Inquiry demanded into Montreal jail death after guards used pepper spray, spit hood

MONTREAL — The use of a spit hood before the death of 21-year-old man illegally detained inside a Montreal jail, and the fact that he should have been released the day before, have sparked calls for a public inquiry.

Both the union representing guards at the jail and an organization that advocates for the rights of prisoners say the shift to virtual court appearances during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to people being detained after a judge has ordered their release.

“There are certain problems that we have observed in the last two years, with the advent of video appearances,” said Mathieu Lavoie, the president of the Syndicat des agents de la paix en services correctionnels du Québec, adding that it's not something that happens frequently.

Release orders are sent by fax or email, he said, and there are communication problems between the Justice Department, the courts and the Public Security Department, which runs provincial jails.

“Our computer systems don’t talk to each other,” Lavoie said in an interview Wednesday.

Quebec's Public Security Department has described Nicous D'Andre Spring's detention as "illegal" because a judge ordered his release on Dec. 23 but he was still behind bars when he suffered injuries leading to his death the next day. The department has said two other people who appeared in court on Dec. 23 were also not released until the next day.

Jean-Claude Bernheim, chairman of the board of directors of the John Howard Society of Quebec, said he also believes illegal detention has become more of an issue as more appearances take place virtually, with the defendant remaining in jail. Such appearances have become far more common during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there are recourses for detainees, in theory, for those in jail, even calling their lawyer isn't a simple process, said Bernheim, whose organization defends the rights of incarcerated people.

Lavoie said Spring had conflicts with people in the unit where he was being held and was being transferred to another part of the Bordeaux jail when the altercation occurred.

He said guards placed a spit hood over Spring’s face because of the way he was speaking: “There was a lot of saliva that was sent towards the officers.” After they reached the other unit, Lavoie said the officers struggled with Spring and used pepper spray because "he didn’t want to calm down."

Lavoie said he doesn’t know all the details, but that the spit hood was likely still on when pepper spray was used. He said Spring was taken to a decontamination shower, and at that point a manager ordered guards to pepper-spray Spring again.

He was then taken to an isolation cell. Lavoie said he doesn’t know the exact timeline but shortly afterwards medical services were called, and guards tried to resuscitate Spring. He was later declared dead in hospital.

Bernheim said it's not clear how often or under what circumstances spit hoods are used in Quebec jails, but that he believes guards benefit from a culture of impunity.

Montreal lawyer Eric Sutton called what happened to Spring a tragedy, adding the details of the altercation and its aftermath could constitute a case of criminal negligence. Quebec provincial police, the coroner's office and the Public Security Department are all investigating Spring's death.

“I mean, to me, it's common sense that you shouldn't do that,” Sutton said. “So that alone — whether he was supposed to be released or not — merits an inquiry, and this just adds a layer, it turns it from a tragedy to a multi-faceted tragedy.”

Montreal criminal lawyer Charles B. Côté said that in 34 years of practice, he has had instances where clients have not been promptly released despite being granted bail, but calls it very rare.

“It's not something that happens regularly to my knowledge,” Côté said. “But it is possible that with the pandemic and other (justice) staff issues, that it's happening more often.”

What alarms Côté about the incident with Spring is that two other inmates in addition were also illegally detained.

As for the altercation with guards, using pepper spray twice and the spit mask before leaving Spring unattended goes against all rules of engagement in those circumstances, Côté said.

“Definitely a public inquiry, we need to understand where the system failed to have these three inmates released on (Dec. 23),” Côté said.

“What exactly happened? There have to be safeguards. There have to be rules set in place to make sure that this never ever happens again," he added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press