A mentally ill man had gone to the Ottawa Hospital looking for help eight days before he hanged himself in his segregation cell in Ottawa’s jail, according to his lawyer.
Defence lawyer Karin Stein said police reports revealed that Justin St-Amour went to the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus complaining he was suicidal on Nov. 22, but wasn’t admitted.
“They told him, ‘You don’t have a mental illness and we are not going to let you stay here,’” Stein said.
St-Amour then allegedly threatened his disability support worker, Stein said. The doctor called police, who arrested and charged St-Amour.
The Ottawa Hospital said Tuesday it could not respond to questions about a specific patient due to privacy rules.
St-Amour died in hospital on Dec. 8 after being removed from life support. He had been in the intensive care unit for eight days after hanging himself with a bed sheet in his cell in the health care unit at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre on Nov. 30. St-Amour had routinely been placed on suicide watch inside the jail, although he wasn’t on suicide watch the day he hanged himself.
Stein said there was no question St-Amour was mentally ill – he had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been the subject of court-ordered psychiatric reports, and had been accepted into Ottawa’s mental health court several times because of his illness, which included cognitive difficulties and a learning disability. He was also addicted to opioids.
Stein said St-Amour didn’t react well to being in custody. He had previously been charged with mischief for smearing his feces on the walls of his cell at the Ottawa police station and the courthouse, according to Stein. Correctional officers reported similar behaviour at the detention centre.
Once charged, St-Amour ended up like so many other mentally ill and drug addicted people who live on the street or homeless shelters and find themselves in conflict with the law, Stein said.
“No one would consent to his release on bail because of his record,” said Stein, which included numerous breaches of court-ordered conditions. Even with a mental health worker attempting to find him a place to live, St-Amour would have had to return to the homeless shelters where he often struggled to follow the rules or deal with the crowds, Stein said.
The court also had to consider whether he might act on his alleged threat, she said.
“Unless he had someone who would be a surety, someone who would take him home and supervise him, he would not be released,” said Stein.
Rather than pursue a bail hearing that likely wouldn’t have been successful, Stein said she attempted to set a judicial pre-trial – or a meeting with a judge and the Crown to discuss the allegations against St-Amour – for Dec. 1, but that date wasn’t available. The earliest date she could get was Dec. 8.
St-Amour’s mother, Laureen St-Amour, said she believes the hospital could have done more for her son.
“If you can’t turn to a hospital for help, where can you turn?” she asked. St-Amour said she believes the threat her son allegedly made was “a cry for help.”
Members of the prisoner support group Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS) said they were “deeply concerned” about the lack of progress being made in the treatment of the mentally ill behind bars. St-Amour is the second inmate to commit suicide in the jail this year.
MOMS and members of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project intend to hold a minute of silence and lay flowers outside the jail Wednesday during a flashlight vigil for St-Amour starting at 6 p.m.
Irene Mathias, a member of MOMS, was a member of a provincially appointed task force examining conditions inside Ottawa’s jail that recommended inmates with mental health issues should be diverted from custody. In the meantime, the task force recommended the creation of step-down and mental health units inside the jail to support inmates suffering from a mental health crisis.
The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said planning for those units is now underway and details on an implementation plan and when they will become operational will be released at the end of January.
A coroner’s inquest is expected to be called in relation to St-Amour’s death, as is the case with all in-custody suicides.