Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre: Inmate who witnessed suicide victim suffer opioid withdrawal says prisoners were left to rot in cells

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For two days that weekend, he and the other inmates on Unit 2 Right listened to the man vomit and moan.

On the Monday, the man turned blue and grey and died.

In yet another weekend lockdown with few staff at London’s embattled provincial jail, all the inmate said he could do was watch someone suffer opioid withdrawal and die by suicide.

“I felt so powerless because there was nothing I could do,” James, out after a short stint at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC), said of the last suicide at the lock-up.

Now he hopes he has some power, calling attention to how Raymond George Major, 52, died June 6 after a stay at EMDC.

“They just throw you in a cell and let you rot,” James said. He was willing to let his name be used, but The Free Press decided, for now, to use an alias for his own protection.

His account casts new light on Major’s death and raises more questions about lockdowns, staffing and withdrawal treatment at the jail.

“He died from drug withdrawal, whether he killed himself or had a cardiac arrest. If he killed himself, that shows the extreme distress he was in. That just shows you the type of hell you are in,” said James, who has battled addiction. “It is torture to see someone go through withdrawal without help.”

Making matters worse, the jail was in a weekend lockdown with inmates confined to cells with only routine checks, with correctional officers blaming a staff shortage, James said.

“If we were not (in) lockdown he would (have) been taken care of. We would (have) watched out for him,” James says in a letter written to a lawyer, which The Free Press obtained with James’ permission. “Instead he was left alone to suffer the effects of withdrawal.”

Major was arrested June 2, charged with being in a stolen vehicle and possessing drugs and false identity documents.

His family says Major had struggled with addiction after being on painkillers earlier in life, and was obtaining opioids, including fentanyl, off the street.

Major also had a prescription for hydromorphone, the family said.

Dozens of coroner’s inquests and the John Howard Society of Ontario have pointed to problems in how inmates with addictions and mental illness are cared for in the province’s jails.

In the past eight years, four inquests into deaths at EMDC have raised concerns about medical treatment of inmates, including for drug withdrawal.

“Nobody listens. That’s the problem,” Kevin Egan, a lawyer representing hundreds of inmates and former inmates in civil action, said. “Juries make recommendations and they are routinely ignored.”

The province has promised to improve health care in its jails, and has hired more mental health care staff at EMDC.

Correctional and health care staff at Ontario jails note that they save many inmates from suicide and drug withdrawal, but those incidents draw little media attention.

But there is still no plan for a separate infirmary at EMDC, recommended by inquests, and nurses cannot check on inmates when staff shortages or lockdowns prevent them from reaching inmates.

A recent community advisory board report on EMDC stated that lockdowns had been “greatly reduced” in 2016.

But a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said that observation “may be based on anecdotal information from interactions with facility staff and inmates.”

The ministry is compiling data on lockdowns related to staff shortages for all correctional facilities last year, said Andrew Morrison.

It’s not known yet when or how the information would be released.

The ministry will not comment on the deaths of inmates.

But Morrison noted that inmates are asssessed for substance abuse when they are admitted, and Ontario’s jails offer opioid substitution therapy, both methadone and suboxone.

But that’s only for people already on the program on the outside, and even they must wait a few days, James says.

Those on street drugs — like Major — don’t get the treatment automatically, he said.

At their lowest, in jail, is when people should be offered alternatives to opioids, he said.

“All they had to is provide medication,” he said. “You know how many crimes that would prevent. The community would be safer.”

Instead of getting out looking for drugs, inmates could leave while already on treatment, he said.

“We need change here at EMDC,” James said. The man lost his life because he slipped through the cracks. Why can’t we receive opiate treatment drugs when we come here from the street? We are human beings.”



Deaths at EMDC

8 since 2009

4 inquests, all noting health care gaps

4 waiting for inquests

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