Death in drunk tank spurs call to stop jailing intoxicated people

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Winnipeg needs program to provide managed doses of alcohol for addicts, feasibility study says

Corey Rogers, whose alcoholism started when he was a teenager, celebrated the birth of his daughter by drinking.

His drinking also led to his arrest for public drunkenness outside the IWK Health Centre in June 2016. The 41-year-old died in the Halifax Regional Police lockup three hours later.

Last month, two booking officers were charged with criminal negligence causing death, and three arresting constables are now being investigated under the Police Act.

Jeannette Rogers, Corey Rogers's mother, is now calling for alternatives to the so-called drunk tank — a prison cell where people who are picked up intoxicated are held. Her plea has support from the legal community, people in addiction recovery and street health workers.

"People who are highly intoxicated don't belong in jail," said Rogers, a retired psychiatric nurse who has spent the year and a half since her son's death poring over policies and procedures.

Archie Kaiser, a Dalhousie University law professor, agrees that an alternative to jail should be explored.

6 drunk people a day locked up

Whether it's severe intoxication in a person who drank excessively for the first time or in someone who has a chronic addiction, the potential harm can be the same — injury, violence or asphyxiation.

From January to the end of November, police in the city arrested and placed 1,894 people in the drunk tank. That's almost six people a day jailed for Liquor Control Act violations.

For prisoners who need medical assessments, police officers call paramedics to attend the lockup.

Kaiser is in favour of a change to the Liquor Control Act "to ensure that the least restrictive option is chosen and the most health-promoting option is chosen by the police" before the person is taken into custody.

Police should be directed to first consider releasing a person to a sober adult or to a treatment centre, such as a sobering centre, he said.

Sobering centres, which exist elsewhere in the country, are where police can take people who are drunk or high on drugs instead of a jail cell. Intoxicated people can get assessments, shelter, food and access to services at the centres.

But Nova Scotia Finance Minister Karen Casey is pouring cold water on that idea.

"We're certainly not looking at taking any of that flexibility away," Casey said Thursday, after a weekly cabinet meeting. "I would certainly believe that [police] would use good judgment and take the least offensive path, solution to support the individual."

'Cold, dirty, lonely'

A night in a police cell has kept many out of harm's way.

Curtis Aitkens, a Sydney, N.S., native who started drinking when he was 14 and is now 37, says his alcoholism has led to approximately 100 nights in the drunk tank.

"They probably have saved my life or I wouldn't be here today," he said.

Still, he resents the "cold, dirty, lonely" experience of being in a jail cell, where he felt he was regarded as a nuisance. 

He said access to detox is among the helpful services not available during a night in the lockup.

Wine as treatment

Another option is a managed alcohol program (MAP), where chronic alcoholics are given an hourly dose of wine to deal with alcoholism, along with shelter, food, and medical care. Eight Canadian cities have a MAP, but there are none east of Ottawa.

Patti Melanson, team leader at Mobile Outreach Street Health, supports medically managed alcohol. She said that type of treatment can help people with long-term addictions who live on the street — many of whom are cared for by MOSH.

"We know that there has been some improved quality of life for people, and ultimately that's what we should be trying to seek," she said. "You start to end up with control in your life." 

Joe Gibson, executive director of the Freedom Foundation, an abstinence-based recovery home in Dartmouth, would "love to see a managed alcohol program with options for recovery, including detox," he said.

He said treating a severe alcoholic with wine gives that person another day to decide whether to keep drinking or to try to quit.

"Maybe somewhere along the line he'll say, 'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. I've had enough,' and will decide to go through the other door into detox," he said.

Provincial Health Minister Randy Delorey said his department has not received any proposals to create sobering centres or managed alcohol programs in Nova Scotia, noting that he relies on recommendations from health-care experts to determine what is considered best practice and should be made priorities.