Saskatchewan

Regina Correctional Centre neglected needs of man who died in custody, family says

Waylon Starr's family says they still have questions about what happened the day he died at Regina Provincial Correctional Centre.

Inquest told Waylon Starr asked to see an elder before in-custody suicide; no record of request, jail says

Waylon Starr's family has been attending the inquest into his 2017 in-custody death, being held at Regina Court of Queen's Bench this week. From left to right: Starr's older sister, Reah Starr, his mother, Verna Starr, and grandmother Margaret Starblanket. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

Waylon Starr's family says they still have questions about what happened the day he died at Regina Provincial Correctional Centre.

Starr's in-custody death is the focus of a coroner's inquest in Regina this week.

The 27-year-old inmate was found unresponsive in his cell on Aug. 24, 2017, having apparently killed himself through asphyxiation, the inquest heard. He was given CPR but could not be revived.

Jail staff told the inquest jury Starr didn't reach out for help and they didn't see any red flags to suggest he would attempt suicide.

His mother, Verna Starr, said he called her the week he died and told her he had been denied a visit with an elder. 

Representatives from the facility told the inquest that Starr never made such a request, according to their records. 

"They were neglecting his needs," Verna Starr said outside Regina Court of Queen's Bench on Wednesday. "As a mother, I know that he always talked to elders for help." 

She said she called the correctional centre's acting director Darrell Olbrich to find out why her son couldn't speak to an elder, but she didn't get a reply that day.

Olbrich apologized following his witness testimony at the inquest.

Waylon Starr was found unresponsive in his cell at the Regina Correctional Centre on Aug. 24, 2017. (CBC News)

"I can't sleep now because I'm wondering what went on in there," Verna said. "Why wasn't my phone calls answered? Why was he denied an elder? Why was he left just to fend for himself like he was some kind of animal?"

She said her son wanted to do a sweat or smudge with an elder — something he said would've helped him face his problems. 

Starr called his family the day he died, including his grandmother, Margaret Starblanket, who has been attending the inquest. 

"He told me, 'Grandma, I'm having problems in here. I'm scared and I'm getting depressed. I asked for an elder and I want a ceremony and they denied me all that,'" Starblanket said.

"I was getting mad, thinking 'What are they doing in that jail?'"

Starr was trying to change his life: family

Starblanket said the justice system should be more culturally sensitive to First Nations people in custody. 

The inquest heard that Starr asked to be moved from the facility in Regina to Prince Albert or North Battleford, but was denied. 

He also requested a voluntary move to the correctional centre's secure unit, where inmates get only one hour of individual exercise a day, citing safety concerns. Starr had been offered cells in two other units that are known to be safe for people trying to leave gangs. 

His family said he wanted to change his life, and had "dropped his [gang] colours" prior to being incarcerated again on July 5, 2017. Verna said he was having a hard time making friends outside of the gang.

His older sister, Reah Starr, said she was concerned when he told her that he was fearful of other inmates.

"He was a very smart, determined boy," Reah said. "He did make some wrong decisions in life but that didn't define him. 

"He was still a human being. He was a son, he was a grandson, he was my little brother."

His family said Starr was outgoing, funny and enjoyed powwow dancing. They also said he was a loving father. 

Starr's daughter, now three, is living with his parents on Starblanket Cree Nation. Verna said she wishes he could've been there to raise her. 

"I think of him every day," said Verna. 

Jail finds guard didn't do hourly check

On Tuesday, the inquest heard from correctional officer Justin Amyotte, who was assigned to oversee Starr's unit the night he died.

As part of their duties, COs are supposed to do a check of each inmate in their unit every hour. 

The inquest heard Amyotte was not seen on video going into the unit at 9 p.m. but marked a check in his log book. 

Amyotte found Starr unresponsive at 10:27 p.m., when he did his next check through the corridor of the unit. 

"It makes you wonder if they're all working like that — like they just do quick checks, like glances, and don't really go right into the room," said Reah. 

"Why didn't he get another job if he was going to slack off?" said Verna. "It wasn't [Waylon's] turn to go, I don't think.… If [Amyotte] would've did his job, my boy would have been here looking after his daughter, or at least trying to."

Verna said that Amyotte, who cried during his testimony, seemed remorseful, which gave her some closure. 

She said she hopes the inquest will help lead to changes that could potentially save lives.

The inquest heard that there was a work plan compiled following Starr's suicide, which included observations and recommendations. Amyotte was found to have not fulfilled an hourly check and no longer works directly with inmates. 

Olbrich said workers are now more diligent with suicide prevention forms, which were missing for two of Starr's intake dates. 

Coroner Brent Gough is reviewing the evidence presented at the inquest.

On Wednesday, he thanked the family for their "thoughtful participation." 

Gough said the purpose of the inquest is to determine how, when, where and by what means Starr died, but not to find any civil or criminal fault. It is also meant to bring dangerous practices to light in an effort to avoid preventable deaths. 

Gough will instruct the jury Thursday morning at the Court of Queen's Bench. 

About the Author

Alex Soloducha is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.