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Mental health worker says team overloaded at time of inmate death in Edmonton jail

A psychiatrist who treats inmates at Edmonton’s Remand Centre (ERC) says it’s “remarkable” that more inmates in the facility haven’t died by suicide.

A public fatality inquiry into the death of Timothy James McConnell, who went by TJ, got underway in Edmonton’s Court of Justice on Monday. McConnell died by suicide in his cell in the remand centre on Jan. 11, 2021.

Both McConnell’s family and Alberta harm reduction advocates have argued his death could have been prevented and say it points to wider issues with lack of access to mental health and medical supports in ERC — the largest jail in Canada.

Fatality inquiries are a legal proceeding before a judge to help clarify the circumstances of a death. While the judge can’t assign blame for a fatality, they can make recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.

McConnell was arrested and jailed on charges of theft and shopbreaking with intent in September 2021. 

His mother Lana Greene said McConnell had ADHD, depression and bipolar disorder with manic episodes.

The inquiry heard Monday that 23-year-old McConnell made multiple health services requests in the months leading up to his death.

“I’m sorry to bug. I know I’m on the waiting list but I’ve been here four months and soon I’ll be back on the streets, surrounded by drugs and hopeless addicts,” he wrote in a request on Jan. 1, 2021.

McConnell was put on a waiting list for Suboxone treatment, which is used to treat symptoms of opioid withdrawal, in the days before his death.

“Please let me start my Suboxone treatment. I won’t abuse this privilege.” 

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Curtis Woods was the first witness to testify in the inquiry, and told court Monday that McConnell had an appointment to see him about a month before his death. But the 23-year-old declined to come to the health unit at his appointment time.

Woods said it’s not uncommon for patients inside the ERC to not attend appointments, and that there won’t necessarily be follow-up. 

a group of people stand outside in downtown Edmonton
Advocates for harm reduction gathered in Churchill Square Monday to support Lana Greene (right) and to call for improved medical and mental health services in Alberta jails. Greene’s son died by suicide in the Edmonton Remand Centre in January 2021. (Jamie McCannell/CBC)

He said he’d like to see the remand centre hire a full-time, staff psychiatrist. Currently, he and two other doctors each spend one day a week in the jail meeting with patients.

Wood said he believes that the mental health and medical staff at the ERC provide a good quality of care, but said the mental health units are “packed to the brim.”

He said that a majority of the ERC’s 1,500 inmates are dealing with an addiction and a very high proportion who have mental illnesses.

“It’s remarkable how many people are in that jail and how few suicides there are every year,” Woods said. 

McConnell was housed in a general population unit — not a mental health unit — at the time of his death. 

Brandy Kully, a clinical social work therapist who was working on ERC’s mental health team testified Monday that the team was overwhelmed by demand for services at the time of McConnell’s death.

“The workload was very heavy,” she said.

Kully, who left the jail and now works in private practice, told court she doesn’t believe she ever interacted with McConnell. 

However, after hearing about his death she sent an email to another ERC employee, sharing concerns about the impact of COVID protocols on inmates. 

“They were isolated, they were in cells alone for prolonged periods of time with no stimulation,” she said, adding that some would submit multiple requests for help to the mental health team and not get a response.

Rally for change

During the noon break in the inquiry, Greene was joined by Moms Stop the Harm members in Churchill Square for a rally calling for accountability for what they say is a lack of access to proper treatment and care in Alberta jails. 

Greene says her son was full of energy and had a zest for life. She said he loved sports and was friends with everybody, but started to experience mental health challenges and then addiction after suffering multiple concussions as a teenager.

Greene says Alberta’s recovery-focused response to the opioid crisis is missing the mark. The government has focused on development of additional treatment beds, and has contemplated passing a law that has forced some adults into addiction treatment. 

“You don’t need to force people, you just need to give them access when they ask, if that’s what they want. All human beings should be treated with dignity and respect, whether they use drugs or not,” Greene said. 

Brandon Shaw, a 29-year-old who has been jailed in the ERC, attended the rally to share his own experience with attempting to get health care and support while in jail. He is sober now, but said it was incredibly challenging to get any care while incarcerated.

“The people that did not do their checks on TJ, they need to be held responsible, bottom line, because these fatality inquiries keep happening  and it’s continually people not doing their jobs, not treating us like human beings – so when are we going to hold these people responsible?”

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