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20 minutes

Justin St. Armour hanged himself in his jail cell, and may have been without oxygen for 20 minutes before guards found him. His mother is now on a mission to improve mental health services in Ontario prisons.

A grieving mother plans to sue the Ontario jail where her son committed suicide

The mother of a young mentally ill man who hanged himself inside an Ottawa jail is vowing to take on the provincial prison system that she says failed him repeatedly.

Justin St. Amour passed away on Friday with his mother by his side in the intensive care unit of an Ottawa hospital, after being taken off life support a day earlier. Doctors told her it was unlikely her son would recover and live a normal life. He was 32.

“I kind of feel like I’m in a dream,” his mother Laureen St. Amour told VICE News. “I don’t think I’ve really processed it yet.”

When his mother was forced to take her son off life support, it had been over a week since he used a bedsheet to hang himself in his cell, from the spot where the sprinkler system had once been.

St. Amour was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, and had been in and out of prison since then. When he wasn’t in jail, he was living in shelters or on the street. His mother guessed this was his tenth time being incarcerated. At least eight of those times, he should’ve been in a psychiatric hospital, she said.

“I just don’t ever want this to happen to another person again. We are suing for changes.”

“Justin was crying out for help and would threaten people, thinking that it would get him into the hospital. If you go to a hospital, and they tell you you don’t have mental illness, if you can’t go to a hospital for help, where can you go?”

A few days before he was thrown in jail, St. Amour showed up at an Ottawa hospital, telling staff he was suicidal and asking for help, his mother explained.

Laureen said the doctors didn’t take his claims seriously.

“He was presenting himself at a hospital for help,” she said, her voice breaking.

Afterwards, St. Amour threatened to kill his Ontario Disability Support Program worker by waiting outside of her home and strangling her. That’s when a doctor alerted the police and had him arrested, according to Laureen.

“The hospital failed him, the jail that knew he was suicidal even before he got there failed him,” she said, adding that her son was placed in the health ward, where he was checked on by staff every 20 minutes, instead of suicide watch or continuous care, where he would’ve been checked on more frequently.

“The doctors told me he went from at least eight to 20 minutes without oxygen,” she said.

She didn’t have a chance to see her son between the time he was admitted and his suicide attempt. She was notified a day later, when he was already in the intensive care unit.  

“His mental health was not good. He did in fact have schizophrenia, and often told me about the voices he had in his head. He told me he had conversations with god,” she said. “He was just caught with demons.”

St. Amour had developed a crippling addiction to opiates, according to Laureen, who tried multiple times to have him enrolled in a detox program. She says her son “used drugs to not have these voices in his head.”

Next week, Laureen plans to meet with a lawyer about suing the jail and the province. That’s the most effective way she can think of to bring about reform in the system.

“I don’t want to make any money off of my son’s death,” she said. “I just don’t ever want this to happen to another person again. We are suing for changes.

“They need to hire doctors, particularly psychiatrists and nurses, to take care of the [mentally ill], and I think they should go to a psychiatric ward, rather than jail,” Laureen said.  

The Ottawa Hospital did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

“I said to them, if you would’ve guarded him while he was in your facility, perhaps he wouldn’t be laying here, dying.”

The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre has come to be known as a microcosm of various issues in Ontario’s strained prison system. It was so overcrowded this February that inmates were sleeping on mattresses in shower cells. The revelation prompted the ministry to form a task force to address its capacity and crowding issues.

In a statement to VICE News, the Ontario corrections ministry said that, while they were unable to comment on the specific case, they stressed that jails screen inmates for suicide risks and that “the institution’s administration and health care team are notified without delay of an inmate who may be at risk of suicide and a clinician would see the inmate within 24 hours.”

The spokesperson stressed that inmates would be under surveillance by professionals if they are on suicide watch. It appears that St. Armour wasn’t on such a watch — if he had been, correctional officers would’ve have checked on him every 10 minutes, instead of every 20 minutes.

Yasir Naqvi, while he was Ontario’s minister responsible for corrections, had previously vowed to fix the problems at the Ottawa facility.

I have been clear that the status quo with respect to capacity issues and overcrowding at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, and throughout our correctional system, cannot continue,” said Naqvi. “That is why we are moving forward on transforming Ontario’s correctional system.”   

VICE News has previously reported on the crises facing Ontario’s prison system: the over-crowding, mental health issues, and staff shortages.

St. Amour is now the fourth person to die as a result of a suicide attempt at the jail. As of December 2014, according to the Ottawa Citizen, there had been 47 attempts over the previous decade.

The Ottawa hospital turned St. Amour away when he came to them for help and the prison staff neglected to keep an eye on him while he was in custody, according to Laureen. But as he was dying, he lay handcuffed to the bed, under the full supervision of correctional officers.

“I said to them, if you would’ve guarded him while he was in your facility, perhaps he wouldn’t be laying here, dying.”

Cover: Photo provided by Laureer St. Armour

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