Grieving Behind Bars: A firsthand account of punitive practices in response to deaths in provincial custody
As part of our ongoing tracking work, we are moving beyond just numbers. Tracking (In)Justice is also documenting and sharing first-hand accounts and stories from family members and people who have been directly impacted by police-involved and deaths in custody.
For our first post bringing the data to life, we share the account of someone who was incarcerated in an Ontario provincial institution when a series of deaths in custody occurred. In December 2022, Tracking (In)Justice released our report, indicating that deaths in Ontario custody have been on the rise. In the context of the increase, what are the impacts of deaths on other incarcerated people? How are incarcerated people calling for justice to end deaths in custody?
A firsthand account on grieving behind bars
In prison, death is as normal as it is on the outside. People will pass of old age and that’s that. But what happens when someone dies of unnatural causes? What are corrections’ protocols? How are they responsible and to what extent?
Prisons for ages have been dealing with murders, suicides, overdoses, uses of excessive force causing death and the question that keeps resurfacing is how could this have been prevented?
Accountability seems to be shifted to one another amongst corrections staff and higher ups but no one is to blame and no one ever has to answer for these deaths in a court of law. There is only an inquiry which is sad for all those permanently damaged by our broken system. If we were to hold those capturers accountable for our lives, police and corrections would have no choice but to buckle down and get to the root of the issues that leads to death. Anything other than that, would suggest that this is a population that isn’t worth existing or deserving of fair justice.
I’m an Indigenous federal offender who has spent 10+ years in and out of the system and has experienced death in jail on many occasions. In one instance, in a suspected overdose in a provincial facility, an inmate was unresponsive and his cellmate was calling for help in the middle of the night while locked in the cell, banging on the door and screaming for at least 20 minutes before an officer showed up to call the nurses.
They segregated his cellmate and interrogated him for information as to why his cellmate was unresponsive. Nurses then took another 20 to 30 minutes to arrive and drag the young man’s body outside the cell to give chest compressions, taking turns with the guards while administering two doses of Narcan. An ambulance was called and took another 20 to 30 minutes to arrive where they continued to do chest compressions paired with a defibrillator. The young man was left with a weak pulse and was brain dead and later that day the plug was removed and he was subsequently pronounced dead.
For most people this would be shocking. But in prison this situation happens all too often. This man who died was a son, a friend, a brother. As prisoners, we were offered no truth as to why he died. We were put on lockdown for a week with no showers, no phones, pending an investigation. For moral support, a chaplain came by on day two of the lockdown and knocked on our cell window asking if we were ok and then walked away. That is the extent of support offered by corrections. His cellmate returned after four days in segregation, clearing him of any wrongdoing.
The lack of transparency corrections has when it comes to death is alarming. In the short stay of roughly 6 months at this facility there were 5 known deaths and only through word of mouth would you find out about the deaths. Nothing was postered, no health warnings, no education on how to prevent or act in the situation when an overdose arises. Simply a recipe for disaster.
Now let’s talk about the reasons why deaths happen. We have a facility that clearly has an opioid epidemic and this facility in particular does not have their cells equipped with a medical emergency button. If this button were in place when his cellmate found him unresponsive it would have saved 40 to 60 minutes of response time which in turn may have saved his life. Whether or not he died from an overdose, just imagine an old man suffering from a stroke or a heart attack. Having to wait every hour for a correctional officer to walk to notice that he needs medical attention.
What leads people to use alcohol and drugs in jail? Mental health and boredom. There is simply nothing better to do. Shortage of staff lockdowns are a direct link to deteriorating mental health of those incarcerated. Management gives their staff 1/3 of the year of time off if they feel like it which leads to staff shortages. Corrections refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing and their slow response time reflects how much they care about these issues.
As for the effects after the fact, these residual energies of tormented souls dying in custody linger. The red tape on the cell remains on the door long after the investigation is over. This tape is a seal protecting the investigation, seeing that the cell is undisturbed before it’s time for police to snap photos in the cell for evidence. If you were to look on every range, you will see the tape many times which forces the question in your mind, what happened that time? Could I be next? Will I fall victim as the others did? Will corrections let me down if given the chance? I would bet my bottom dollar on it.
In conclusion, corrections must review all protocols and training so that this vulnerable community can survive its stay in these institutions. Transparency and support for families and witnesses must be available or else it is at high risk to repeat itself. Sending the right message by not allowing people to die at an alarming rate at the hands of the system is the least the government can do. And start taking accountability as if this was a criminal case because failure to act is an act of its own. And these situations if not addressed will snowball and there lies the snowman of death.
Bio: Anonymous is a Métis and Cree person who has spent years in the system.