never should have happened,' says father of Burnside jail inmate who died

Don Evans says his son, who had the intellect of a 7-year-old, was suicidal and should have been monitored more closely.

Don Evans says his son, who had the intellect of a 7-year-old, was suicidal and should have been monitored

Joshua Evans died after a suicide attempt in a Dartmouth, N.S. jail cell earlier this week. (Submitted by Don Evans)

The father of a 29-year-old man who was found unresponsive after a suicide attempt in a Nova Scotia jail cell earlier this week says the system should be changed to prevent such a death from happening again.

Joshua Aaron Evans was discovered in his cell at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S., on Monday at 9:30 p.m. Staff began CPR and called paramedics, who took him to the Dartmouth General Hospital, where he died on Tuesday afternoon with family members present.

Halifax Regional Police and the Justice Department are investigating, and the medical examiner's office is conducting an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

But Evans's father, Don Evans, said in a statement to CBC News that his son, who he said had a developmental disability and the intellect of a seven-year-old, was known to be suicidal and should have been closely monitored.

"If he is suicidal, someone should have noticed and been watching him around the clock," he wrote. "Laws need to be changed so this can never happen again."

Awaiting court date for child porn charges

Joshua Evans had been in the correctional facility, commonly known as the Burnside jail, for four weeks, his father said.

He was arrested at his home in Upper Granville on July 12 and charged with accessing, possessing and distributing child pornography, as well as failing to comply with probation and prohibition orders. He was in prison on remand, and was awaiting a court appearance when he died.

Joshua had previously been charged in the Niagara region of Ontario with accessing, possessing and making child pornography available, according to local media reports.

Notes about his suicidal thoughts would have been contained in any files sent to Nova Scotia from Ontario, Don Evans said. Joshua was also sent for a 30-day psychological evaluation shortly after he was arrested in Nova Scotia, his father said.

"Staff at the facility should have known and kept him safe," he said. "When someone goes into custody you expect them to be safe and not end up in the morgue four weeks later."

Justice minister 'confident'

Speaking with reporters earlier Thursday, Justice Minister Mark Furey did not reveal details of the inmate's death or the care he received while he was behind bars, only saying that he did receive medical attention during his time there.

Justice Minister Mark Furey says the circumstances surrounding an inmate's death earlier this week are 'tragic.' (CBC)

But Furey said he has confidence in the system.

"I'm confident in the facility itself that, with the presence of the health authority and the forensics side and the experience and training of the correctional officers themselves and the support that is there through the nurse program and other health care support services, that patients are getting the medical attention they need."

On Aug. 21, inmates at the Burnside jail joined a prisoner campaign that started in the United States, calling for improvements in their living conditions.

A group in the jail prepared and circulated their 10-point plan for basic improvements in health care, rehabilitation, exercise, visits, clothing, food, air quality and library access.

Last week, Furey responded to some of the items on the list, and though he made few firm commitments, he told reporters "it's important we have these discussions and ensure the rights of those incarcerated in our facility are respected."

'He was different'

Joshua was born with velocardiofacial syndrome, caused by a missing part of a chromosome, his father said. The genetic condition results in different symptoms for different people, including developmental delays as well as communication and social challenges.

"Anyone seeing Josh or talking to him would know right away he was different. He really was a little kid in a 250-pound, six-foot-three body," Evans said.

He said his son spent much of his time watching television, and his last psychological report said he operated at a Grade 2 level.

"If he would go out for a walk, he would get lost most times and I would have to go and find him," Evans wrote. 

Regarding the child pornography charges against him, Evans said his son didn't understand that what he was doing was criminal.

"He was a kid on the computer and did not know it was wrong."

Was jail the right place?

Furey said the prison has a forensic unit for inmates with significant mental health issues, but some inmates with "brain dysfunction" or "other challenging issues" don't meet the criteria. But, for their own protection, they also can't be placed in the general prison population, Furey said.

He said the inmate who died was living in an area called the transition day room, which has an open space with direct supervision by staff as well as individual cells nearby. Prison staff inspect the cells every half hour.

Evans said a nurse at the hospital told him his son's suicide attempt had gone unnoticed for at least 30 minutes and that his son was brain-dead. 

A provincial committee is exploring ways to reduce the number of people on remand — which means they live in a correctional facility while waiting for a court date. Other options include being granted bail or being housed in the community.

Furey said the committee is making progress on that goal, but "maybe not as fast as some would like to see."

'He fell through the cracks'

Evans believes Joshua should have been in a hospital or an institution for the mentally challenged.

His son "must have been terrified" every second he was in the jail, he said, adding that he would have been an easy target for other inmates.

"You know someone is very afraid when the only way out is to end your life after only four weeks."

Evans said he plans to talk to a lawyer to try to get some answers.

"He fell through the cracks in a system that just does not care," he said. "Laws for the mentally challenged need to be changed so this can never happen again."

About the Author

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

With files from The Canadian Press