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Death of intellectually disabled inmate highlights service gaps, advocates say

CBC News with Kim Pate 22 September 2018

A Canadian senator and advocates for people with intellectual disabilities say the death of a man after a suicide attempt in the Burnside jail last week highlights systemic problems that need to be fixed.

Joshua Evans, 29, died in hospital on Sept. 11 after attempting to take his life in a jail cell at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S., one day earlier.

Evans was in jail awaiting a court appearance to face charges of accessing, possessing and distributing child pornography.

His father, Don Evans, has said his son has a developmental disability and the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, and he did not understand that what he was doing was wrong.

More resources needed

Sen. Kim Pate, who spent nearly 25 years working as the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies before her appointment as senator, told the CBC’s Information Morning this week that there should be more resources other than jails to monitor and supervise those awaiting court appearances or trials.

“If the reason he was being kept in jail pending the hearing of his charges is because there was a perception he needed to be supervised, how would you supervise a seven-year-old? … Certainly we wouldn’t lock them in a segregation cell.

Evans’s father said his son was known to be suicidal and had a 30-day psychiatric evaluation immediately before he was sent to the jail. He said a camera recorded Evans entering his cell, but 30 minutes passed before he was found unresponsive. Nova Scotia’s justice minister has said guards in that part of the jail do rounds every 30 minutes.

Pate said cells with cameras or constant observation should have been available to someone in Evans’s situation, as well as resources to prevent mental distress.

Pate questioned why Evans wasn’t placed in the East Coast Forensic Hospital, where, “presumably, there would have been much more focus on his mental health.”

“In a prison … the priority is security. And so most everything, and behaviour, is seen through the lens of security,” she said.

“So, behaviour that in a hospital setting would likely be seen as symptomatic of a mental health — or, in this case, a combination of mental health and intellectual capacity — issue, might be seen, and usually is seen, very differently than it might be seen in a prison, where it might be seen as symptomatic of bad behaviour.”

‘We need a better system’

Dave Kent, who has an intellectual disability and is past president of the advocacy group People First, said he was “pretty devastated” to hear about Evans’s case.

“It never should have happened,” he told Information Morning. “They should have put him in hospital with 24-hour care. And we don’t believe that people with intellectual disabilities should be criminalized.”

Cindy Carruthers, the current executive director of People First, said she does not believe jail was the proper place for Evans.

“We need a better system for people who have limited capacity to be supported in society. They’re our most vulnerable citizens.”

Carruthers said she would like to see service providers and the Justice Department meet to try to work out a better process.

Ruth Strubank, the executive director of the Nova Scotia Association for Community Living, said Evans had the right to an advocate in jail who could have helped him understand and communicate with staff and offer him comfort, support and trust.

“People with ID [intellectual disability] who come into contact with the law in times of crisis, as Joshua did, may not be able to really explain the situation, they might be afraid of repercussions around their safety. And if they do describe it, they’re often very fearful that they won’t be believed. And it’s really important for first responders, for law enforcement to understand and recognize that.”

Both Strubank and Carruthers confirmed their organizations were not contacted to provide that service to Evans.

The province is conducting an investigation into Evans’s death that will consider the question of whether he should have been in a jail.