Three annual reports into suicides and homicides behind bars collected dust on the justice minister's desk, leaving Manitobans in the dark to the extent of deaths occurring in the province's correctional facilities.
Each year, the chief medical examiner compiles a report on in-custody deaths for the minister by March 31. Within 15 days of receiving it or within 15 days of the start of the next legislative session the justice minister — currently Progressive Conservative Cameron Friesen — must table it.
But on May 10, NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine raised a point of privilege during question period: the three latest reports were missing.
"What makes the breach of this privilege so egregious is that the minister of justice, the minister responsible for the proper administration of justice and the following of our laws in Manitoba, has ignored the statutory requirements that apply to him," Fontaine said.
"These reports are years out of date."
At that point, the last time Manitoba’s justice minister tabled a report on in-custody deaths was March 19, 2020. That report was for 2017.
On Monday — a week after Fontaine's point of privilege and roughly three weeks after the Free Press revealed the backlog as part of its investigation into prison conditions in Manitoba — the reports for 2018, 2019 and 2020 were finally tabled at the legislature.
The reports provide greater insight into in-custody deaths in the province, particularly when it comes to inmate suicides — all of which have been hangings in recent years.
Since January 2019, nine inmates have killed themselves by hanging in Manitoba prisons and jails.
Seven of them occurred at Stony Mountain Institution, the oldest active federal prison in Canada, located just north of Winnipeg.
The Free Press spoke to inmates and guards who knew some of the men who have killed themselves there in recent years.
Adrian Young, 39, hanged himself at Stony Mountain on March 7, 2020.
One inmate said Young had spent a long time trying to work his way into the minimum-security Rockwood Institution with good behaviour. Shortly after he managed to do so, Young was sent back to Stony Mountain for unknown reasons.
"It took him so long to get out to Rockwood. And he finally got out there, after all that time, and then they just brought him right back," the inmate said.
"He just couldn’t do it again."
On Dec. 8, 2019, Tyson Roulette, 34, hanged himself in his cell at Stony Mountain. According to multiple inside sources, including both inmates and guards, Roulette was the leader of the Indian Posse street gang at the prison.
Roulette also served as a "range rep," meaning he was a designated go-between the inmates and guards. Range reps are often relied upon by correctional officers to keep the prison running smoothly, sources said.
"He ran this place," one staff member said about Roulette.
"Tyson just couldn’t take it anymore. He was the leader of his group or whatever. The guards were using him. They used him to calm down situations, to police the jail. He was trying to make the guards happy and he was trying to make the convicts happy," an inmate said.
"He hung himself because of the situation he was in. They try to get you to snitch. They put him in a bad situation… heavy is the head that wears the crown."
In her book Night Falls Fast, a study of suicide, the American psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison wrote that any attempt to understand why someone takes their life is doomed to be "only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete."
"When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or non-existent, their mood is despairing, and their hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain," Jamison wrote.
"The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable and terrible."
That’s similar to what one current Stony Mountain inmate said.
"Everyone has a breaking point. When you take away a guy’s hope, you’re taking a lot from him. What do you think a guy is going to do?"
Meanwhile, inquests have been called in two suicide-by-hanging cases at provincial jails.
An unnamed 62-year-old inmate killed himself on June 25, 2020 at the Winnipeg Remand Centre. Officials released no details aside from the man’s age.
Jeffrey Owen Tait, 31, hanged himself at Headingley Correctional Centre on Jan. 29, 2019.
And on Wednesday, Manitoba Justice issued a press release for a pre-inquest hearing into the death of David Norbert, 58, who hanged himself in an interview room at the Winnipeg Police Service District 3 station in West Kildonan on April 16, 2019.
While attempts to halt all suicides in prisons and jails may be an impossible task, the Correctional Service of Canada has received concrete recommendations over the years to reduce inmates' opportunities.
The Free Press has reviewed every publicly available inquest report into inmate suicides at Stony Mountain dating back to the early 2000s.
Time and time again, judges have told CSC to retrofit the cells in the 143-year-old medium-security wing to remove fixed points for hanging. Particular attention has been paid to the electrical conduits in the cells.
During the inquest into the death of Alan Nicolson, 34, who hanged himself inside his Stony Mountain cell in 2003, the prison’s then-head of engineering, Bruce Cameron, testified it would be possible to make the requested changes.
The Free Press reached out to CSC for comment and the federal department agreed to set up an interview with Stony Mountain's warden but could not do so by deadline Wednesday.
Several current guards and inmates say nothing has been done by CSC to make death by hanging in those cells more difficult.
"No, that’s not changed. They’re still hanging themselves. There are these perfect little spots to hang themselves in their cells. It’s ridiculous," one guard said.
"They should be retrofitting that stuff, for sure."
And days before Fontaine stood in the Manitoba legislature to raise her point of privilege about the backlog of reports on in-custody deaths, a source says there was another hanging at Stony Mountain.
There has been no CSC-issued press release about it.
"It was in the health-care unit. It was around 12:30 at night. The (correctional officer) doing the walk-through found him hanging. Midnights are very tricky because we’re extremely short staffed," a guard said.
"They cut the guy down and managed to revive him. I don’t know his status now. I heard there might be some brain damage."
Ryan Thorpe Reporter
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
CSC continues to provide every inmate with essential health services, including mental health provided by qualified mental health professionals. Effective and timely intervention in addressing the mental health needs of offenders is a priority, with a focus on prevention. All inmates are screened for suicide risk within 24 hours of their arrival at an institution and screening also occurs throughout an offender’s sentence. Enhancing prevention and intervention for offenders with suicidal behaviours is a continuous goal.
CSC has an integrated mental health strategy and delivery model to ensure essential services match the needs of the offender population. Staff, including correctional officers, are provided with suicide and self-injury intervention training and continuous development, and are trained to respond immediately to preserve life and prevent bodily harm. Health staff are provided with specialized training and continuous development on suicide and self-injury assessment and intervention.
Whenever a person dies in federal custody, the police and coroner or medical examiner are notified. If the death appears to be of natural causes, CSC conducts a quality of care review. In circumstances in which the coroner or medical examiner investigate the cause of death, CSC provides complete support to such investigations as they can provide an opportunity for us to improve the way we manage inmates under our care and custody and to enhance relevant prevention and intervention strategies.
Infrastructure at Stony Mountain
CSC continually evaluates infrastructure requirements based on a number of priorities to ensure it can meet its mandate, ensuring health and safety considerations and availability of financial resources through a national five-year program of work. The program of work is reviewed and updated annually to accommodate revised priorities and unanticipated requirements. CSC has taken measures to monitor and evaluate the existing infrastructure at Stony and continues to prioritize funding for the replacement of essential life safety systems and structural repairs to ensure the safe operation of facilities for both staff and offenders.