Lobby group seeks public inquiry, release of video in Montreal man's jail death

MONTREAL — An anti-racism lobby group made a call Saturday for the Quebec government to launch an independent, coroner-led public inquiry into the jail death of an illegally detained Black man in Montreal following an altercation with correctional staff just before Christmas.

Nicous D'Andre Spring, 21, was unlawfully held at Montreal's Bordeaux jail on Dec. 24 when guards fitted his head with a spit hood and pepper-sprayed him twice. He died later in hospital.

A judge had ordered Spring released from the detention centre the day before, but he and two other inmates were still in custody when the altercation occurred.

The Red Coalition, a non-profit lobbying organization assisting Spring's relatives, told reporters Saturday they are advocating for an independent coroner's inquiry and the release of any relevant detention centre video footage to the family if it exists.

The group is also seeking an independent autopsy and the creation of a citizen oversight board for the province's correctional facilities.

"The idea here is a question of trust," said Alain Babineau, a former RCMP officer and director of racial profiling with the Red Coalition. "When the community has lost faith in government institutions, including those that work for the government institutions, they don't believe anything that comes out of government."

Babineau said having an independent probe and autopsy will "give some reprieve and solace to the family, that finally we're getting the right answer to our questions."

Coalition founder Joel DeBellefeuille said it was important for the family to have answers about what happened at the Montreal Detention Centre, also known as Bordeaux jail.

“It is inconceivable and unimaginable that they're being tormented by this anguish on a daily basis without answers," he told reporters. "A young black man lost his life because of clerical flaws and poor judgment. How are we as a community going to ensure that nothing — I said nothing — like this happens again to any of our loved ones?"

Spring was arrested by Montreal police on Dec. 20 and transferred on Dec. 24 to hospital, where he died. He appeared in court on Dec. 23 on charges of assaulting a peace officer, criminal harassment and possessing a weapon for a dangerous purpose. He was also facing two counts of failing to comply with a condition of release. He had pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Quebec's Public Security Department has described Spring's detention as ``illegal'' because he was ordered by a judge to be released on Dec. 23 but was still behind bars the next day when he suffered injuries leading to his death.

In an interview earlier this week, the head of the union representing guards at the Montreal jail said members put a spit hood over Spring's face because the way the inmate was speaking resulted in saliva being directed toward guards. Mathieu Lavoie of the Syndicat des agents de la paix en services correctionnels du Québec also said guards used pepper spray on Spring because he allegedly did not calm down.

Lavoie said Spring had gotten into conflict with people in a jail unit and was being transferred to another part of the detention centre when the altercation with guards occurred. It was likely the hood was still on when guards first sprayed Spring before he was sprayed again in a decontamination shower before transfer to an isolation cell.

Medical services were called shortly afterwards, and guards tried to resuscitate Spring.

Since Spring's death, a manager and a prison guard have been suspended. An administrative investigation is underway by the jail, the provincial police are conducting a criminal probe and the coroner is also investigating the circumstances of Spring's death.

Earlier this week, the Red Coalition said it intended to file a complaint with the Quebec ombudsman to get more answers for Spring's family. Babineau stressed the importance of conducting the investigation with a "systemic discrimination lens."

The Coalition is adamant that Spring's death is another example of systemic racism in the province's correctional system. Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec government have repeatedly dismissed the idea that systemic racism exists in provincial institutions.

David Austin, a professor at Montreal's McGill University and member of the Black community, said Spring's death is part of an ongoing pattern of violence in police custody and prisons. He said while Spring's case is the starting point, a public inquiry should go beyond an individual case and look at the structural, systemic problems that facilitated it.

"We know that profiling is an ongoing problem, we know that Black folks are disproportionately arrested and detained and incarcerated, all of this is factually true ... this is not new," Austin said. "So the next step is to address the structural problems ... or else we'll be going from one individual case to the next, which has been the ongoing pattern."

Spring's relatives were initially expected to speak Saturday, but were advised not to by their attorney.

“It was a last second decision and we respect it,” Babineau said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press