Ontario man says he was tortured, given hallucinogenic drugs at mental-health centre

A a judge ruled that patients at Oak Ridge, a maximum-security mental-health facility in Ontario, experienced torture. Lars Hagberg / File / The Canadian Press

Danny Joanisse still wakes up in the middle night, in a cold sweat, with the terrifying thought of being shackled in a small windowless room.

“There’s been times when I get flashes in my head and it’s very scary,” Joanisse said. “I wake up at night in sweats from bad f—ing dreams.”

The 61-year-old who currently resides in Niagara Falls, Ont., says he was just 15 when he arrived at the Oak Ridge division of the Penetang Psychiatric Hospital in Penetanguishene, Ont.

READ MORE: Treatment at Ontario mental health facility was ‘torture’, judge finds

Oak Ridge was home to dangerous offenders who had been charged with crimes such as rape, murder and aggravated assault and had been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Many patients suffered from mental illness including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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Joanisse arrived at the maximum-security mental health facility after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for attempted murder. He would spend more than three decades in and out of the facility.

“I’ve been a free man for about 12 to 13 years now,” he said. “My freedom is great, but I’m still living with the demons.”

Now an Ontario judge has ruled in a lawsuit, in which Joanisse is a plaintiff, that medical doctors at Oak Ridge tortured and conducted unethical treatments on patients for a period of 17 years between 1966 and 1983. The lawsuit was launched in 2000 by former residents of the facility.

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Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell wrote in his June 1 ruling that doctors used treatments that included “solitary confinement, group confinement in close quarters; sensory deprivation, physical force and constraint, discipline and punishment, the administration of hallucinogens and delirium-producing drugs, including [LSD], and brainwashing techniques developed by the [CIA].”

Perell says programs at the hospital that involved the forced administration of drugs, physical restraint and sleep deprivation, amounted to both physical and mental torture.

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“The three programs designed by Dr. Barker and implemented by the doctors and other employees of Oak Ridge — even if designed and implemented in good faith and even if the programs could be proven to be in some way therapeutic — were torture and a degradation of human dignity,” Perell wrote in his decision.

“It is an inexcusable breach of fiduciary duty for a physician to torture a patient.”

The three programs were administered at Oak Ridge in part by Dr. Elliott Thompson Barker and Dr. Gary Maier, the two psychiatrists named as defendants in the suit, the ruling said.

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Global News attempted to reach the lawyers representing Barker and Maier but did not receive a response. A spokeswoman for the Ontario attorney general said that ministry counsel are reviewing the decision.

“As this decision is subject to an appeal period, it would be inappropriate to comment,” Emilie Smith said in an email.

The Capsule Program

According to Perrell, one program involved forcibly giving patients hallucinogenic drugs — including LSD, scopolamine and dexedrine — in order to break down the patients’ defence mechanisms and force them to confront their behaviour.

Joanisse said he was part of an initiative called the “Capsule Program” in which he was chained to five other people and stripped naked in a windowless room that was continuously lit for days at a time.

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“I was in what they called a psychotic sunroom,” he said and described how he was tied up with a “turkey strap” with his ankles cuffed together and attached to his waist.

He said he was fed liquid food through a straw from a hole in the wall

“You want to talk about physical pain? And then they gave me a shot of scopolamine which made me hallucinate and made things worse,” Joanisse said.

READ MORE: Edmonton inmates file $5.6M lawsuit over 43-day solitary confinement

The 31 plaintiffs in the suit have alleged a breach of fiduciary duty by the doctors, but have not yet requested a specific amount in damages.

Lawyers representing the two doctors and the province of Ontario have argued that the lawsuit should be thrown out as the programs at the heart of the lawsuit fell outside the statute of limitations, which Perell dismissed in his June 1 ruling.

Peter Jervis, a lawyer with Rochon Genova in Toronto who has worked on the lawsuit, called the decision “profound.”

“[The treatment] was completely destructive of their humanity and was cruel punishment,” Jervis said, adding the ruling could have implications for current cases involving solitary confinement.
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However, Perell found the doctors were not acting out of cruelty and likely running programs based on accepted medical practices of the day, but it did not excuse what was done to Oak Ridge patients.

“I appreciate that apart from professional renown and advancement, there was no self-serving gratification for the defendant physicians at the expense of the plaintiffs,” he wrote.

“But, in my opinion, that does not negate the circumstance that it is a breach of a physician’s ethical duty to physically and mentally torture his patients even if the physician’s decisions are based on what the medical profession at the time counts for treatment for the mentally ill.”

Jervis said if the Ontario government doesn’t settle the case there will be further proceedings to determine the extent of the harm suffered by each individual and what would be the appropriate compensation.

It is not clear whether the defendants plan to appeal Perell’s ruling.

For Joanisse he hopes that lawsuit is resolved so he can move on with his life.

“Can I ever have a natural, healthy relationship? No. Will I ever get married? No. I’ll never make up for what I lost,” he said. “All I can do is move forward.”

The Oak Ridge building was demolished in 2014 and replaced by the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care.

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–With files from the Canadian Press

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