He died in Hamilton’s jail within 24 hours of entering. His family won’t give up until they get answers

Warning: This story contains references to suicide.

Tangie Gagnon stood on a lawn and baked under the summer sun next to her daughter, Melissa Dooley, wiping away tears as she stared at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Center.

Gagnon’s eldest child, 41-year-old Jamie Dooley, spent his final moments in prison before dying on May 28.

“It takes less than one night to die here, but… [Jamie] managed to live on the streets for three years without an overdose or even one close call,” Melissa told CBC Hamilton, saying his death was “catastrophic” for her family.

It’s been almost a month since Dooley died and questions are being raised about how it happened.

Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General, confirmed that an inmate died on May 28.

He said an investigation is underway but could not share further details.

The pandemic took its toll on Dooley, the family says

Dooley is remembered for his generosity, his love of family, his sportsmanship and work as a sous chef, among other things.

“We are a very close family,” Gagnon said.

He grew up in Hamilton, where he was bullied at school and attacked as an adult for being a trans man, his family said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dooley moved to St. John’s in hopes of a fresh start.

Three people are standing.
Dooley is seen standing between his sisters Melissa, left, and Katelyn. He died on May 28, less than 24 hours after being booked into the Hamilton jail. (Submitted by Melissa Dooley)

His family said he would buy bicycles, paint them and give them away for free.

During the pandemic, Dooley’s family said, he developed paranoia and other mental health issues. His family suspects the isolation has been tough on Dooley, who always loved company.

When Dooley returned to Hamilton a year later, his mental health had deteriorated.

Two people are sitting.
Dooley, right, is remembered for his generosity, his love of family, his athleticism and his work as a sous chef. (Submitted by Melissa Dooley)

He ended up without a home and sleeping in tents.

His family said they tried to get Dooley help for his mental health and that he attempted suicide several times, but he was never officially diagnosed and he was quickly released from hospitals.

Dooley also stayed at Willow’s Place, a shelter for women, transgender and non-binary people.

Dooley died in segregation, family says

Dooley’s family said police arrested him on May 26 while he was outside because he had missed a court hearing a month earlier.

They said he spent a night in a cell before being transferred to jail and placed in segregation.

‘We thought Jamie would be safe. Obviously we were wrong,” Melissa said.

Segregation, also called solitary confinement, involves prisoners being physically and socially isolated in a cell for 22 hours or more.

A recent CBC investigation found that segregation in Ontario prisons has been increasing since 2019, despite the Ontario Human Rights Commission urging the province to phase out prison segregation since 2016.

In Hamilton, this is happening at a much faster pace than the rest of Ontario and meets the UN threshold for torture, with some segregation periods lasting as long as 21 days. Under the Mandela Rules, the UN considers segregation of more than fifteen consecutive days a form of torture, calling it “cruel” and “inhumane.”

A third of Hamilton inmates who were separated had a mental health warning on their record, meaning they disclosed mental illness, exhibited behavior indicative of mental illness or showed signs of or had said they were thinking about suicide.

There were also 112 people in segregation who had a ‘serious mental illness’ and 223 people on suicide watch, where the prisoner requires ‘heightened supervision’ due to a ‘high risk of suicide or self-harm’.

It is unclear whether Dooley had a mental health alert recorded or why he was placed in isolation.

The province lists six reasons why people end up in segregation:

  1. They pose safety risks.
  2. They pose safety risks for medical problems.
  3. They need protection.
  4. They need protection for medical care.
  5. For misconduct.
  6. For refusing to be searched.

The province previously told CBC Hamilton that some people are also requesting segregation policies be implemented.

Dooley’s family suggested he may have been placed in segregation because he was transgender. The county did not answer questions about whether Dooley was in segregation and if so, why.

Dooley’s family said he refused breakfast at 7 a.m. on May 28 and was found unconscious at 11 a.m.

LOOK | Inmates in Hamilton became segregated at a much higher rate than in any other prison in Ontario

Data shows that inmates in Hamilton were placed in segregation at a much higher rate than any other prison in Ontario

Ontario has long faced calls to end segregation in its prisons, but a CBC investigation shows prisoners are being isolated more often. In Hamilton this is happening at a higher rate than elsewhere in the province, meeting the UN threshold for torture. An advocate for incarcerated people remembers her time in segregation as being “in a little cream box with nothing.” CBC Hamilton’s Bobby Hristova explains.

Dave Thompson, chief inspector with Hamilton Paramedic Services, told CBC Hamilton that paramedics were called shortly after 11 a.m. for a medical emergency.

Paramedics pronounced Dooley dead at the scene.

Dooley’s family wonders if anyone would have seen Dooley unconscious sooner if he wasn’t in segregation.

His family said an autopsy was performed and Dooley’s cause of death was “unnatural.” They’re waiting for the toxicology report. Sudden deaths from unnatural causes in prisons automatically lead to provincial investigations.

Family members suspect it was an overdose because they say a small bag of crystals was found near Dooley’s body in jail. It is unclear where the bag comes from.

Dooley’s family said he was self-medicating with crystal meth and battling drug addiction that worsened during the pandemic.

‘Jamie was loved and we are not going to give up’

The county did not say how many inmates have died at the jail in recent years, but at least 15 have died since 2012.

The prison was previously the center of a large scaled research into the overdose deaths among eight men at the facility and led a jury to make 62 recommendations to prevent future deaths.

About 50 people — including prison rights advocates and families of others who have died in prison — gathered with Dooley’s family outside the prison Tuesday evening to raise awareness about deaths in custody.

Two people are standing.
Tangie Gagnon and Melissa Dooley stood outside the Hamilton jail, mourning Jamie’s death. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Attendees talked to each other, waved signs and walked around the prison for about two hours.

At one point they also all let out a collective scream.

“Years have passed, countless recommendations have been made, yet we still comfort new family members and fight for change in a system that is broken,” said Amy McKechnie, whose brother Ryan died in prison in 2017. No research has been done yet.

“To those who may have negative or disrespectful comments, saying, ‘Don’t do the crime if you don’t have the time’… our loved ones were people who deserved basic humanity and human rights.”

People stand with signs and look at a prison.
About 50 people attended the meeting at the Hamilton jail on June 18. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Although they were not visible from the outside, prisoners could be heard banging on the windows inside the detention center.

Dooley’s family said they won’t stop their search for answers.

“Jamie was loved and we are not going to give up,” Melissa said.

“We’re going to make sure there’s accountability. If it has to take 10 years, we’ll still be here.”

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available:

  • Trans Lifeline – 1-877-330-6366. It offers complete anonymity and confidentiality.
  • The Canadian Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text only, 4:00 PM to midnight ET) | crisisservicescanada.ca.
  • Children’s Helpline: 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate help from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone. Live Chat Advice on www.kidshelpphone.ca.
  • In Quebec (French): Association Québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
  • Canadian Suicide Prevention Association: Find a 24-hour crisis center.
  • COAST – 905-972-8338 or toll free: 1-844-972-8338.

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