Familes of men who died of suicide at OCDC call for inquests

Familes of men who died of suicide at OCDC call for inquests

The families of two mentally ill men who died in custody at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre want the chief coroner of Ontario to investigate the circumstances of their deaths.

Justin St. Amour, 31, died on December 8, 2016, and Cleve "Cas" Geddes, 30, died on February 10, 2017. 

Paul Champ, the lawyer representing the St. Amour and Geddes families, has written to the chief coroner of Ontario, Dr. Dirk Huyer, to request an inquest into their deaths.

He said he's appealed to Dr. Huyer because the regional coroner has ignored his requests for action.

"I had sent a couple of letters to the regional coroner in Ottawa about both of the deaths, on behalf of the families, and we had not received a response," said Champ. 

"Both of these men were being held on remand, which is to say they had not been convicted of a crime. Both were known to suffer from schizophrenia and had been on suicide watch at OCDC. Both were being held in segregation, which is a really serious issue for people with mental illness. And both took their lives by the same method: hanging. They both hung themselves in their cells."

'He heard voices that would tell him to hurt himself'

Laureen St. Amour said her son Justin had been living on the streets for about 10 years before his arrest in 2016.

"He did try to put on this tough persona because he was homeless and lived on the streets," St. Amour said. "But he was really a loving, caring person."

St. Amour said her son was arrested afterthreatening his disability support worker. She said he was suffering from a psychotic incident as a result of his schizophrenia at the time.

"Jail was not the place for him," she said. "He heard voices that would tell him to hurt himself. And I guess the voices got too loud and — that's what he did."

St. Amour said she was shocked to learn that another man had died, under similar circumstances, only a few months later. It made her feel like her son had "died in vain," she said.

"I thought that perhaps [Justin's] legacy was to make changes so that this wouldn't happen again," St. Amour said. "All I was looking for was to make changes so that another mother wouldn't have to go through the pain that I went through — and the pain that I am still going through.

"I cry almost on a daily basis. I feel hollow and empty inside without my son. I just can't believe another death happened." 

'He was supposed to go into the hospital'

Sigrid Geddes told CBC News her brother had also been grappling with schizophrenia for about 10 years when he was arrested in 2017. She said he struggled with anger issues because of his ongoing frustrations with trying to manage the disease.

"When something happened that he didn't like he would lose his temper. And so there were a couple of situations where he did threaten people in town," Geddes said.

Her brother was the youngest of six siblings and grew up around the towns of Killaloe, Wilno and Barry's Bay. He was "a really smart guy and had a great sense of humour," said Geddes, even though he faced significant mental health challenges.

After his arrest, Geddes said, her family tried unsuccessfully to contact her brother at OCDC. 

"Because of the rules, the regulations at the prison, you can't call a prisoner there," she said. "And they also can only call out collect to a land line and none of us have a land line. We only have cell phones so he couldn't call anyone collect."

A few days before his death, a friend told Geddes that her brother was in the hospital. Initially, she was relieved because she thought he had been transferred there to receive mental health support.

She did not know that he had attempted suicide.

"He was supposed to go into the hospital for a 30-day not-criminally-responsible assessment," she said. "But there was no room in the hospital, so they sent him to jail."

According to Champ's letter to the coroner, after Cas Geddes was arrested on Jan. 31, 2017, "the prosecutor and defence duty counsel in Pembroke both recognized that Cas was mentally ill and that his crimes were likely related to that illness."

"They recommended that Cas be remanded for a mental health assessment to the Royal Ottawa Hospital, and the Court agreed," Champ wrote. "Unfortunately, no beds were available at the ROH, and so Cas was incarcerated at OCDC to wait."

'Three suicides in less than a year'

Champ's letter also mentions the death of 27-year-old Yousef Hussein, who took his own life at OCDC in April 2016.

Hussein had been held in jail for two years on sexual assault charges involving six women at the time of his suicide.

"With three deaths in less than a year, it suggests that they should be taking immediate action," said Champ.

Champ said he spoke to Russel Molot, the lawyer for the Hussein family, who has yet to hear anything about when an inquest might be held into his death.

"The commonalities in these three deaths in such a short period of time strongly suggest there is ongoing systemic failure to treat and protect inmates at risk of suicide at OCDC," Champ wrote.

"The community of Ottawa deserves to be fully informed of these circumstances, and a joint inquest would undoubtedly serve the public interest and may result in recommendations that prevent future deaths."