Petition calls for emergency response buttons in cells at EMDC, other jails

Jessica Robinson outside the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre during a vigil for Sean William "Junior" Tourand-Brightman on April 28th, 2019. Liny Lamberink/980 CFPL

Nearly a decade after her sister died of pneumonia at London’s troubled Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre, and in the wake of the 14th reported inmate death there since 2009, a London woman is petitioning the Ford government to install emergency response buttons in all provincial jail cells.

The buttons, Jessica Robinson says, would allow inmates in the cells to call for immediate help in the event of an emergency, like an overdose, or, in her sister’s case, a worsening illness.

In the days leading up to Laura Straughan’s death in November 2009 of what a coroner would later determine was bacterial pneumonia caused by the H1N1 virus and complicated by dehydration and strep, Robinson says her sister’s cellmates begged for the 25-year-old mother of two, at EMDC for an assault charge, to be taken to a hospital for medical attention.

“It even came down to her not being able to stand up for bail .. because she was too sick and [was] wheeled out of there on a wheelchair,” Robinson said, adding that a jail nurse found her sister to be lethargic and dehydrated and to have a racing heartbeat, but did not send her to the hospital.
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READ MORE: Father of 3 was on verge of ‘getting his life back’ before death at EMDC: family

“Proper medical attention in a hospital wasn’t given to her, right down to the day before she died. She fell out of bed and couldn’t get herself back up,” Robinson said, adding that cellmates screamed for guards to come and help her, and they eventually did.

Straughan was on the floor.

“Their course of action was to put her back in her bed and block her with another mattress,” Robinson said. “She died that night.”

Had such an emergency response button been in her cell, Robinson says, her sister, and the other inmates who have died at the jail since, might still be alive today.

“On multiple occasions, the guards were asked to get my sister help, and I think that’s absolutely unacceptable to leave the life of somebody up to the guard’s discretion,” she said.

“She deserved to come out of there. She deserved to continue living her life and being a mom and a sister and a daughter. She deserved that.”

Robinson says she is currently gathering signatures for her petition and plans to present it to the government at a later date. As legislative rules disallow emailed, faxed, photocopied, or online petitions from being presented to the Legislative Assembly, Robinson has to obtain the signatures on paper. Those looking to sign the petition can contact Robinson via a public Facebook group or by email.

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Straughan’s family has also filed a lawsuit against the province over her death. The matter remains unresolved. The province is also the subject of a class-action involving hundreds of EMDC inmates over conditions at the jail.

READ MORE: Death of another inmate at Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre under investigation

Recommendations made by the jury overseeing the inquest into Straughan’s death included having a nurse on duty 24 hours a day and developing training so health care staff can better identify situations where an inmate needs to be hospitalized.

Fourteen inmates have died at EMDC since 2009 — Straughan is number two on the list, behind Randy Drysdale. Drysdale died in April 2009 of what the inquest into his death determined was a homicide, although no murder charge was laid.

Inquests are currently ongoing into three deaths — Floyd Deleary in August 2015, Justin Thompson in October 2016, and Murray James Davis in August 2017 — and a criminal trial will take place later this year in connection to the death of another.

Leslie Lonsbary, a former EMDC guard, will go to trial again on Sept. 9 on a charge of failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of 29-year-old Adam Kargus in October 2013. Kargus was beaten to death by his inmate, Anthony George, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

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READ MORE: Family of murdered inmate ‘devastated’ after EMDC staff trial leads to acquittal, mistrial

It will be the second time the matter has been to trial. In February, a jury declared a mistrial on Lonsbary’s charge and acquitted Stephen Jurkus, a former EMDC manager, of the same offence.

Six inmates at the jail have also filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the provincial government, alleging psychological trauma from having witnessed Kargus’ murder while locked in their cells.

The most recent death at the facility occurred just over a month ago and involved a 33-year-old father of three.

Sean William Tourand-Brightman, or “Junior,” died on March 31 of what his family says may have been a drug overdose. An official cause of death is still being investigated.

READ MORE: Rally outside London jail demands better care for Ontario’s inmates

At a vigil outside EMDC last month for the 14 inmates who have died, Tourand-Brightman’s uncle, Paul Howard, told 980 CFPL he heard that inmates had yelled for aid and banged on their cell doors for more than half an hour.

The jail has been plagued by overcrowding, poor supervision and violence for years.

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Drug overdoses have also been common, mirroring the opioid epidemic seen outside the facility’s walls and at other provincial jails, despite the addition of two body scanners and other measures, including a dedicated canine unit.

Matthew Trevithick contributed reporting.

READ MORE: EMDC inmate remembered as a doting father of twins