Guard banged on door before he found Delilah Blair unresponsive in her cell, inquest hears

·4 min read
Delilah Blair's family say staff at the South West Detention Centre should have kept her safe. (Robert Blair/Facebook - image credit)
Delilah Blair's family say staff at the South West Detention Centre should have kept her safe. (Robert Blair/Facebook - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains references to suicide. 

The correctional officer who found Delilah Blair unresponsive in a Windsor, Ont., jail says he knocked on her cell door and yelled when he spotted her that day.

James Wright, who was working at South West Detention Centre (SWDC), says he found Blair in her cell in the women's mental health block on May 21, 2017. He testified Monday as the first witness in a nine-day inquest into Blair's death.

Wright said around 8 p.m. that evening, he peered through the small window in the cell door and noticed Blair in an "uncomfortable position."

"I knocked on the door," he testified. "I yelled. She wasn't responsive at that time."

Blair was Cree and a 30-year-old mother of four. Aboriginal Legal Services is representing her family during the inquest. She was born in Fort St. John, B.C., and grew up in Hay River, N.W.T.

Wright said when he spotted Blair that evening, he noticed a blanket around her neck, fastened to a shelf that was attached to the wall. He grabbed her under her arms to try to relieve the tension, he testified.

'911 knife' not easily accessible to officers trying to help Blair

Correctional officers have access to what's known as a "911 knife." It's located at their desk, in the observation area behind secure doors and glass. Wright said neither he or his partner had that knife when responding to Blair.

"It's common practice not to have that knife on you with inmates out," Wright said.

During a 14-minute video shown to the jury of five, Wright's partner can be seen running into the room. Minutes later, several jail staff, including a medical team, enter the unit. About 10 minutes after that, firefighters and paramedics arrive.

'No one is on trial'

The jury, consisting of three women and two men, is tasked with reviewing all the evidence and possibly making recommendations to help prevent future deaths. By law, a coroner's inquest is required when an inmate dies.

"At an inquest, no one is on trial. It is not an adversarial process," said Dr. David Eden, presiding coroner, during his opening remarks to the jury.

CBC File Photo
CBC File Photo

During Wright's testimony, some of the questions from lawyers and jurors compared the different conditions experienced by both men and women in the separate mental health units.

Men under direct supervision, while women under indirect supervision

In 2017, Wright and his partner were responsible for the women's mental health unit as well as three additional cell blocks in that area. Those female units are monitored by what Wright called "indirect supervision," which is still in effect today.

In those areas, officers would conduct checks of all the women twice every hour, Wright said. Correctional officers now make three checks each hour, but Wright said he wasn't sure what prompted the policy change.

"I look for movement compared to last tour. I try to make eye contact, maybe knock on the door … to encourage a 'hey.' If they're sleeping during this time, I do my best I like to see if I get a chest rise, to see if they're breathing air in and out," said Wright.

By contrast, the men's mental health unit is under "direct supervision" and two officers are assigned to it. Unlike in the women's mental health unit, officers here mingle with the inmates at all times in the common areas, Wright said. Cells may be open.

Different bookcases in men, women mental health units

In Blair's cell, the box-like bookcase attached to the wall allowed a bed sheet or blanket to be fastened.

Robert Blair/Facebook
Robert Blair/Facebook

By comparison, in the men's mental health cells, the jury saw photos showing the shelf on the wall was curved and wouldn't necessarily allow for the same thing to happen.

This coroner's inquest is expected to last nine days and call 17 witnesses, including Blair's mother Selina McIntyre on Tuesday.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.

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