WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
In May this year, Nathan Gray noticed his phone buzzing. His cousin was trying to reach him.
When he picked up the FaceTime call, he saw the serious look on his cousin’s face and knew something was wrong. “I just had this feeling,” he said.
Gray’s cousin told him that his older brother, Ashton Gray, 34, had died by suicide while awaiting trial in Toronto South Detention Centre, a provincial jail in Etobicoke.
“I dropped the phone and started crying,” he said. “I was shocked, like, why the hell my brother?”
Gray’s suicide in custody sent shockwaves through his family and those who provided him with support for mental health and addictions issues they say had plagued him throughout his adult life and were sparked by a traumatic childhood characterized by abuse in group homes.
His death is part of a disturbing trend in the province, where deaths in custody have increased over the last decade, according to data published by the province and advocacy organizations. Academics and advocates say recommended reforms to the corrections system need to be carried out to save lives and provide treatment for offenders, rather than having jails serve as an expensive revolving door.
Gray’s death under investigation
“Prisons tend to be very closed institutions and they’re not particularly porous and you don’t have a lot of transparency,” said Kelly Hannah-Moffat, a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto.
“That’s highly problematic from a human rights standpoint,” she said, noting there are many concerning aspects of the correctional system that exacerbate mental health and addictions issues and create an environment that enhances risk factors for suicide.
Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner is investigating Gray’s death, something required for any death in custody not deemed due to “natural causes,” according to the provincial Coroners Act.
But regardless of the outcome of that investigation, Hannah-Moffat said she worries about the lack of oversight of the province’s correctional system and its inability to carry out reforms.
“We need to be looking at the systemic barriers to implementing changes that in some cases prevent death.”
What the public also needs to consider, she said, is the cost of a corrections system that’s often a revolving door for offenders.
“It’s really expensive to send people to jail,” she said. “It’s much less expensive to work with people in the community and provide proactive support.”
Increase in deaths leads to calls for reform
Multiple recent reports have noted an increase of deaths in Ontario’s correctional facilities.
A report published in January this year by Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner outlined that deaths have risen “dramatically” from 19 deaths in 2014, to 46 in 2021. It noted that of all the deaths between 2014 to 2021, about 24 per cent (a total of 45) were deemed suicides.
The report does not include deaths in federally run prisons in Ontario.
“[Inmates] have every reason to expect that those who assume control over so many aspects of their lives will at minimum protect them from harm,” the report stated.
“Any failure to deliver on these basic promises undermines the confidence of every citizen of Ontario.”
The report also showed the vast majority of deaths in custody are people on remand, meaning they’re awaiting trial. In 2020, 91 per cent of deaths were from this group.
It provided 18 recommendations to prevent deaths in custody, including setting up an advisory committee that will meet on an “ongoing basis” to review multiple elements of how corrections functions.
The Ministry of the Solicitor General (SOLGEN), formerly known as the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional services, which is responsible for jails, correctional and detention centres in the province, said in a statement to CBC Toronto that it is “committed to ensuring Ontario’s adult correctional system is safe.”
All inmates undergo a suicide risk screening to see if they require further support and staff are trained on suicide awareness and prevention, said Brent Ross, a SOLGEN spokesperson.
He said those identified as having “issues with substance use” at the time of admission are provided with “targeted health-care support.”
Ross also noted that Ontario is investing “more than $500 million” to “modernize correctional services” through new hires and infrastructure improvements. That will include social workers, nurse practitioners and addictions counselors.
The ministry did not answer questions about what specific suicide prevention policies and procedures are used.
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Hannah-Moffat said over the last few years, there have been multiple investigations and recommendations focusing on the reform of provincial correctional facilities. That includes a 2017 independent review of corrections in Ontario, published by the ministry.
But when the same recommendations continue to be made without any changes actually occurring, “then there’s a systemic issue,” she said.
According to Hannah-Moffat, the current conditions in Ontario’s correctional facilities can make it difficult for tailored mental health support to reach individuals.
“There are mental health professionals, in particular social workers or nurses, that work in units, but they’re not enough to manage the needs that people have,” she said.
Lockdowns, segregation a human rights concern
As well, the practice of segregation and lockdowns in facilities like Toronto South Detention Centre is a human rights concern, she said.
The January 2023 report from the Office of the Chief Coroner defines segregation as “any type of custody” where an inmate is in “highly restrictive conditions” for 22 to 24 hours or does not receive a two-hour minimum of “meaningful social interaction.” It defines a lockdown as when inmates are kept in their cells due to a shortage of prison staff.
These can last for days or weeks, and can amount to about 22 hours in a cell per day, “without meaningful contact with human beings,” said Hannah-Moffat, who researches human rights issues in prisons, and has published work on solitary confinement and segregation.
Sometimes, she said, those with mental health issues are placed into segregation for observation, and have been flagged as having a suicide risk. But isolation can exacerbate mental health issues or produce new concerns, which include suicidal ideation, she explained.
SOLGEN did not respond to questions from CBC Toronto about the use of lockdowns and segregation in the Toronto South Detention Centre.
Ashton Gray was in the Toronto South Detention Centre when he died.
The jail has the capacity to house close to 2,000 male inmates, and those in the centre are either serving a sentence that is less than two-years, or are in pre-trial detention, meaning they’re awaiting trial.
In 2020, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) published a report on conditions at Toronto South, and found multiple issues, including management and front-line workers “routinely using segregation” that raised “serious human rights concerns.”
The January 2023 report from the chief coroner’s office also found that in 2021, close to 93 per cent of lockdowns were due to staff shortages, while only 0.6 per cent were due to “inmate behaviour.”
That’s an increase from 2014, where 75 per cent of lockdowns were due to staff shortages.
Many need treatment, not jail: case worker
Tomas Mirabelli works as a drop-in coordinator at the Neighbourhood Group Community Services, an agency serving low-income people in Toronto. That’s where he met Gray and became his case worker.
He said Gray would call him frequently from Toronto South, and tell him about the use of lockdowns at the jail.
According to Mirabelli, Gray was a very outgoing person who could “make people smile” when he walked into a room, but he also struggled with homelessness, and his housing insecurity fuelled a drug addiction.
“He needed help. And a lot of folks that go in and out of custody, it’s not because they need to be in jail. They just need different kind of assistance,” Mirabelli said. “Inside of jail, you’re not getting any assistance there … like medical professionals or social workers.”
According to the ministry’s January 2023 report, most people in custody in Ontario have “complex needs” around addictions and mental health that need to be addressed to help them return to their communities successfully.
Those needs can’t be addressed in an environments where “lockdowns due to capacity limitations have become the norm,” and where health-care workers like nurses lack competitive wages, the report said.
Family says system failed their brother
Latasha Gray, Ashton Gray’s younger sister, said she and her two brothers had parents who struggled with addiction. They all ended up in the care of the Children’s Aid Society.
While she and Nathan ended up in more stable homes with foster parents, Latasha said Ashton was older and bounced around group homes, where he faced physical and emotional abuse.
“He was a fun person, he was an energetic person, a creative person … but at the same time he had some mental health issues that plagued him, that he couldn’t really get around.”
Latasha believes that her brother should have been connected with therapy and support services at an early age, but that never happened.
He was in and out of Toronto South for the last several years, and that cycle that he was caught up in was never broken, she said.
“He was still a human being who deserved a lot more than he got.”
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