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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jail staff knew tasered man was mentally ill, relative says

March 12, 2008
By BRIAN MEDEL and DAVENE JEFFREY, Halifax Chronicle

Justice officials won’t comment on a document that suggests staff at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth were aware that Howard Hyde was mentally ill. Mr. Hyde, 45, died last Nov. 22 after struggling with guards at the jail. The previous day, Halifax Regional Police had Tasered him at about 2 a.m. as he became highly agitated when he was being booked after his arrest on a spousal assault complaint.

After he was shocked with the stun gun, possibly as many as four times, his face reportedly turned blue and he went into severe distress.

Click here to see the documents

When he was taken to hospital, an emergency room physician at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre observed he was psychotic and suffered from schizophrenia. The doctor agreed to release Mr. Hyde to attend court on condition that he be returned to the hospital, unless a judge ruled he should instead be sent to another medical facility for a forensic psychiatric assessment.

The hospital released him back into police custody shortly after 9 a.m., but Mr. Hyde was not called before a judge until so late in the afternoon that the court did not have time to deal with him that day. But instead of being returned to the hospital, Mr. Hyde was taken to jail, where he scuffled with guards the next morning when they tried to take him back to court. He collapsed and soon died.

In November, Fred Honsberger, the executive director for correctional services in Nova Scotia, said jail staff may have known, "only anecdotally," that Mr. Hyde suffered from schizophrenia. And on Tuesday, Justice Department spokeswoman Carla Grant said: "We wouldn’t want to discuss this particular case. We wouldn’t have anything further to add."

But a transfer document prepared at the jail when Mr. Hyde was rushed to Dartmouth General Hospital after collapsing clearly shows that jail staff knew Mr. Hyde was ill, said his brother-in-law, Dr. Hunter Blair. "Psychosis" and "schizophrenia" are both written on the form that confirms Mr. Hyde was in an unresponsive state with no pulse. The form describes the destination as "DGH," lists escorting officers by last name and says medical information is attached. CPR was begun and 911 called, the form states.

Deputy Chief Tony Burbridge of Halifax Regional Police said documents accompany all prisoners taken to hospital. "In Nova Scotia, when we take somebody to the hospital, there’s a form that we take . . . so everybody is aware or should be aware of what has happened to somebody," he said.

Mental illness often is not considered to be as serious as other types of conditions, said Dr. Blair, a Barrington Passage physician. "If I’m in jail and I complain of chest pain, they’re going to have me off to hospital so fast," he said. "But there is a prejudice against psychotic people."

Liberal justice critic Michel Samson said justice officials need to act now to prevent prisoners like Mr. Hyde from dying in custody. According to documents released to the Hyde family, doctors wanted Mr. Hyde in hospital. "How could (that) be overlooked?" Mr. Samson said. He said he is not demanding a full public inquiry into Mr. Hyde’s death but the Justice Department must review the case immediately.

"Somewhere along the way, information wasn’t shared and medical advice was not followed," Mr. Samson said. "The minister should be calling for a review so he has all the facts in front of him and has a full understanding of why the doctor’s advice was ignored. He has a responsibility to ensure everything is done to prevent this tragedy from happening again."

Mr. Samson is worried about any appearance of bias against the mentally ill in the legal system. "The real fear is that our justice system continues to not give appropriate consideration, not only to all accused, but certainly to accused who suffer from a mental illness," he said.

The Justice Department said it is waiting for two other reports before it decides what to do next. "At this point, it would be premature to consider a public inquiry into this matter in light of the fact that both the RCMP investigation and the chief medical examiner’s report have yet to be completed or have yet to come forward," Ms. Grant said.

The department was unsure when the medical examiner’s or RCMP reports would be finished, but RCMP spokesman Sgt. Mark Gallagher shed some light on the timeline. He said the RCMP cannot finish their work until they read the medical examiner’s report, but that is coming soon. "We’re hoping to have it by the end of the month," he said.

RCMP investigators will read that report and then make their recommendations, he said. NDP Leader Darrell Dexter has called for an inquiry under the Fatality Investigations Act that would cover the last few days of Mr. Hyde’s life.

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